Taking proper care of practice management is not just good business sense; the Law Society of Upper Canada makes it mandatory for licensees. But where to begin? How can a paralegal, especially someone just starting out, decide which systems and services to use?
Some research has been done for us, and working paralegals willing to share their hard-earned expertise provide the context that could make the search for practice management technology just a bit less daunting.
In its “Guide to Opening Your Practice,” the Law Society offers checklists and points to consider when deciding which technology to select. LSUC suggests assessing the need for:
- Word processing, spreadsheets, document viewers and software suites
research (e.g. Internet access and browsers)
- Communication (e.g. e-mail, electronic facsimile, Internet video conferencing)
- Financial management (e.g. financial books and records, trust accounting)
- Time management (e.g. calendars, to-do lists, reminders)
- Security (e.g. back-up, virus protection, encryption, spyware)
Larger firms may employ litigation strategy and case management tools, including CaseMap, NoteMap and TimeMap. For document assembly and management, systems include Hot Docs, advanced features in Word or WordPerfect, Amicus Assembly, GroupWise and DOCS Open. Pared-down Open Source document systems are available free online.
The Law Society researched sole and small practitioners and found that most preferred PCLaw and Amicus Attorney practice software. To remotely access office computers, the Law Society found PC Anywhere and GoToMyPC were most popular.
Paralegal Kristin Bisbee has tried several products in her practice, including PCLaw, LawDog, Amicus Attorney and “the good ol’ Excel” software. “I’ve also used Outlook for tasks and dates,” she says. “By far, I like Amicus Attorney the best for civil and tribunal matters, and LawDog for POA.”
Bisbee’s list of necessary features and functions, in order of importance:
- What happens to the data if I discontinue the service? Can I download,transfer or forward data to a new service?
- Calendar for reminders, court appearances, and to-do lists that include the ability to separate scheduled tasks from critical ones
- Clients — can I manage all their contact information, as it changes; is there a place to input Driver’s License, even eye colour, and an ability to do conflict searches
- The ability to anticipate the game. Here’s a Small Claims example: remind me, “Hey, you appeared for this matter three weeks ago, what’s happening with this file? Did you tell the client what happened? Are there costs to be paid or received? Did you need to set this down for trial?
- The ability to record and see every piece of communication on the file in chronological order. This is imperative.
- No matter how the software does it, I would like to go to one place, one page, that shows me where the file is in its development, where it has been, and of course, where it’s going.
Others say the first decision to make about practice management software is whether you should use “software-as-a-service” (SaaS/Cloud-based) or have the program onsite, loaded onto your own server.
Big players offer software that is installed on the practitioner’s office computer. Popular systems that provide varying degrees of combined accounting and practice management components include: Amicus Attorney, ESILaw, PCLaw, Legal Files, LawStream and ProLaw. Products that offer time, billing and trust account options are the most sought-after, for sole practitioners in particular.
Some products are specific to a practice area — HTA Pro, for example. Others have features that are particularly attractive to one’s personal preferences, such as Clio, a cloud-based service that can sync-up with most calendar apps, and across multiple platforms and devices. ESILaw has its fans, although some professionals regard it as too expensive for what it provides.
Paper, installed programs & “Cloud”
New paralegals may opt for general-purpose programs such as QuickBooks, Excel, Word and Windows Live Mail for email and calendar reminders. Basic necessities could include MS Word, MS Excel, an accounting software and a database software, along with email, calendar and contacts programs. Depending on scope of practice and the number of files to be handled, a Practice Management Program can be added later.
Making Audits a Little Smoother
Bookkeeping software can make practice audits less stressful, and ensure that rules and guidelines are being met. Cutting corners in the name of short-term savings can lead to costly errors and deficiencies down the road.
Specific functionality that paralegals look for include:
- All-in-one practice management, case management and accounting
- Client account reconciliation ability, on per-matter basis?
- Vendor payments types – will the system include credit cards payments and Electronic Fund Transfers?
- HST calculations – Are these done automatically, for quarterly reports?
- Mixed Trust account interest calculation – for Law Foundation contributions, does the product provide this ability?
Resources about resources: from LSUC
Practice Pro’s Top-10 List