Posted by Joanne Hunter, head of marketing at Legal Futures Associate Select Legal Systems
OK, so this is not Mount Sinai, and there is no need for smoke, earthquakes and trumpets, but the following tips for law firms wishing to make a success of choosing and implementing a new legal practice management system should certainly be set in stone.
Law firms tend to look to the marketplace for new software for a variety of reasons, but on the whole most of these reasons are underpinned by a desire to better manage their caseloads, their finances and their client relationships.
When firms find their fee-earners are spending a significant proportion of their time doing necessary but trivial tasks that don’t add any value whatsoever – such as, entering data manually, retrieving data that is siloed within disparate software applications, enduring inefficient inter-departmental workflows and living with inadequate reporting – it is definitely time to start reviewing your firm’s software situation.
A good-quality, fully integrated, legal practice management system should streamline all the firm’s processes and enable the business to increase profitability.
#1 Thou shalt not forsake thy firm’s key business objectives
The primary reason to replace your existing business system should always be to strengthen the firm’s commitment to its strategic business objectives, which could very well be based upon questions like these:
- Growth goals – How can I double the size of the firm’s profitability with the resources I have?
- Efficiency goals – How much activity currently takes place ‘outside of the system’ and why is that?
- Compliance goals – Is the firm on top of the demanding regulatory pressures facing the legal profession today, where are the pain points and why are they proving to be such a challenge?
- Marketing goals – how can I better satisfy client needs to ensure the firm consistently retains existing business and regularly wins sufficient levels of new business?
#2 Thou shalt not forsake the detail
Be mindful of all the processes that occur in the practice in an average business day. Aim to review all departments, appointing key process/system champions from each, tasking them with prioritising all automated activities as well as any that currently rely on spreadsheets and whiteboards.
This exercise with your system champions will enable you to break down your strategic business objectives and clearly interpret them as ultra-specific goals that will enable you to measure performance and your return on investment (ROI) from the system in terms of outcomes that may look something like this:
- Increase fees billed by X% within Y months;
- Increase cash received by X% within Y months;
- Reduced debtors by X%;
- Increase cases per fee-earner and/or billable hours per fee-earner;
- Reduce administration overheads by X% within Y(months);
- Increases employee productivity by X% in Y(months);
- Keep WIP to X% resulting in Y cash flow improvement;
- Increase customer touches by X times that increases lifetime value by Y(amount);
- Improve costs management accuracy by X% in Y(months); and
- Reduce or re-allocate headcount by X% in Y(months).
#3 Thou shalt de-mystify the sales process
For you, it’s the buying process. For the software supplier, it’s the sales process and it involves a number of key stages. The demo and the proposal are probably the two most important stages of interaction you will have with the sales person and it is important that you keep him/her on track with your firm’s business and operational system needs.
The demo you receive can be extremely revealing in terms of what kind of partner the software supplier will be long term as they implement, support and customise the system for you in the future.
Different law firms approach demos in different ways. It is a good idea to provide a demo check-list outlining specific functions, workflows and features you expect to see. If the sales person has spent time understanding your check-list, learning about your business and is prepared with relevant and searching questions about how your firm will use the system, he/she should be able to relate the demonstration to your specific business goals.
It is often a good idea to hold one or two business goals back and throw them onto the table during the demo to see how the vendor reacts.
When it comes to the proposal, it is your opportunity to work with the sales person to shape a contract upon which both parties can build a solid business partnership. Make sure you have a thorough discussion about price and expectations to prevent any nasty surprises cropping up in the future.
To select the right solution for your business, make sure both you and the sales person understand exactly how much the project will cost at each stage, what your expectations of the supplier are at each stage and what is expected of you and your colleagues at each stage in terms of upfront charges, data conversion, maintenance and support, recurring costs, integration costs, customisation costs and training costs.
For example, some suppliers offer free training, but free training may not be one-to-one and specific to your practice. Your users could be mixed in with people from other firms to learn general aspects of a system. Often free courses of this type are over-subscribed with long waiting lists and do not always meet the expectations of your users. Make sure all of this is covered. Make sure you are clear on what you are buying.
Ask up front about the possibility of any price increases, and find out how price increases are managed. Does the supplier follow the RPI (retail price index)? Some vendors have been known to offer ‘special deals’ during negotiation to win the order only to impose a significant price increase just six months later. In some cases, these increases have been reported to be in the region of around 400%.
Our LAWFUSION contracts, which are based on a robust service level agreement, are annual with a three-month notice period, which means your pricing is set for the year.
#4 Thou shalt not omit to look under the bonnet
Under the bonnet of any reliable software supplier should be solid evidence of their robust cyber-security credentials.
Cybercrime is big business and has reached very serious levels, highlighted by the disrupting attacks on NHS computer systems. The so-called ‘hacktivists’ are moving up the ranks in terms of sophistication. A BT-KPMG report in July warned of the “industrialisation of cybercrime”, having seen clear evidence that today’s cybercriminal works for complex operations akin to businesses with human resources departments and budgets for research and development. They mean business.
The top 6 security questions you should ask your software supplier:
- Can your supplier prove they are ISO 27001 certified at company level? ISO 27001 is the international standard that describes best practice for an information security management system (ISMS). Accredited certification to ISO 27001 demonstrates that an organisation is following robust information security best practices.
- Can your supplier prove they operate their SaaS solution within an ISO 27001 certified data centre?
- Can your supplier present a recent penetration test report?
- Do you have access to an audit trail within your practice management software (i.e. are you able to see if users are accessing areas they shouldn’t)?
- Can your supplier demonstrate a robust security patching process within their SaaS infrastructure (for keeping up to date with Microsoft database security standards)?
- Can your supplier prove they are Cyber Essentials accredited? This is a government-backed cybersecurity certification scheme that sets out a good baseline of cyber security for organisations. The scheme is designed to prevent cyber-attacks.
#5 Thou shalt not underestimate the ‘i’ word
One of the most important boxes on your tick-list is the ‘Integration’ question: Is the system fully integrated?
Most legal software suppliers will usually give you a simple ‘yes’ to this question. However, there are levels of integration and it is essential you delve into the detail on this one. Some legal software providers are currently marketing ‘bolted-together’ software tools as complete and fully integrated legal practice management systems, when in reality these ‘mix-and-match’ systems are not adequately integrated at all.
If you don’t clarify what the vendor means by ‘integrated’, you could find your practice burdened with a clunky system made up of a series of software modules that are entirely disparate from each other. Even worse, you could end up being supported by a number of separate teams strewn across the globe who know little about each other’s software and how it affects your business.
Some bolt-on modules are simply interfaced rather than integrated, and there is a stark difference. Integrated tools utilise a common database in real-time, with minimum file duplication. Interfaced software modules often simply extract and transfer data between separate programs that may even sit on different technology platforms, making them difficult to design, test and support.
Of course, there is a time and a place for true integration and there are certain scenarios where a solid but simple interface is all that is required. A good legal technology partner should know the difference and offer both.
But when it comes to the main, stalwart modules of your legal practice management system, a high-level true integration is a must-have for all law firms.
#6 Thou shalt aim for longevity
The latest technology does not always mean the best. For executives involved in choosing the new system to make a sound investment decision, they must ensure it is based on the best technology available such as: the operating systems that are known for solid and reliable performance, the software languages that are proven, and robust security tools that are trusted by the majority, etc.
These are the kind of factors that will give the law firm more longevity and scalability.
There was a time where the underlying infrastructure of a practice management system was not the significant consideration it is today. Software functionality should still dominate the decision for any firm choosing a new system.
However, in the midst of this technological revolution we find ourselves in today, technology advancement continues to build unseen levels of momentum. The suppliers that are up-to-date and have experience of what’s out there, what’s proven and where the challenges are, are the ones you ought to be talking to.
For example, some software tools are based on other, third-party technology. This could be free shareware. Ask questions before committing to make sure you are not relying on components that are out-dated or no longer supported.
Make sure your software of choice has a development roadmap for the future and that your vendor has a solid track record for enhancing and improving the system as market factors change. For example, does it provide integration to the RTA portal? Does it have a costs management module? What is the vendor offering in terms of the new electronic bill of costs requirements?
Another important example firms should consider is the difference between on-premises and cloud hosting options for their practice management system. While cloud requires less in-house IT staff to maintain the system, your data will be stored off-site and this may not fit with your firm’s business culture.
Conversely, an on-premises installation may allow you to store your sensitive data closer to home but doing so will undoubtedly require more IT staff for system maintenance. Either decision can impact your IT culture and headcount.
LAWFUSION, by the way, is available as either.
#7 Thou shalt check references
Probably the most important task in the journey to choosing a new practice management system is to check out other law firms using the system you are considering. You may want to ask them searching questions, such as:
- Which promises were kept?
- Which promises were broken?
- What surprised you about the vendor/product?
- What doesn’t the product do that you were told it would?
- Which deadlines were met/missed?
- Were there any surprise costs?
- What mistakes did you make or what do you wish knew about before?
Ask about long-standing clients and quiz them on the quality of support they receive from the vendor.
As well as asking the vendor for a list of reference sites, you could ask for a list of firms that recently selected a competing provider. It might not be standard practice to ask for this type of information or indeed for the supplier to hand it out, however their response will be extremely telling.
#8 Thou shalt gauge supplier viability
It is important to review your potential supplier’s balance sheet so you can assess their financial strength and whether they’re likely to be around for the long haul.
If the value of the business is going in the right direction, all well and good. If they are struggling to make a profit themselves, how can they claim to provide software that will help your business with profitability?
If you believe the supplier is an acquisition target, there are a number of important questions you should ask:
- Who controls the company and are they looking to sell it?
- Was the product created to be attractive to a potential acquirer?
- Do the founders have a history of selling software companies?
- If so, what’s the time horizon and who are they trying to sell to?
- Does the vendor have investors?
- If so, what kind of track record do they have?
As the legal software space consolidates, companies may not wish to continually support all of the products they gain through acquisition indefinitely. Acquirers have been known to advise sections of their newly acquired customer bases they will no longer support a particular product after a certain date.
This is a risk to anyone considering investing in new legal practice management software, so it is important to assess your potential supplier’s strategic vision.
#9 Thou shalt ensure you can retrieve your data
Can the data from your existing system be successfully exported and transferred into your new system?
But there is second, often overlooked, issue. If you transfer your data to a new system and then find that system isn’t actually fit-for-purpose after all and you decide to move on again to an alternative system, can you retrieve your valuable data in a usable format?
When it comes to retrieving data in that scenario, some vendors can only supply limited reports with huge chunks of data missing. Make sure you have it in writing, before you sign the contract, that if you choose to change system again, ALL your data is completely retrievable – and it will be made available in a usable format, auto-generated, with no manual intervention required by yourselves.
This should include client and matter details, your documents, time transactions, billing transactions, legal aid information etc, along with data that indicates how all of these different data records relate to each other.
#10 Thou shalt not customise for customising’s sake
A good practice management system should offer a legal practice enough flexibility to enable its fee-earners to bend and shape the system to match their preferred working practices. The best suppliers offer a level of configuration that enables law firms to achieve this.
When buying new software, some people believe customisation is crucial to squeezing every inch of value out of the business relationship with their new supplier. The wish list of all the things your previous system could not do may live close to your heart but you should avoid customisation for customisation’s sake.
Unless a specific new feature will provide a distinct competitive advantage or a clearly measurable benefit, don’t go there. If not managed correctly, over-egging your workflow customisation by building in too much automation can cause untold user confusion, frustrating support challenges and unnecessary upgrade delays – not to mention delayed implementation, major cost overruns, and higher upgrade costs with some suppliers.
You need a supplier you can trust who will work with you to achieve the right balance of workflow configuration that will guide users through key processes whilst empowering them to do their jobs well.
Even if an element of customisation is included with the package you buy, you are well advised to think it through carefully before embarking on overly complex configuration.
This list is not exhaustive by any means, but for any law firm wishing to switch to a progressive and reliable new computer system, it is a very good starting point.
Good luck and happy hunting.