The Software & Services You’ll Need While Starting a Law Firm
So you’ve decided you’ve had enough of working for someone else’s law firm, and you’ve committed to starting a law firm of your own.
This will be an exciting (and perhaps slightly nerve-wracking) time in your life. Fear not, as someone who has also taken that leap of faith to start my own business: I can tell you that it was among the best decisions in my life.
So you’ve made the decision and are charting a course for starting a law firm of your. Maybe you’ve even formed the organization. Now comes the fun part: Setting up the infrastructure of your firm. In this post we’ll explore the essential software and services you’ll need to evaluate and ultimately implement to make your firm work. What you’ll realize very early on (if you haven’t already) is that, at your last firm: All this stuff was simply handled for you; all of the necessary software and services were in place (good, bad or otherwise). And, as you build your new firm, you’ll have to do all of it yourself.
Fear not: In this day and age, there are many software solutions, services and tools that can make launching and running your new practice a whole lot easier.
Let’s get started.
1. Practice Management
Whether you plan to build an aggressive firm that does a lot of litigation, or an even-paced, small transactional firm, you’ll need software that you can use to keep track of your clients, contacts and calendar. This is called Practice Management software, and it serves as the hub of your practice. What is your practice, after all, if not a collection of clients, matters, contacts and appointments. You’ll need some software to track all of that–even if your freshly-minted practice will be just you and your laptop until the end of time.
As you no doubt know, there are tons of choices when it comes to legal practice management software. There are cloud-based solutions, server-based solutions, private clouds, software for big firms, for small firms and everything in between.
In fact, it can be daunting. I frequently advise lawyers that are starting a law firm on how to evaluate, select and implement the right software for their firm all the time. And–I’ve (unfortunately) witnessed law firms waste a lot of time evaluating the wrong solutions. They’ll spend hours poring over one software solution, only to realize later that it doesn’t do accounting, something that was in their must-have list. Or document management. It’s easy to assume that all legal practice management solutions are the same or similar–but you’d be wrong. They vary pretty wildly: Some focus on “front-office” functionality such as calendaring, docketing and managing the particulars of each case. Others focus more on “back-off” functions such as billing, business and trust accounting.
There are, for argument’s sake, about 10 major Practice Management suites used by law firms today. Or at least–these “big 10” make up 90% or better of the market (the remaining 10 being lesser-known or niche products.) What I do when I advise law firms is to determine, from the list below, which features they need, and which they don’t. Doing this will narrow the list from ten to a short list of one or two. Then–you can closely evaluate these few, and ultimately arrive at which product is the best fit for you when starting a law firm.
When it comes to starting a law firm, the major components of legal practice management software, from which you’ll want to determine what you need, are:
- Client & Contact Management (all legal practice management solutions include this)
- Basic Matter Management (all legal practice management solutions include this)
- Time Tracking
- Business Accounting
- Trust Accounting
- Basic Calendaring (all legal practice management solutions include this)
- Rules-based Calendaring / Docketing
- Form Assembly / Document Assembly
- Document Management*
- Case Management by Matter Type (For example: A divorce case, a personal injury case)
- Client Portal
*Note that many legal practice management applications also purport to include Document Management. This usually involves some exceedingly basic functionality where you can attach or link documents to a matter–and nothing more. By most people’s definition, this is not Document Management, which typically has very robust features for managing your documents, like version management, check-out/check-in, index and search–and more.
Take the list above and circle what you know you need–or will need in the first few years of your practice. That will help you significantly narrow down the list of contenders, and allow you to focus your time on closely evaluating those few applications.
Use our Legal Practice Management Comparison charts (below) to compare your requirements against the features offered by each solution.