To quote the managing partner of a Philadelphia-based law firm with over 20 attorneys, “We are in the dark ages.” I had asked him about the practice/case management software they use and I wasn’t surprised at his answer, since I hear similar answers all too often from attorneys. I have advised legal firms about technology for over 20 years, and I hope that I can help demystify this topic for large or small practices that are considering upgrading their software.
Case Management (CMS) vs. Document Management (DMS)
There seems to be confusion about the difference between document management systems (DMS) and case management software (CMS.) I often come across iManage as the most popular DMS; it is a capable software and does what it is supposed to do quite well, but practice management is a whole different task. As the name implies, software tailored to this task goes well beyond document managing. To start, data is organized around cases, also called “matters.” Every entry of contacts or clients can be associated with single or multiple matters. The same goes for documents, expenses, and billing.
The setup of CMS systems closely follows how law firms are managed. Discussions and activities surrounding cases and clients involve every department in the practice, and it is helpful to have all the information handy for each team. Organizing information in the same matter means that documents, billable hours, and contact information are stored in one place, keeping everyone in the firm on the same page.
Advantages of Adopting Case Management Software
- Centralized information, obviously. Most firms, whether small or large, have created their own systems to keep client information, track documents, bill clients, and other basic functions. Much of this architecture is delicate, and is dependent on particular staff members to maintain the flow of business. But what if a crucial employee gets very ill or even quits? With a centralized case management system, the hours for a case still register to the billing department, and documents don’t get easily misplaced.
- Compatibility. Getting various software programs to share information with each other can be tricky, time-consuming, and variable. With an all-in-one system, when information is entered for one purpose, it also connects to the other areas that will need this information. Email is tracked and associated with a case, so if a new attorney needs to get up to speed, they have one place to go to see the communications history, documents, contact information, etc. And while they get up to speed, tehir hours can be tracked to this matter. Calendars and schedules are usually linked as well.
- Time-savings. Now the billing department shouldn’t need to duplicate the contact information that your receptionists entered when the client first called—it is all in the system. Organizing files and documents for each case is a huge task that legal assistants and paralegals are often overwhelmed with—CMS makes this much easier and smoother, leaving these employees free for more important tasks.
- Security. All your communications and documents should be kept confidential, not only for your clients’ sake, but to conform to HIPAA rules and any other applicable regulations. It is confusing and time-consuming to safeguard the information on each office function: phone systems, email, document requests, and more. With a CMS system, a larger, specialized team takes care of the security protocols for your firm’s’ files, relieving some of the stress on your smaller, in-house IT team.
Easing the Challenges of Transitioning to CMS Software
- Cost. Yes, there is often some initial cost for getting a system up and running, both from the software company you choose, and in the hours your employees need to learn the new system and migrate information. But you can see this as an investment that will pay off down the road, both in efficiency for your practice and in serving your clients better.
- Aversion to change. Especially older employees can be very invested in “the way we do things.” It can be difficult for some people to adapt to a major change like converting the whole practice to a CMS. Plus, it’s just human nature to be lazy and set in our ways. Changing things takes work, and even if it will save us time and effort down the line, it still requires us to do unfamiliar tasks to get started. You might consider pairing your most technology-averse staff members with a more tech-savvy assistant.
- Migrating information takes time. Plan for some extra time and extra help while you migrate your data. Keep your old systems up and running for a few months to keep business going while the new system is implemented and everyone learns the software. Consider hiring some temporary IT help to smooth the data migration so that your core staff can keep your business running efficiently during the transition.
On-Site or In the Cloud
With so many news stories about data breaches, it is tempting to believe that your information will be safer if you choose a CMS that will store your files locally rather than in the cloud. You can think about it like you would driving to the airport to get on a commercial flight: flying is statistically safer, but because you don’t control the vehicle, it is more likely to induce fear. It is similar when your information lives in the cloud: you aren’t in control of the storage, so it may worry you more than having your system on-site. In my experience, your files are much safer when stored with a secure and trusted cloud provider.
I recommend that my clients choose a cloud-based CMS for the versatility, accessibility, and the safety of the cloud. Companies that provide this service are called Software as a Service, or SaaS for short. Your practice may grow or shrink, and it is certainly harder to grow or shrink your on-site computer hardware. Your external storage can be easily sized according to your current needs.
Allowing users to connect to the system from wherever they need to work—in the courthouse, another city, or from home—is easier to do with a cloud based system. Mobile device enabling is a huge convenience for busy attorneys, and the process is simpler when connecting to a cloud-based server rather than your in-house system. Also, you can connect with any device, even a Mac or the ever-popular iPhone.
There are some great resources out there to help you get started. For example The American Bar Association maintains a useful, detailed comparison sheet.
I have worked with Clio extensively and it’s a true masterpiece. But every practice is special, the right match for your needs may be something different, so take the time to look around. You might even consider running free trials of a few different packages to get a feel for how each one operates before making a final selection.
Some CMS’s start at $29/month per user with no implementation costs, while others can cost close to $1k/user to start up, plus high monthly costs. On average you can expect to pay something around $60/month per user. The more complex systems may be more tailored to your needs, so don’t consider cost alone as you make your assessment.
In so many fields, technology is now responsive to users’ needs. In the legal field, CMS providers have listened and created systems that mimic legal work flows. The experience of using a CMS system enhances the systems already in place, plus adds benefits in security and efficiency. Every firm I know that has converted to a CMS has realized advantages quickly. There may be a few growing pains as you transition to a new system, but these well-tailored software products make life in the law firm easier.
From my many years of experience working with legal practices on their technology needs, I have developed a strong opinion about this subject: all law firms, large or small, should implement some form of Case Management System. In the current challenging market environment, a CMS could provide the necessary competitive edge.