Practice Management vs. Document Management for Law Firms

At Uptime Legal we help many law firms evaluate, select and implement software to help them manage their practice. We typically start with a basic needs assessment, which often includes the question: Does your firm need Practice Management or Document Management?

Oftentimes, we realize, the difference isn’t clear to law firms, especially lawyers who are starting a new firm where at their previous firm “all this stuff was just handled for us.”

We realize there’s a lack of clarity between Practice Management and Document Management software, due in part to the slightly overlapping descriptions and in part because of Practice Management software publishers themselves. (More on this shortly.)

So in this post we’ll describe the difference between Practice Management and Document Management solutions.

What is Practice Management Software?

Practice Management software, as the name implies, helps a law firm manage their practice. Or more specifically: manage their firm’s cases. While the exact functionality within Practice Management software will vary from one application to another, typically Practice Management software will include

  • A customer database
  • A case/matter database
  • Calendaring–from a simple calendar to rules-based calendaring
  • Time tracking and billing
  • Accounting (though this is often not included–and left to separate software)
  • Management of the case itself–including details related to a particular case type
  • Form assembly/creation – automatic creation and population of certain court forms
  • Rudimentary document management functionality – explained next

It’s not uncommon for a Practice Management application to advertise that one of its functions is Document Management. The extent of the advertised functionality is usually basic linking of external documents to a matter, or the ability to add notes/comments to a document. While this may very well be all the Document Management functionality your firm needs, by the true definition of a Document Management System (DMS)–this is not document management. It’s a small part of the functionality that a true, full-featured DMS includes.

You could call it “Document Management Light”.

Again–semantics aside, if this basic interaction between your Practice Management software and documents is all you need, you may not need Document Management. But read on: and as you learn about the functions furnished by a full DMS, you’ll see the distinction and will (hopefully) be able to discern if you need Document Management

Cloud Computing Sidebar: On-Premise, Web-based or Hosted

A quick sidebar and definition for different iterations of cloud-based solutions. Today, applications fall into two categories:

Web-based applications (sometimes called cloud-based, or natively cloud): these applications are hosted with the provider and accessible via a web browser; and

On-Premise applications: software that requires an on-premise server to host the software. On-Premise applications can also be hosted in a Private Cloud such as our own Uptime Practice, “cloud-ifying” the application and making it accessible from anywhere, without the need for an onsite server.

Popular Practice Management Applications

Popular Legal Practice Management applications include:

What are Document Management Systems (DMS)?

Document Management Systems, again as the name implies, helps a law firm manage their documents.

Some law firms, especially smaller ones, may need nothing more than a place to store and organize documents.

Though, many law firms need more sophisticated tools to catalog, search, comment on and generally manage their firm and matter documents.

Just like Practice Management software applications, features and functionality will vary from one Document Management solution to another, but typically a DMS will include:

  • A structure to organize documents, such as projects or matters.
  • Indexing & search: so users can perform searches across all documents and the content within them.
  • Version management: the ability to view and compare previous versions of a document.
  • Document check-out/in: to keep other users from modifying a document.
  • Microsoft Office Integration: Save documents directly to the DMS.
  • Tags/Metadata: Tag or code documents as different types (such as contract, or motion).
  • Email management: Store and manage emails like documents.
  • Change alerts: Notifications when a document is changed.
  • OCR: Convert scanned documents or image-based PDF files to text-enabled, searchable documents.

Popular Document Management Applications

Popular Document Management applications used by law firms include:

Closing the Loop

Hopefully this comparison brings contrast to the two different types of software, and hopefully you have a better sense of whether your law practice needs Practice Management software, a Document Management System, or both.

Does your firm need to track time, create invoices, manage cases and calendars? If so–your firm needs Practice Management software.

Does your firm need to store and organize documents and email, manage document versions, OCR documents, index and search for documents? If so–your firm needs a Document Management System.


About the Author: Dennis Dimka
Dennis Dimka is the CEO and founder of Uptime Legal Systems, North America's leading provider of technology, cloud and marketing services to law firms. Dennis is the author of Law Practice as a Service: How and Why to Move Your Law Firm to the Cloud, and was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist in 2016. Follow Dennis on LinkedIn.

Leave a Reply