Law Firm Management with Software as a Service (SaaS)

I was asked recently to give a testimonial on Software as a Service (SaaS).  Here’s about as short as I can make it:

Our firm switched to SaaS because it makes the tech side of things easier.  It does everything the onsite software does, except it’s easier to update, to implement, and it’s painless to access from anywhere.  Here’s the basics of what we use to manage our practice:

Email and Calendar: Google Apps

Case Management Software: AdvologixPM

Document Management Software: NetDocuments

Here’s the long version:

I demoed, or took a hard look at, 15-20 case management software (CMS) programs.  My main requirements were:

  1. Have everything easily accessible (documents scanned & correspondence, etc. all in one place) – I don’t want to ask my paralegal or another attorney “where’s the XYZ file and what’s been done on it – and what needs to be done on it?”
  2. Document Automation – every law practice, to a certain extent, is forms based.  I’m lazy – lazy in the fact that I don’t like doing something for 10 minutes that a computer can quickly do in 1 minute or less.
  3. Track everything – but track everything quickly.  If it’s cumbersome to do, everyone won’t do it consistently.
  4. Easily assign tasks – An attorney or paralegal should easily be able to assign someone else a task – but there needs to be a way to look at the file when a client calls and say “Clay is working on … & David is waiting to hear back from …”
  5. Ability to work from home and/or satellite office.

Our firm has used a local file server (Microsoft Small Business) and Microsoft Exchange Server (for email/calendar) for the last 10+ years.  We recently switched our email and calendar system over to Google Apps.  I figured if the City of Los Angeles could move their 30k employees onto Google Apps, we’d be okay.  A few of the employees in our firm resisted switching from their comfortable Outlook for email and calendar.  That’s no problem – the back-end was the only thing that’s different.  After a few weeks, those users started using the Google Apps interface full-time.  It just works better.  Google also keeps coming up with improvements that are easy to add.

For case management software (CMS), I narrowed my choice down to Time Matters, Needles, and TrialWorks.  But – we were going to have to upgrade our server.  To get something that would last, it was going to be pretty expensive (but mainly a pain to mess with).  I don’t know anything about file servers – and I don’t really care to learn about them.  There didn’t seem to be a perfect way to access things remotely either.  So, I started looking at SaaS providers.

Benefits for going with SaaS:

  • Upgrades are made off-site.  They are out of site, and out of mind.  For the basic stuff, I’m our tech-guy.  For the other stuff, we have to pay an IT person.  Since moving to Google Apps, we haven’t had to contact our old tech guy with any email or calendar problems.
  • Upgrades are made more often.  Salesforce added a “Chatter” function a while back.  It’s like a Twitter or Facebook feed that’s only for your business.  It shows stuff like “ABC v. 123 – Clayton created this matter.”  Users (firm employees) can comment on this topic or post comments directly to different users on their wall (if that’s what it’s called).  You can also think of it as an Instant Messenger for your firm – except that it creates a paper trail.  The kicker:  the only thing I needed to do to install this feature was click “Yes, I want Chatter.”  The rest was implemented.  I don’t know of any old school programs that can do that.
  • Easy to expand.  If we have computers with internet, all we need to do is update our subscription.  There’s nothing technical to mess with to make sure the computers are logged onto the server.
  • I can throw my computer out the window and all my files will still be safe.  I would need to get another computer though.  Everything is stored “in the cloud.”
  • Security – Everyone’s initial reaction is “Oh, I feel safer having the files under my control, on-site.”  NetDocuments is probably more secure than what 99% of law firms have in place.  What would you do if there’s a fire or some type of water damage to your file server?
  • Client Portals – Another personal injury law firm referred a case to me last week.  The files were way too large to email, and we wanted to review the case file as soon as possible.  I set up a “client portal” for the attorney.  She uploaded the documents to the file (she and I were the only ones that could access this portal).  This took less than 10 minutes to do.  It took awhile to print the files though.

We now use Advologix for our CMS.  It’s built on Salesforce.com.  Salesforce had $1.306 billion in revenue last year.  Large companies like Ally Bank, Deutsche Bank, and Starbucks use Salesforce.  So, it’s customizable enough for law firms.  : )  At the time I chose our CMS, it was the only SaaS option targeted to law firms that had document automation features.  RocketMatter and Clio both seem to have a strong following.  I don’t know if they’ve added document creation aspects yet.  I’m sure they will eventually.  They both are adding features all the time.

Salesforce isn’t great at storing documents.  It stores them, but to edit the document you have to download the file and then re-upload it.  So, we use NetDocuments for our document management.  This program syncs with Salesforce.  If I’m in a client matter in Advologix (Salesforce), I have all our case notes, open activities (tasks that haven’t been completed), activity history (phone calls, tasks, calendar events, etc. that have already been completed), case costs, and everyone involved in the case (opposing attorneys, insurance adjusters, experts, spouses, etc.).  Remember:  This is all on the same page and b/c Salesforce and NetDocument syncs, all the documents are accessible from that one page.  Just about everything on this page is customizable.

Note: Instead of clicking on my client list and then scrolling down to Great Plaintiff’s case, I can just type in the search field “Gre”, Salesforce starts searching immediately.  I can then click on the case, contact, or any tasks, etc. in the search field.  This is quick.

Mind you, we have had drawbacks:
NetDocuments works better with Microsoft Word.  Our paralegal has used WordPerfect for ~25 years.  All our forms are in WordPerfect as well.  Transitioning to Word has been an adjustment.
NetDocuments works better with Internet Explorer.  I prefer Mozilla Firefox b/c it never seems to have problems – and it has tons of neat add-ons.  Internet Explorer gets buggy every once in a while with its annoying security features.  Microsoft Word did this recently as well.

I haven’t found a great way to log a call for a new contact.  Technically, everyone that contacts our firm should be “logged and in our system.”  I can create a new contact easily and type the phone notes in to that person’s contact info, but I’d prefer to have it logged as a phone call as well.  I’m bugging the Advologix people about this now.

So back to my initial criteria:

  1. Have everything easily accessible – Check
  2. Document Automation – Check
  3. Track everything – but track everything quickly.  Check
  4. Easily assign tasks – Check
  5. Work from home and/or satellite office – Check

Added benefits:

Google Apps works easily with smart phones.  Our old email server did fine with Blackberrys, but didn’t like iPhones.  Note: w/ Google Apps I can delete the account remotely, if I were to lose my phone.

Salesforce is accessible anywhere you have internet, so I can access (with my login info/password) all my client information from my iPhone.  Note that if I’m trying to login from an internet connection I’ve never logged into before, I’ll have to have my “security token” + my normal password.  There’s also a feature for me to limit where staff/attorneys can login from and when.