Whether you are thinking of buying law practice management software for the first time or are considering switching vendors, there is lots of advice on the internet about how to choose the right software for your firm, and most of that advice isn’t very good. After talking with hundreds of lawyers over the years about their technology needs, here is my five-step process for selecting the right practice management software for your firm.
1. Start With Goals, Not Features
Too often law firms start their software purchasing by looking at features lists without first understanding what things their firm actually needs. Even firms that do start with a needs analysis often come up with a list of core features their firm must have (calendar, tasks, documents, etc.).
Instead, the starting process for deciding which tools a firm should use should begin with an analysis of the long-term goals of the firm. For instance, solo firms intending to remain solo should have different goals and needs than solo firms hoping to bring on additional attorneys and staff. Small firms hoping to add remote staff in the future have different needs than firms everyone shares an office. Firms that offer alternative fee arrangements or document automation have different needs than firms that have no plans to ever alter their business model.
Knowing where you are planning to take your firm in the future will give you clarity around your core needs, but also the subtle differences in user interface, workflow, and other features.
2. Future-Proof Your Criteria
Most law firms retain their practice management software for 5-10 years or more (sometimes much more), so it is also important to think about your possible future needs and analyze potential risks to your firm and your data.
It is important to have at least a general sense of where technology and innovation trends are headed and how they relate to the long-term strategic plan of your firm. For instance, if document automation will be an important part of your firm’s future, take time to look not just at current document automation technologies, but also where it is probably headed. This will give you a better sense of which practice management software will grow with your firm. Obviously, nobody has a crystal ball that sees into the future of legal tech, but it is important to have a sense that technology trends, your firm’s needs, and your practice management software are all headed in the same direction.
You should also create a threat model using your particular data and file security risks. For instance, if your firm defends international terrorism suspects, you have acute needs around data encryption and communication privacy. If you have a small estate planning firm with lots of paper files, you should assess the risks to your practice if your office caught on fire. If you have a divorce law firm, it’s important to advise your clients on best practices for using email and phone communications that might be intercepted by their opponent’s spouse. And so on. It’s important to take some time to develop a specific threat analysis for your firm, then to understand how different vendors might be able to help address your specific future risk needs.
3. Understand Your Advisor’s Incentives
A law firm technology consultant can be a great resource for selecting practice management software for your firm. Good tech consultants are experts on helping you think through the business model and workflow implications of different software and assessing your security needs, pricing preferences, and specific firm customization’s or training needs. That said, it’s important to enter into a relationship with a tech consultant fully aware of their incentives.
Most technology consultants make money in three different ways: (1) the consulting fee you pay for their advice, (2) re-seller commissions when they refer a sale to particular vendors, and (3) on-going hosting/support/training/customization contracts. Good tech consultants deserve to make money for their valuable services, so there is nothing wrong with this business model.
A good technology consultant will try to help find the best solutions for your firm’s needs. But you should have an up-front and transparent conversation about incentives before you engage a consultant. If the consultant is willing to be open, their advice will be more valuable. If a consultant isn’t willing to be open, you might want to consider finding someone whose incentives are more in line with your specific goals. Pay particular attention to consultants who “always” or “never” recommend cloud-based software solutions for law firms, since those vendors may not be making recommendations based on the specific needs of their law firm clients, but on their own.
4. Narrow Down Some Finalists
Once you have a clear idea of your needs and goals, it’s time to do some narrowing down of possible software options.
Each firm’s needs and goals are probably a little different, but here are some things worth thinking about:
- Software security protocols (encryption, standards, audits).
- Mobile access (smartphone apps, mobile web interface).
- Design, interface, and ease of use can help you get essential buy-in from your team.
- The vendor’s demonstrated commitment to ongoing development.
- The likelihood of the vendor’s longevity and support.
- Ease of transitioning in or out of the software (import/export).
- Full initial cost and likely future cost (setup, consulting, training, additional users).
- Ability to add additional features (APIs, third-party integrations, paid up-sells).
We recently launched a tool to help compare law practice management software providers, but you should also check out the resources from the ABA, including the LTRC Practice Management Software Comparison Chart, and the ABA’s new Blueprint advisor tool, all of which can help you get a sense of how different vendors’ features match with your list of needs.
5. Ask the Hard Questions and Do a Test Drive
Now that you have some finalists, reach out to them and ask any questions you have about the issues you’ve highlighted. Make sure you get satisfactory answers.
Almost all practice management software offers a free or refundable demo period. Use this opportunity. Now that you have narrowed down your list of software options to a couple of finalists, set up test accounts either with fake data or to run an actual matter through as a test. Spend some time during your trial period actually using the software as you would if you adopted it, but also to assess which interfaces and workflows you prefer using.
At this point, you should have a clear long-term plan for your firm’s software needs, for how vendors can solve your particular data security needs, for which vendors offer the features your particular firm wants, and for which software you like the best. So you should be ready to buy!