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Updating Law Firms' Tech Yields Value

By Donna Mallard | Aug. 2, 2015

News

Law Office Management

Aug. 2, 2015

Updating Law Firms' Tech Yields Value

Adopting practice management software can result in big savings for small firms.

The rise of subscription software (also called "software as a service," or SaaS) has revolutionized small law firms' access to powerful practice management applications that once were affordable only for much larger firms with deeper resources.

For a monthly fee per user, small firms can give their attorneys access to a wide array of software through a Web browser or mobile app and maintain their data in the cloud. That way, lawyers can get to the data from anywhere they happen to be-and it may even be more secure. Cost savings and gains in efficiency and client satisfaction from new billing and practice management systems can result in a quick return on a firm's investment.

The capabilities of Web-based practice management applications vary, but generally they help a law practice consolidate and coordinate case-specific details-such as billable hours, appointments, correspondence, calls, and contact information. (See resources box below.) They also can support wider practice needs, including research, document management, secure data storage and transmission, billing, and email management.

David Houlihan, principal analyst with Blue Hill Research in Boston, estimates that adopting state-of-the-art practice management applications saves 48 to 96 hours per year per attorney. Of the firms he studied for a recent report, the smallest one converted nearly all of that saved time into billable hours. Houlihan calculates the likely annual return (increased revenue minus software subscription fees) between $2,264 and $21,895 per attorney, based on a national average billing rate of $234 per hour.

Many law firms remain cautious about using the cloud, for reasons of security and reliability. But the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center says cloud software tends to be more secure and reliable than what's available for use on a firm's premises. The ABA recommends asking vendors about whether they can guarantee limited downtime, how often information is backed up, and how it can be retrieved if a subscription is canceled. Periodically downloading data and documents to a local hard drive also ensures material is available to transfer to a different software system in the future.

The Law Office of James E. Latimer & Associates in Oakland, with four attorneys specializing in workers' compensation, replaced its CMPro system with cloud-based MerusCase. Office Manager Alisha M. Carlson uses MerusCase "every day, all day." She says, "It's extremely user-friendly, intuitive, and basically bug-free." Carlson says the firm achieved its goal of becoming a paperless office thanks to MerusCase, and thus has decreased its overhead and even allowed it to dispense with a file clerk. Client satisfaction also improved, she says: "We save lots of time by not having to spend 20 minutes (or more) searching for a file; everything we need regarding a file is at our fingertips."

Albertson & Davidson in Carlsbad and Redwood City subscribes to Clio's practice management software, and managing partner Keith A. Davidson says he appreciates it "constantly, every day." The firm's 15 trusts and estates and probate trial lawyers working across California began using Clio about four years ago, replacing an on-premises system from Abacus, Davidson says. Two reasons for the switch, he says, were Clio's intuitive interface and compatibility with Apple devices.

Julie Feller, director of marketing at Abacus Data Systems, confirms that four years ago AbacusLaw was available only for local installation and only on Windows-based systems. But the company now offers Abacus Private Cloud, known as APC, which can be used independently from AbacusLaw to host any applications?including competing practice management solutions and word processing software?on a private, secure server in the cloud, she says. (Locally hosted AbacusLaw is still compatible only with Windows.)

Davidson also appreciates getting software updates with no extra cost or effort: "We just pay an annual fee."

He adds: "We capture far more [billable] time because lawyers can enter time from anywhere, even at home, without having to log into our server. We capture far more client expenses because it is so easy to enter [them]."

Clio's iPhone app also has helped, Davidson says: "It makes it easy to look at the joint calendar while in court, [and] the Notes function allows everyone to enter notes on a client matter so you know what others have done."

Since solo practitioner Kyle A. Krasa started using Rocket Matter about five years ago, he has seen some of the same benefits: geographical freedom, painless updates, higher revenue and efficiency, decreased overhead, and improved client satisfaction.

"I liked the idea of a cloud-based system for many reasons," says the estate-planning lawyer, who is based in Pacific Grove. "First, I could access all of my practice management and billing matters from any computer, anywhere, [and] my employees could do the same .... Second, ... I knew with a cloud-based system the product would be updated automatically."

Krasa says he chose Rocket Matter because its billing system seemed comprehensive and simple. And he liked the fact that the company was up front and well informed about the ethics issues attorneys may face in using a cloud-based practice management system.

"It turned out to be the best billing system I have ever used."

Jeanette Boyne is a data analyst, relational database developer, and former business technology journalist.

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Donna Mallard

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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