The Software Your Small, Solo, or Behind-the-Times Law Firm Needs

By The Black Fin Team

Posted:

Category: Productivity


True or false: newer, younger lawyers have an easier time with technology than veteran attorneys with decades under their belts?

“True” is the easy answer, but it might not be the right one.

Truth is, the amount of technology available to law firms today is so expansive that virtually anyone would be overwhelmed by the sheer research of it all.

It isn’t only the legal services software you have to think about. (Though that’s certainly its own quagmire — choosing a case management software can take half a year. They teach whole CLE classes on that topic alone!)

But your law firm isn’t just a law firm. It’s a business too, which means you have to sort through all the tech-y decisions that organizations of all other stripes must contend with too.

In theory, these decisions will make your life easier in the long run. That’s the whole point of technology, right?

But to reach that happy ending, you’ll need to make the right choices… and ideally, avoid headaches along the way.

After hearing this complaint from several of the lawyers and law firms we work with, we decided to create a Guide to Researching and Ultimately Selecting the Best Software for Your Law Firm. You’ll find it in the paragraphs that follow.

We’ve written this guide primarily with these audiences in mind:

  • Recent law graduates planning to go into solo practice
  • Startup law firms, which may consist of experienced attorneys who nevertheless haven’t had to adopt whole suites of technologies for a new firm before
  • Well-established law firms trying to update, simplify, or improve their existing software systems

In other words, this is a guide for the young and the not-so-young, because unless you’ve had a reason to keep up with software trends in business and law over the last three-to-five years, those trends have almost certainly passed you by — no matter how long you’ve been in practice.

That’s right: even if you don’t know ANYTHING about legal software or the internet in general, this guide is designed to get you on the right track. At the very least, you’ll come away knowing the types of technology you might need, and you’ll be on the road to research.

How to Use This Guide

We’ve picked six different categories of software for lawyers. You’ll find one section for each category below.

Each section begins with an overview of that technology and what it can do for you, and then we’ll recommend a few of the best / most popular options on the market.

And don’t worry — no one is paying us to make these recommendations, and we don’t get a cut for any sales, so our advice comes from an honest place.

1. Accounting, Billing, and Billable Hours Software for Lawyers

Since billable hours rank high among the things that vex lawyers most, we thought it was a good place to begin our software quest.

No matter how big or small your practice is, you’ll need to track your hours, account for your time, and keep up with clients who aren’t paying (and how many times you’ve tried to chase them down).

Like anyone else in the small business world, you’ll have the usual suspects available to you: Freshbooks, QuickBooks, Quicken, Xero, and so on.

Those aren’t bad choices in any other field, and even in a law firm, they’ll get the job done. But since there are plenty of programs geared specifically to lawyers — software that will capture your time, record it, generate an invoice, and enter it in your books (all within the same system) — why not choose one of those?

What to Look For

  • Timekeeping feature (i.e. click a button to track your billable hours)• Invoice generation• Invoice management system• Basic business accounting / bookkeeping features (for tracking deposits, expenses, deductions, etc.)• Basic reporting features (e.g. listings for accounts receivable, accounts payable, cash flow, etc.)

    • Separate account management for trust / IOLTA accounts

    • The ability to filter by attorney so you can see each individual firm member’s billings

    • The ability to filter accounts by date, payment status, amount past-due, etc.

    • The ability to keep a log of when and how you’ve followed up with clients on late payments

    • The ability to accept client payments by credit card, echeck, PayPal, and Square

    • Compatibility with your other software (and your operating system)

  • Secure portals for sharing information / documents with clients, accountants, partners, etc.

Bonus Features

  • The ability to link directly to your bank accounts
  • Statement generation
  • Mileage tracking
  • Check printing
  • Compatibility with foreign currencies

Most Popular Options

2. Productivity Software: Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Presentations, Etc.

This one’s easy. In fact, if there’s a single category in this article that you already have covered, it’s probably this one. But just in case you haven’t adopted a productivity suite yet, or are in the market for a new one, let’s have a look.

The standard bearer here is Microsoft Office, which used to come on a CD-Rom, but like most software, it has gone the way of web-based subscriptions and is now called Office 365.

You know what you need here — word processing, spreadsheets, notetaking, an email program, a digital calendar, etc. — so we won’t bother with a lengthy list.

Let’s just size up the real contenders instead.

It’s hard to argue against Office 365. It’s far from perfect and probably not the best, but it combines the virtue of “good enough” with the inevitability of “everyone else uses it.”

In today’s interconnected world, universality matters. Office 365 reigns supreme. Most law firms will want the business version, but solo practitioners might make the personal or home versions work. (Still in law school? See the student edition here.)

But before you pull the trigger, a caveat: Google’s G Suite is coming for Office 365’s crown, and it’s coming hard. Google Docs and the Google Drive have long been a staple of file sharing via Gmail, which is already the most popular free email service in the business world. That means G Suite can chip away at Microsoft’s universality edge.

So while Office 365 reigns supreme for now, don’t be surprised to see G Suite catching on. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in our line of work as attorney SEO experts, it’s never to underestimate Google.

Learn more about the basic G Suite subscription package here.

3. PDF Conversion Software

As any seasoned lawyer can attest, it doesn’t take long for papers to pile up in a law office.

One filing cabinet can grow into a storage closet within your first year or two of practice… and pretty soon, you’re wearing out paper shredders and looking to lease extra closet space.

Even if your practice has gone completely paperless, you’re probably still on the receiving end of paperwork all the time (faxes, even!). One client alone can leave a tower of banker boxes behind.

That’s why PDF conversion programs have become so essential to the modern law practice. You don’t hear as much chatter about these applications, but they’re among the most indispensable software for lawyers.

What to Look For

  • Optical Character Recognition, or OCR (software that can scans printed text, renders it digitally, and then allows you to edit it)
  • Encryption
  • Ability to add / delete metadata
  • Ability to build forms so that you and your business partners can complete / edit the forms digitally
  • PDF packaging feature (so that you can easily combine multiple scans into a single document or file)
  • Compatibility with your productivity suite and document management software (see below)

Most Popular Options

  • Adobe Acrobat
  • Power PDF by Nuance
  • Some high-end print-and-scan machines have excellent PDF conversion software bundled with the machine purchase

4. Document Management, Automation, and Assembly

If you’re running a law firm without document management or automation software, you’re wasting valuable time! The 21st century is here, and it’s made life much easier for people who constantly work with electronic documents (ie. lawyers).

Whether it’s inserting boilerplate, customizing letterhead to particular clients and cases, or inserting terms or clauses throughout a complex contract, document automation and assembly software lets lawyers make use of work they’ve already done in the past, creating templates that can be easily re-customized for future use with other clients.

Document management, meanwhile, does what you’d expect it to. For the lawyer who has hundreds if not thousands (or tens of thousands) of electronic pages to contend with this month alone, organization means everything.

Many programs combine document management, automation, and assembly within the same software purchase. Others prioritize some of these features over others. So it’s helpful to think about which of these features matters most to you.

What to Look For

  • Plug-ins for use with Microsoft Word (or whatever your primary word processor might be)
  • Compatibility with Google Docs and / or any other document system you plan to use
  • A wide variety of template options
  • Great customer support (since this type of attorney software is all about customization, you’ll want to make sure you can get someone on the phone if complications arise)
  • Ability to build clause libraries
  • PDF packaging feature (so that you can easily combine multiple scans into a single document or file)
  • Version control
  • Ability to access all your documents and libraries while offline
  • Advanced search functions for easily finding the right file when you need it
  • Advanced tagging features so you can sort, organize, and categorize your documents in a zillion different ways

Most Popular Options

5. Legal Research Solutions  

Even the best attorney must rely on more than his or her memory. Lawyering is very much an exercise in research excellence, and excellence requires access to the right tools.

Today, most law firms use one of two online services for legal research: LexisNexis and Westlaw. They offer a variety of packages and pricing models, but none of them are what you’d call “cheap.”

So what do you do if you’re a smaller law firm with a modest budget and only moderate research needs? In this section, rather than focusing on the two most popular options (i.e. full-blown Lexis and West), we’ll list several alternative online legal research solutions for small and solo law firms that have been recommended by the ABA (though, as we’ll see, all most roads lead back to Lexis):

6. Customer Relation Management (CRM) System  

We’ve written a lot about the importance of law firm intake analytics as an attorney marketing strategy in the past (as recently as last week, in fact). You can employ all the fancy marketing tricks in the world to get prospective clients’ attention, but if your leads don’t actually hire you, what’s the point?

Analytics is the science of tracking your marketing and contact efforts to determine what worked, what didn’t, and how you can improve your client conversion game.

Here at Black Fin, we include an analytics component in everything we do as a law firm marketing agency, and if you don’t have someone handling your marketing for you, you should be conducting analytics too.

CRM software for lawyers is one great way to analyze your conversion efforts. It won’t actually collect your client data for you (that’s on you and your staff), but it will help you keep track of all your contact with them, and it will produce insightful reports about how you close in on clients (and where you can improve).

What to Look For

  • Phone call tracking
  • Notes features, organizable by client / account
  • Visual reporting features (e.g. graphs)
  • Social media integration
  • If you have a legal marketing agency, you’ll want to use a program they know

Most Popular Options

There are some CRM programs specifically designed as software for attorneys. Others are more general in nature but still perform all the essential tasks. We’ll list a few of both.

What If Clio is the Only Attorney Software You Need?

If a piecemeal approach to selecting and installing your law firm software is simply too onerous, consider getting a single case management system (CMS) that covers at least most of your bases.

Case in point: Clio, the single most popular software for lawyers out there. It’s the leading CMS for a reason, and while it won’t check every box on the list we’ve laid out above, it can meet most of your needs.

If you want to learn more about case management software for lawyers, visit our guide to choosing one here. You might also want to read our recent, in-depth overview of Clio.

What About Your Website?

When it comes to technology, there may be no more important investment than the one your law firm makes in digital marketing, which is the #1 way for firms to grow in the evolving legal market. Increasingly, clients look for lawyers on Google, and if your law firm isn’t there for them to find (and making a great case), you’re going to lose their business to someone else.

Ultimately, getting bigger cases from better clients will afford your law firm to invest in higher-scale software to make your daily life as lawyers easily.

At Black Fin, we help law firms get big results online — especially when it comes to getting on the first page of the Google results.

The internet is a powerful tool for growth. Just as the right attorney software can revolutionize your in-office efforts, attorney web marketing can revolutionize your bottom line. Contact Black Fin and find out what we can do for you today.

Find out how Black Fin can help
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