Some days, it almost seems as if the pandemic is behind us. But it’s not. We’re not quite out of the woods yet, although the pandemic’s effects are lessening each day. And you know what that means: the return to the office in one form or another is imminent, despite the unpredictability of the pandemic’s course.
However, the uncertainty we continue to face means that law firms need to be fully prepared for whatever may come. Whether the near future entails a full return to the office or a hybrid return with some employees working remotely, it’s important to have legal software in place that will allow your law firm to run regardless of where your employees are working. That way your firm will have the flexibility it needs to ensure long term business continuity and resiliency.
Your firm undoubtedly already has some remote working tools in place. However, if you’re still relying on a jury-rigged IT setup, there’s no better time than now to fill in the gaps and invest in the right software tools that will facilitate communication and collaboration from your firm’s lawyers and staff, no matter where they happen to be located.
If you’re not sure what categories of software your firm needs to have in place for a hybrid office, my ABA Journal articles on legal software are a great place to start. Over the past year I’ve focused on the key types of legal software that provides law firms with the strong foundation needed to maintain 24/7 firm operability today and in the months and years to come. Below you’ll find highlights from those articles that include some of the key categories of software tools that your firm should have in place in order to run a hybrid firm with a dispersed workforce.
Document management tools
The ability to remotely access documents and collaborate on them is essential when your law firm’s workforce is dispersed and working from home. Cloud-based legal document management tools solve this problem by providing a built-in organizational system for documents. Documents can be associated with case files or matters, and access can be limited to certain firm users.
Document collaboration, sharing features, and e-signature tools are included in some platforms, making it easy to securely share and collaborate on documents with clients, co-counsel, experts and more. You’ll want to make sure that the software you choose includes these key functionalities.
Document assembly tools
Document automaton tools are also important, and allow templates can quickly and easily be created for frequently used documents, such as intake forms, retainer agreements, pleadings and more.
This type of software typically requires a bit of up-front work to create a document template, but it’s time well spent. It used to be that serious coding skills were often needed to create the necessary templates to automate the document creation process, but no more. Instead, the setup process is simple, and the templates are easy to use once you’ve created them. From there, your document automation software will do the rest by autopopulating data into the documents.
Depending on the types of software you’re using, relevant data, such as case numbers, client information, party names and necessary dates, may be automatically input right into the document, saving time and increasing your firm’s productivity. You’ll find this to be the case when your document assembly software is built-in to your law practice management software, and it’s a real time-saver. There are also great standalone options to choose from, such as Woodpecker.
Legal billing tools
Next are legal billing features. Efficient and accurate legal billing is essential for law firms. After all, if you don’t invoice your clients, you won’t get paid. Legal billing tools reduce the steps needed to send out invoices to clients by automatically generating digital, editable invoices using the billable time entered via the time-tracking features. Other information, such as LEDES billing codes, is also often automatically included in the invoice. You can even customize invoices by including your firm’s logo, contact information, and more.
As discussed below, some tools will also allow you to include a payment link in the invoice so that your clients can immediately pay you electronically upon receipt of the invoice.
An antiquated time-tracking system simply doesn’t work when team members are located in different locations. Enter cloud-based time-tracking. With this feature, you can track and enter time contemporaneously no matter where you are using your computer or mobile device, thus ensuring you capture—and charge for—all of your billable time.
Trying to jury rig a paper-based system to capture billable time is not only ineffective practice, it actually ends up wasting valuable time that could be better spent on billable activities. Like it or not, your firm wants to ensure that all time is captured and billed—even when employees are working remotely—so your best option is to upgrade to a more streamlined and centralized cloud-based time-tracking system.
Some law practice management software programs even include built-in passive time-tracking capabilities. This means that the software tracks your online activities throughout the day and then allows you to capture any billable activities that were tracked by the program, but weren’t yet entered into it. So if you drafted and sent an email, but neglected to enter the time spent doing so into the software, it will prompt you to enter that time and link it with the associated matter. This feature alone can ultimately pay for the price of the software.
Payment processing tools
Next, there’s payment processing software. Simply put, it allows your law firm clients to make automated clearing house (e-check) or credit card payments online. After all, credit card and online payments are the norm these days, and legal consumers assume that law firms will offer those payment options.
Even more important, coming into the office to pay may not be a safe option for either your clients or law firm staff in 2021. Instead, you’ll have everyone’s best interests in mind when you offer your clients the ability to pay legal bills online from the safety and comfort of their own homes. Not only will your firm get paid faster, but your clients will also have more choices when it comes to paying their legal bills. In other words, it’s a win-win for both your firm and its clients.
When choosing payment processing software for your law firm, it’s important to focus on tools designed with lawyers’ unique needs in mind. Generally speaking, legal-specific payment processing software is preferable because it is ethically compliant and ensures that all fees are deducted from your firm’s operating account rather than its trust account.
With payment processing software for lawyers, you can choose payment processing tools that work with your firm’s practice management software. When payments are processed using tools that are built into your law firm’s legal practice management software, the payment is immediately reflected in the legal billing or practice management software.
Secure communication tools
One of the greatest challenges lawyers have encountered when shifting to remote work has been finding ways to effectively and securely communicate and collaborate with colleagues and clients. Communicating and collaborating effectively and confidentially is an important part of practicing law, and the better you communicate with your fellow lawyers, staff and clients about their cases, the more streamlined your work processes will be. That’s why one of the top priorities for law firms seeking to enable employees to successfully work from home should be to invest in remote working tools designed to facilitate secure communication from any location.
These features are all the more crucial in light of recent ethical guidance, including ABA Formal Opinion 477R, Pennsylvania Bar Association Formal Opinion 2020-300, and Michigan State Bar Opinion RI-381, wherein the ethics committees concluded that unencrypted email may not always be sufficient for client communication and advised lawyers to assess the sensitivity of information on a case-by-case basis, and then choose the most appropriate and sufficiently secure method of communicating and collaborating with clients.
One alternative to email recommended by ethics committees that is inherently more secure is using the communication portals built into law practice management software. Not only are online portals more secure than email, as discussed above, they’re also more efficient, since all discussions related to cases and case-related events and documents are grouped together and easily accessible using any internet-enabled device, 24/7, day or night. Documents and other digital files can be uploaded and downloaded using the portals, and lawyers can share and collaborate on them with colleagues and clients.
Another popular option is to use messaging tools built into law practice management software, which allow you to instantaneously chat with colleagues and share and collaborate on documents. With most tools you can create channels that are devoted to specific matters, topics or teams in your firm. With the click of a button you can receive and respond to messages from clients or colleagues, allowing you to be respond promptly regardless of where you’re working.
Law practice management software
Finally, there’s law practice management software. This software provides a system that helps law firms run the business side of their law practice, and typically includes all of the features discussed above. With this software, lawyers can manage case and client records, track timekeeping and invoicing, accept online payments, schedule appointments and deadlines, manage documents, track and manage leads, and much more.
And when law practice management software is cloud-based, it’s easy for law firms to operate remotely by providing 24/7 access to law firm data from any location via an internet-enabled device.
There are many different law practice management software providers to choose from (such as MyCase) that have been around for many years and offer solutions for all law firms, regardless of practice area(s). There are also a few systems designed with specific practice areas in mind, such as CASEpeer, which is targeted toward plaintiff’s personal injury attorneys.
So whether your firm is continuing to operate remotely, has a hybrid setup, or is completely back in the office, ensuring that it has the right IT arsenal in place is of the utmost importance as we head into the “new normal.” For even more information on preparing your law firm for whatever may come, make sure to download this FREE guide: “5 Ways to Manage Firm Operations and Safeguard Your Business.”