Legal Case Management Software – A 101 on Finding the Right Solution
The right legal case management software is a necessity for every law firm. And there are certainly a lot of options to choose from. Often, the sheer amount of information out there makes the process of choosing the right legal case management software overwhelming. We get it. That’s why we’ve put together this guide: to help you understand what you need so that you can find the software that meets the needs of your law firm. In this post, you’ll learn about four specific points you must consider as well as how you can best identify the one you should use.
Let’s get started!
Know Which Functions You Need
The first step you must take is know what you really need out of legal case management software. This might sound obvious, but many practice management suites will try to dazzle you with a lot of features… many of which you may simply not need.
You should also consider software you’re already using to help you fulfill your needs. Unfortunately, we’ve witnessed law firms play musical chairs with their legal case management software; switching from one, to another, to another… ultimately coming back to what they started with. Many law firms are simply unaware of all the capabilities that their current software has (and never learned about them).
Does your law firm need an all-in-one system, that handles case management, calendaring, time/billing, accounting and document management? Or do you need a lean, focused app that does time and billing really well… and doesn’t try to do more?
So, think about what you need. Some of the most common features found in legal case management software include:
- Client and contact management. The basics of any legal case management software: The ability to enter clients, contacts and other parties. In most software, you can create contacts then (later) link those contacts to relevant matters, appointments and so forth.
- Case and matter management. Matter management is generally the epicenter of legal case management software. The actual functionality here will vary from application to application. In more basic software, each matter allows you to enter basic client information, link contacts, create appointments, give the matter a case number and bill time against that matter. More nuanced software will have special functionality and fields based on matter type, such as family member information in a family law matter, or auto accident information in a personal injury matter. Understand your needs here before diving into the many case management software options.
- Basic calendaring features. Basic calendaring features can be very helpful to keep everyone informed of meetings, court appearances, consultations, vacation time, and even when lawyers want uninterrupted working time. If you want the ability to update the calendar when you’re away from the office, you’ll need to look for legal case management software that either has an associated app that will work on your smart phone, or one that is cloud-based so that you can log-in from anywhere as long as you have internet access, or run your case management app in a private cloud. A basic calendaring feature is also helpful if you need to share your calendar with other individuals, such as with a legal assistant or another lawyer. And, I describe this capability as “basic calendaring” to differentiate from the more advanced, rules-based calendaring, also called Docketing.
- Docketing. Legal case management software that comes with docketing features can be set-up to observe the deadline rules in your jurisdiction. If you need docketing, look to see if the software options you’re considering have the ability to send you reminders. If so, are you relegated to using only the specific reminders set or can you make your own? Also, can you assign yourself as well as others to any particular docketing entry?
- Conflict checking. Some legal case management software options have built-in conflict checking. This makes minimizing risk for your law firm faster and easier.
- Task and project management. Track your own tasks or break down larger projects between others within the firm. Task and project management can help keep everyone on schedule. Look for the ability to assign or reassign tasks as well as being able to create custom reminders. Also consider whether the reminders pop up only when the program is running or if it also sends email reminders.
- Timekeeping. Legal case management software should either provide you with the ability to track time or it should integrate with your current timekeeping software. Ideally, the software should be have timers that you can start/stop, and even run multiple timers simultaneously.
- Billing and invoicing. All-in-one solutions may include billing and invoicing. If you’re happy with QuickBooks or whatever billing and invoicing software used by your law firm, you’ll want to make sure that the software you’re considering integrates with it.
- Accounting. Consider whether you need a solution that helps with business accounting, trust / IOLTA accounting, and financial reporting.
- Document or form assembly. This is an option that allows your law firm to automate creation of specific legal documents or forms. The user enters information as prompted and the legal case management software relies on a template to create a document or form. It is a great feature that can help improve efficiency and accuracy.
- Document and email management. If your law firm is looking to move their document management to something more secure than your file room or if you’re looking to go paperless or paper lite, you’ll want to look for something that allows you to store client-related documents (and documents used by your law firm). Document management capabilities include document version management, full-text document search, document tagging and profiling, metadata, check-in/out and more. You might also consider looking for an option that also provides email management. Email management enables you to save emails and attachments to the correct matters so that you won’t constantly need to dig through your email in the hopes that you didn’t really delete that important email with that one sensitive attachment. An important note: Most legal case management software does very little, if any document management other than allowing you to save or link documents to a matter (despite listing “Document Management” as a feature of their software). If your firm needs true, robust document management, you’ll likely need to implement stand-alone Document Management software.
- Process and workflow management. Process and workflow management can help ensure quality by allowing you to set specific workflow steps and processes that everyone in your firm can follow while they work. This helps increase both productivity and the quality of work product.
- Customization. Customization refers to the ability to make changes within the settings that make the program more usable for your law firm. This might include creating custom dashboards for users, the ability to create and manage permissions, custom fields (or even custom matter screens), custom reports and other personalization decisions that improve the way you use the program. Some applications include a high degree of customization, others are more what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
- The ability to integrate with the programs your law firm uses. As we’ve stated several times, you may already have certain programs you use for docketing, timekeeping, billing, and maybe even document management. As you look for legal case management software, you’ll want to find out whether it has the ability to integrate with the programs you use. This also includes Microsoft Office and Outlook.
- Client portal access. A client portal gives you the ability to communicate with your clients in a secure environment. You can exchange messages, provide them with digital versions of documents, and more. Clients may be able to log-in and view and pay their invoice, too.
Consider Your Budget
Next, you must consider your budget. Generally speaking, the more a particular practice management application does, the more it will cost. Some applications are priced as a fee per-user, per-month. Others require you to buy a perpetual license, then renew an annual support agreement or maintenance plan each year. We caution against simply choosing the least expensive option you find; its important to first identify your must-haves, then narrow down your list of suitors based on the applications that include these requirements.
On-Premise, Cloud-based or Hosted
When it comes to legal case management software, what kind and how to use the software, you generally have three options:
- On-premise software (AKA Server-based software)
- Cloud-based software
- Hosted Software (Server-based software run in a private cloud).
On-Premise software are those legal case management applications that are designed to be run in-house, on your own onsite servers and desktop computers. These are the applications that, it many cases, have been around for decades, and as a result tend to have more rich, robust functionality and capabilities. The downside of these applications is that they require your firm to own and maintain a server, which comes with its own costs and headaches. The solution to this problem, however, is a private cloud, which we’ll explore shortly.
Cloud-based software are those applications that are natively-cloud, meaning you run them in a web browser. These applications, which tend to be newer than their on-premise counterparts, don’t require a server (or in many cases—any software installation whatsoever). This makes them low-maintenance and accessible from anywhere. The downside: These applications are generally more lightweight and basic, and generally do less than premise-based software. For very small firms (solos and one-two person firms), this can be a benefit. For midsized and larger firms, sometimes these applications feel watered-down by comparison.
Hosted software is not a third category of software; rather it’s the same On-premise software we touched on earlier, but hosted in a secure private cloud instead of your own on-premise servers. A private cloud is an IT platform that will host your legal case management software (along with, in many cases, your files/folders, email and more), giving you all of the upside of the cloud (reliability, security, mobility) without the downside of servers (costs, headache, and IT management).
A private cloud, and your law firm’s legal case management software, is accessed via a virtual desktop, which you and your firm can access anytime, anywhere from any device.
Related: Virtual Desktops for Law Firms
Law Firm Accounting Needs
Although we touched on it briefly above, we wanted to make sure this wasn’t something you skipped. Take the necessary time to consider your law firm accounting needs. Think about it both from the business end and the IOLTA end. The most commonly used accounting solution for law firms is QuickBooks. If you use QuickBooks or plan to use it, find out whether the case management software integrates with it. If you don’t, you could be in for a rude awakening.
I’ve seen more than a few law firms confuse billing (tracking time, generating invoices), and accounting (managing ledgers, checking accounts, balance sheets, etc.)
Regardless of what law firm accounting software you currently use, make sure it can integrate with your case management software. There are a lot of options to choose from so there’s really no need for your law firm to change unless you’re just not happy with your current vendor.
Time to Do Your Research
Now that you’ve spent a considerable amount of time determining what features you really need (or want) and how you want to host the software, it’s time to do your research. You can start by asking other lawyers you know which legal case management software they use.
You can also use our considerable resources (below) to continue your research. Good luck!