The following is an excerpt from “Fast Forward: The Past and Present of Law Practice Management” by attorney Jared D. Correia. In this complete guide, Jared covers the history of law practice management, technology’s role in its evolution, and what the future holds for solo and small firm attorneys. Download your free copy here!
The oft-imitated, but never duplicated Ron Burgundy might say that law practice management is “kind of a big deal.” Attorneys managing law firms generally do not have any formal business training, and law schools are only just now beginning to focus on teaching aspects of business management to their students. While larger law firms may hire administrative personnel to assist in day-to-day business operations, solo attorneys are often chief cooks and bottle washers; and, even at small firms, managing partners are forced to both practice and manage the practice.
Most of the business decisions that lawyers make are ad hoc determinations, gut reactions. Those lawyers who can make structured and considered business decisions positively affect their bottom lines. Law practice management software allows lawyers to increase their efficiency in substantive practice, combines useful business tools into a single repository, and provides attorneys the space and freedom they need to make more coherent business decisions.
What is Law Practice Management?
You’ll be excused for not knowing, or for avoiding the conversation. Many attorneys, if they had their druthers, would be white tower intellectuals: researching, writing, rinsing, repeating. The majority of would-be attorneys understand the practice of law to be just that: the performance of substantive legal work within the cozy confines of a large law firm, the engines of which handle all business management issues. As it turns out, a significant number of attorneys will actually end up practicing in solo or small firm law offices. For those lawyers (and, perhaps, to their great surprise), law practice management is an everyday fact of life.
In essence, law practice management is business management for law firms. Many of the same issues that apply to law firms also apply to ‘regular businesses’, including questions of entity choice, insurance, taxation, human resources, technology choice (hardware and software), etc. Of course, since we’re talking about lawyers here, it’s almost impossible to avoid a curveball or three.
How Do You Do It?
It is perhaps too simplistic to define law practice management as business management for attorneys. This assumes that lawyers have an intimate enough knowledge of what business management entails. Generally speaking, lawyers and businesspeople alike are addressing three main subject areas in the realm of business management:
MARKETING, FINANCE, & TECHNOLOGY
Marketing is usually the primary concern for lawyers when it comes to business management. Attorneys intuitively understand that there is no work to do without clients and they strive to generate regularly-recurring, new business. This is especially true for startup law firms, which must nonetheless continue to function before referrals from satisfied clients begin to kick in. The silver lining in all of this is that, between in-person networking tactics and content marketing online, it’s cheaper than ever to build a reputation as a practitioner.
Lawyers are notoriously bad at math, with many choosing the legal field for a career simply because it’s about as far away as you can get from arithmetic and algorithms. Attorneys, however, must understand basic accounting principles, even if their firms run, as many do, on the cash method. Lawyers also need to maintain a basic grasp of trust account procedures, especially trust account reconciliation processes (which are fairly straightforward), since that is, by far, the easiest way to get in serious trouble with your local ethics board.
If there is one area in which attorneys should look to hire out help, to farm out and oversee an obligation, it’s probably in the realm of bookkeeping. Over the last five to ten years, technological innovation in the legal field has advanced at a staggering pace. In addition to the proliferation of service providers and product types, lawyers have significantly changed the way they practice. An attorney working on a desktop yoked to a local server has suddenly morphed into a mobile creature, carrying a smartphone in one hand, tablets in the other, and a subscription to cloud-based software in his back pocket. A modern lawyer has to grasp modern technology and basic data security principles.
Back in the Day
As grandpa would tell it, back in the old days, case management was hard. But, they earned it. Even a decade ago, many firms were still entrenched in paper-based practices, without the wide availability of viable software tools to assist in their substantive missions. That meant, by comparison to today’s standards, that there was a lot of wasted time. Lawyers would sit around conference tables, often on weekend days, to review the status of cases. The method was to pick up one paper file, look at it, and put it back down. After a while, you’d get carpal tunnel doing that sort of thing. Antiquated tickler systems existed; but, there was no easy way to share that information, even between people sharing an office. Not to mention the fact that managing partners tend to have trust issues with associates and staff, oftentimes borne out of a lack of experience.
Why spend Saturday afternoon in such meetings, when one could have been watching Scooby Doo, you might ask? Well, think about whether you would trust the following processes: The office calendar is a shared blotter, where literally anyone could make a notation. Updates to said calendar are only accessed in-person. If you want information when you’re in court, or out of the office, call back in, and hope to hell that somebody picks up the phone.
Client communications are managed by follow-up tabs on paper files, or through the passing on of paper-based phone message slips. Imagine that. If someone walks by your desk, and the breeze created thereby causes an important note to fall to the floor and underneath your workspace, you might be on the hook for a malpractice claim. That’s a fine ‘how do you do?’
What’s Up Now?
You’re probably not reading this in paper form, or via gas or candlelight, such that it is safe to assume that things in law practice are a little bit different now than they were then. On the continuum of modern firm management, the first step for law offices was to go electric, like Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival — by turning in a typewriter for a word processor, and eventually, a word processor for a desktop, it became possible for lawyers and staff to increase productivity and centralize information.
When more law firms began to adopt more advanced hardware, software providers discovered an unmet need, since, at the same time, those law firms were beginning (ever so slowly) to move off of the paper-based systems upon which they had relied for so long. It was at that point that vendors began to develop software programs specifically built for law firms. Eventually, law firms came to rely on those new systems, as well — even if they were late in adopting them. The rise of Internet usage meant that law firms could share data more effectively than ever before — even if truly comprehensive and convenient data sharing meant the acquisition of a physical server to facilitate networked devices.
But, something else was happening, on the lower frequencies. As law firms began to use software to manage processes, the way they managed those processes began to change — even if the lawyers themselves didn’t consciously notice, or understand, the change. Keeping time via an electronic program can be a much different exercise than doing so on paper; there is far more flexibility, and the potential for connectivity to related data and information. Workflows for managing client communications become revolutionized when related systems are in play through which multiple conversation threads and types could be archived. The ability to view and manipulate various data sets on a computer makes it possible for users to review case status without the necessity for perpetual meetings tending to the aggregation of updates.
Progress is often more a jagged, than a straight, line — even if the line does tend to push forward. The general idea behind the value of a law practice management system (holistic platform) remains valid to this day. Earlier applications, though, featured some essential drawbacks, most of which related to the lack of widely available technologies to correct for them. For a while, law practice management software was cost-prohibitive for solo and small firm lawyers. Premise-based software was sold as a license, usually an annual license, with an initial cost into the thousands of dollars, which is a difficult entry point for many lawyers then, as it is now. On top of that, updates were not made continuously; annual discs were mailed (at an additional cost), and only then were updates loaded to the program. Of course, applying updates often led to downtime while they were downloaded. Certainly, onpremise, location-based applications of law practice management software were a sight better than weekend, open meetings — but, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.
At the same time that law practice management software began to gain some traction, Internet usage by attorneys accelerated, which was driven by a number of factors, including the availability of online research tools. The Internet, of course, made possible the development of Software-as-aService (SaaS), which was a new way to offer applications. Online, ‘in the cloud’, software could be hosted by remote servers (i.e.–not yours), and users could access such software via the Internet, rather than via specific hardware.
Such software is, then, location-agnostic (it doesn’t matter where you are, so long as you have an Internet connection) and device-agnostic (it doesn’t matter what hardware you use, so long as it is Internet-accessible). The ability to access software, to access your essential law firm data, at any time, and anywhere, opened up a world of opportunity for lawyers. Untethered, lawyers can be productive without sitting at desk, without being in an office, without even being on the same continent as their staff. The flexibility cloud tools offer, the mobility they afford, is a game changer for every law firm.
Most malpractice claims begin in disorganization. A deadline is not recorded, and missed, prejudicing a client. A motion is not completed, or filed, on time. Most ethics complaints are generated by perturbed clients. They’re not being followed up with, as promised. They’re not being notified of important events. If improper calendar management, for lawyers, is the root of all evil, law practice management software offers an integrated method for solving that problem.
In the past, it was difficult to schedule events and tasks while out of the office, and then to remember to apply them to whatever premise-based management tool was in use. Now, you’ve got a smartphone, a mobile instance of your law practice management system, and instantaneous updates. Workflows can be created for specific case types, including filing deadlines. Notifications can be scheduled or automatically generated for clients. Collaborative features allow for colleagues and clients to work better together. If the remedy to avoiding trouble is in staying on-task and telling clients about what is happening in their cases, law practice management software is probably the best hedge against malpractice that a law firm can access.
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