By Legal Futures Associate Insight Legal 
Choosing the right legal accounts and practice management software for your law firm is a business-critical decision, but it can be hard to know where to start. With the benefits of expertise and proper research, the right choice will lead to efficiency, productivity and profitability. A bad choice can lead to frustration, wasted time, a lack of proper management information and even compliance breaches.
Unless your firm is a particularly small or is a newly formed practice, the chances are that you will have a legal accounts and practice management system in place already. As so much of your business efficiency relies on your chosen software, it’s undoubtedly sensible to review this regularly, as it’s quite likely that your business – and perhaps even your supplier – has changed since that software was originally selected for your firm.
Whether to stay with your current supplier or make the move to a new solution is a question for each firm, based on their own circumstances and requirements. But what every firm does need to do is to make sure they’re asking the right questions – which can be a challenge if it’s something you have never embarked on before. This article aims to provide you with some helpful guidance so that you can best position your firm for a move – or not, as the case may be.
Planning to leave your existing supplier
Before deciding on a potential move, it is sensible to understand what is involved in moving away from your current supplier. There may be data transfer questions, timescale implications and financial penalties to consider.
Check the status of your current contract, and how much notice you have to give.
Don’t assume that 30 days’ notice is enough – many contracts require 3 months, 6 months, or even longer. Missing your notice deadline can tie you in for a further 1-3 years, or facing financial penalties.
How can you move your data?
Most software suppliers offer data migration services, but they can vary significantly in nature and also in price. Firstly, you need to ensure that your data is accessible, either to back up or download yourself, or by requesting it from your supplier. Secondly, make sure that your new supplier confirms what will be included, what will not be migrated, and what may change. Make sure they detail the process, any downtime, and how many trials are included (if any).
How much will it cost to migrate? Will there be extra costs when we want to leave?
Most firms will think to ask their new supplier how much it will cost to migrate their data, but many don’t realise that some suppliers also charge you to leave. Check this with your current and future suppliers. If you are reliant on your supplier to provide your data back to you, check how often they will do this and whether there is an additional charge for this.
Choosing a new supplier
As with any important business decision, choosing a legal IT supplier takes time and planning. You’re not just choosing a piece of software, this is a company you’ll partner with for many years. Take time to consider exactly what it is you’re looking before, then take time to review and appraise the market.
List the essential functionality for your firm
With input from each department and business function, prepare a simple list of features and their importance. Don’t be caught out by making any assumptions that certain features or functions will be included, or aren’t a bolt-on application.
Consider your budget
This can be a difficult thing to do, but will be invaluable in avoiding wasting time in considering software that you can’t afford. Try not to cut cost unnecessarily. This is an investment, and value is a much more important measure than cost.
Decide how you would like your software to be deployed
Are you looking for a cloud-based solution, or do you want the software to be running from your own server and network? If you choose cloud, is it a true cloud solution, or just hosted on your supplier’s servers?
Ask about the future
Question the supplier as to when the software was written and the plans for the future. It’s important for your investment that you don’t select a product that you will be forced to upgrade from within a short space of time. It’s also vital to know that the software will continue to be developed, particularly in the event of legislative or regulatory change.
Do your research
There are many systems on the market and a number of suppliers that you can choose to work with. Resources such as the Legal Software Suppliers Association (LSSA) and the Legal Software Suppliers Guide from the Institute of Legal Finance and Management (ILFM) will give you a head start.
Find out the contract term and any tie-ins or penalties
Contract durations for legal software can vary in length, from a rolling monthly contract to a multi-year term. Ensure you are clear about what flexibility you have to add and remove users, along with any cancellation terms. Even if you don’t expect to reduce your licence numbers, having the ability to scale is essential in dealing with unforeseen circumstances. Watch out for loans or finance agreements – you’ll still be tied to them even if you terminate your software contract.
Establish what ongoing support is offered
Find out if software support is included in your licence fees, or whether it’s a chargeable extra. It’s also important to know how the support is provided (e.g. a phone line, online chat, email), whether there are caps on usage, and whether it’s available to all or just designated users. Also ask about SLAs. For a busy law firm, there is a big difference between a 4-hour and a 24-hour response time!
Agree your assessment criteria and build a score card
When viewing a number of software demonstrations, it can be difficult to remember which features belong to which product. Agree amongst the project team what your criteria are, then make notes as you view the demos and compare scores after.
Read the reviews
Use sources such as Google reviews to see what other law firms are saying about the software and the suppliers. You can also ask the suppliers to provide case studies and reference sites, so you can speak to other firms about their experiences.
Making the choice
Once you have asked all the pertinent questions and seen the software for yourselves, you can start the decision-making process.
Make sure you are comparing apples with apples!
Ensure that you are completely clear on the costs, the timescales, and what’s included. Ask for a full proposal if it helps you to compare. The devil is in the detail here, so clarity is extremely important. For example, some suppliers start charging once you sign their agreement, whilst others don’t start until the software is installed. Differences such as this are important to understand for the overall project costs.
Don’t be afraid to ask more
It is the supplier’s job to make sure that you have everything you need to make the right choice. Never be afraid to ask more questions, and never be pressured in to making a decision on the supplier’s timescales if you feel they’re trying to pressure you to close the deal.
Ensure the supplier can meet your timescales
The migration process, done properly, can sometimes take longer than you think. Make sure that you and your new supplier understand the timescales that you are working to, to ensure that you aren’t without a system for any period of time and also that you aren’t incurring costs for two systems unnecessarily.
Make the right choice for your firm
Your choice of supplier creates a business partnership for years to come.
Download the checklist here