Conventional wisdom states not to mess with success; if it's not broken, don't fix it. And, generally speaking, that's good advice. However, sometimes things aren't "broken" per se, but they could be much better. With that said, when it comes to choosing a legal practice management platform, you need to consider your firm's current needs and what could hold it back in the future. That's why selecting the one that will adapt to your requirements at every stage is critical, from a nimble solo practice to a Fortune 500 heavy hitter.
This article series will share tips for choosing a legal practice management software that will enable your firm to succeed at every stage of its growth, starting with the platform itself.
But first, what signs will tell you that your firm is due for a new platform to support your needs better?
Signs that you may need a new legal practice management platform
Perhaps you love the current systems you have in place for document and case management, invoicing clients, intake, or other tasks. Just remember that people are predisposed to routines and find it hard to deviate from them. Companies often fall into the mindset of “This is how we’ve always done it, so why risk something new?” Law firms are no different; they fall into comfortable and established workflows that they’ve become habituated to over the years. But unfortunately, such habitual processes aren’t always optimal for every growth stage.
When you hold a magnifying glass up to your workflows, you may realize that you like them because they’re comfortable, not because they enable your firm to operate at peak efficiency. Everyone knows how to do them, and changing them sounds like a lot of work, even if the firm will benefit in the long run. But you need to resist the urge to maintain the status quo.
How can you tell if you've outgrown a system?
Pressure-test your internal workflows and look for cracks, gaps, and opportunities for improving efficiency and productivity. You may be surprised at what you find. Perhaps some procedures could use some refining, or—the horror!—need to be completely revamped. Is your firm humming and thriving and moving forward? Or does it feel more like every time you get momentum, you run into a bottleneck or stumbling block that stubbornly hinders your growth?
This is the lens through which you need to evaluate a legal practice management platform. If it’s your current platform, does it prevent your firm from becoming more efficient and productive because it lacks the needed features? If you are considering a new solution, what will you need now and as a larger operation that the platform will need to adapt to and support?
While it’s a simple concept, it’s not easy to execute in practice. It can be overwhelming to think about your current needs, let alone future ones. To help you choose a legal practice management platform, remember the three most critical aspects: people, company, and the platform itself.
Let's first dive into the platform.
Evaluating the platform itself
Mapping out workflows and requirements
It’s easy to get distracted by shiny objects and bells and whistles, but you need to be able to evaluate whether a platform’s core functionalities will meet your needs. One way to assess your firm’s requirements is to map out common workflows and the processes and programs that support them. What features do you need to replace or supplement the current procedures? Then really drill down to brass tacks.
Core functionalities and customization options
Once you understand what you’ll need to support key operations, you can align them with functionalities offered by legal practice management platforms. For example, if your firm values close client relationships, you may want to look for a platform that offers a client portal or texting for faster responses. Perhaps your office has case file naming down to a science; in that case, you would want a legal practice management system that can be thoroughly customized to accommodate your unique terminology.
When you have a few options that could reasonably meet your needs, it’s time to predict how your firm might change in the next two, five, or even ten years. How might your workflows change if you increase your staff by 30%? What if you branch out into a different practice area? While it’s impossible to know what may happen, it’s wise to choose a legal practice management system that you anticipate can support at least a few reasonably predicted needs, should they come to fruition.
Integration capabilities and security considerations
Integrations should be part of your evaluation criteria. Consider what applications you use today and compare them to the integrations included with the legal practice management platforms you’re considering. Pro tip: If the practice management platform has an API that can integrate with any third-party application or includes Zapier—Neos offers both—this provides the greatest potential to execute virtually any workflow inside the platform that you usually do outside of it. (Not to mention that even if you aren’t using a particular application right now, you may need it in the future.)
Remember to determine how a practice management platform can ensure a secure integration. It should be up to you to choose with whom you share your data; no integration should automatically access your data without your explicit opt-in.
Choosing a legal practice management platform based on firm size and growth trajectory
Growth trajectory is always hard to predict, but at a minimum, consider the following:
Small firms tend to have a lot of jack-of-all-trades employees. They're all wearing multiple hats, and the firm needs a relatively simple and flexible system that can adapt to this work environment. Because the employees have a lot of expertise, they manage things in multiple ways. This necessitates a system that tracks relevant information without bogging people down in many minutiae. At boutique law firms, the platform is essentially just a piece of software; much of what gets done on a given day relies on the people. Plus, the reporting and task management needs aren't as heavy. You need to know where your cases are, what needs to be done, and subsequent action steps. The best practice management platforms for small firms are simple, easy, and adaptable.
The midsize firms are where things get a little more interesting because the firm changes from individual contributors running the show to more of a machine. Uniformity gains prominence and importance at this stage of growth. As the practice grows from small to midsize, it starts to add more attorneys and case managers. It might create an accounting department instead of using Jennifer, the part-time bookkeeper. That's where the practice management software starts to step up as more of a partner than just another piece of software. For midsized firms, workflow management is essential. You’re no longer five people; you have 40 employees who can't all be doing their own thing. It’s time to ensure everybody's marching in the same direction, which is where workflow management comes in. You start building out case types and checklists and teaching your team to follow uniform processes. Instead of “This is how Steve handles intakes and how Becky handles intake,” it becomes “this is how we handle intake.”
Large-scale firms are a whole different ballgame. You've got substantial staff, and your firm must operate as a well-oiled machine to succeed. It doesn't work any other way because the payroll alone can be staggering. Being tight on every workflow ensures everything is moving smoothly. At firms of this size, the legal practice management system steps up from being a partner to being a full-on platform for your firm that powers it from every angle. And that's where things like accessibility and customization become essential; you don't want the out-of-the-box setups anymore. Now that you're handling cases at scale with the built-in knowledge, you want the software to adapt to you, not the other way around.
Firms of this size need a platform they can customize to the hilt. For example, maybe you need the platform tied into RingCentral to track all of your calls. You need it to talk with Office 365 and OneDrive, so that firm documents are available and shared amongst the entire staff and are also version-tracked so that for every change made, you know who made it and why. High-level analytics, tracking your marketing spend, monitoring dollars going out against the cases coming in, tabulating intakes, etc., all become vital information at this size. You’ll need answers to questions like - is the firm carrying cases successfully to completion? Who on the staff is genuinely productive, and who might need assistance to reach their full potential? Large-scale firms need that data because efficiency tends to correlate inversely with growth. Bloat is a more frequent occurrence than growing nimbler and leaner over the long term.
Putting it all together
You may think choosing a legal practice management platform that will accommodate your needs at every growth stage is impossible. But that’s why you put the onus on your potential provider to explain how their solution can do just that. It’s their job to explain exactly how their platform will be able to support your firm as efficiently at 200 people as it can when you only have 25 people on staff.
Evaluating a legal practice management platform should not be a negligible exercise. It’s a significant investment in your firm’s future, so take your time. The platform functionalities are just one piece of the puzzle; the next part of this series focuses on the company behind the product and how that should influence your decision.
More in the How to Choose a Legal Practice Management System that Fits Your Firm Now and in the Future series:
Part 2 of 3: The Company
Part 3 of 3: The Employees