Law Firm Technology An Open Discussion

At our firm, we use a host of technological tools. As the attorney responsible for research, acquiring, and implementing our tools, I am required to invest a tremendous amount of time in our tools. This article changes pace a bit and may be geared to a different audience, our peers, in hopes to engage in thoughtful discussion of the state of legal technology (at least in our fields of practice) and maybe helping some people avoid some bumps and bruises we have experienced along the way. For others, this may help visualize that while we work with and apply substantive knowledge specific to our practice areas, we share a tremendous amount of the same headaches and frustrations with technology with those in other fields.

First, nothing in here is intended to imply that a few technologies will make one firm better than another. Frankly, having a solid working knowledge of the substantive law at hand and the practical skills required are absolute necessity. Technology is not a substitute for knowledge or know-how. Technology is, in my view at least, a means to maintain processes, efficiency, and management.  At times, this can be a very helpful crutch that can improve work product when properly integrated into a workflow and competently used. As the in-house nerd, I feel compelled to discuss this subject. I get asked all the time. So hopefully this may be helpful for those who are curious.

A common theme throughout this article is a discussion of self-host or cloud-based solutions. This really turns on whether a firm desires to self-host their own solution. In a self-host scenario, a firm must be willing to maintain a server, keep software updated, and be willing to be its own tech support in many cases. A cloud solution, while not always perfect, does not rely on firm hardware, is regularly updated, and avoids the need to have on-site servicing performed.

Required Systems (usually)

A law firm typically is rooted in some base technologies. Today, at a minimum, a law firm will generally use the following technologies:

  • Client, Billing, and Case Management System (“CRM”);
  • Accounting System;
  • Communications System (internal and External);
  • Document Management System (“DMS”);
  • Email Communications Platform;
  • Office Suite

Additional Systems

Firms may also have some of the following additional software:

  • Drafting Software (Pre-programed or custom);
  • Document Comparison Software;
  • Contract Analysis Software;
  • Productivity Software; and
  • Other Tools.

Client and Case Management Systems

In the past, client and case management was done with hard files. Now, most firms run with a server (self-hosted) or cloud-based system. There are many to choose from and, frankly, I do not consider myself to be an expert. We use Clio.

Clio is a cloud-based solution. It maintains our contacts, matter management, time-keeping, billing, payment processing, and accounting. Clio has some document management system capabilities built-in but we use NetDocuments (discussed later).

An alternative solution would be a self-hosted solution. We chose cloud so that it would be easily accessible from anywhere and from any device, smartphones, and tablets. A self-hosted solution means the firm will have to update their own system, ensure everyone has access, and supply its own server. For these reasons, we opted for a cloud-based solution. Cloud CRM systems are hosted in datacenters, maintained by the software company, and regularly updated. Also, reliance on the firm’s own hardware is not necessary which can offload some significant expense and uncertainty in some cases.

Other options out there are:

Accounting

While Clio does have some accounting features built in, they do not seem nearly robust enough to even handle the basics of firm administration. While we use Quickbooks Online, there are many choices. Clio integrates with Quickbooks Online and Xero. Firms may also use Quickbooks Enterprise.

Much like Clio, Quickbooks Online is cloud-based in that the firm does not have to self-host its own software. Access can be from anywhere and it is not reliant on firm-hardware. Further, Quickbooks offers smartphone applications to scan receipts, upload to the system, and mobile management. There are also easy access portals for accountants, avoiding having to copy a Quickbooks file to a thumbdrive and having to send to the accountant.

Communication Systems

Usually, a threshold question is whether to go with a traditional phone line or a voice over IP (“VoIP”) system. The traditional system must be wired to the building whereas the VoIP system usually just plugs into ethernet and can be deployed anywhere.

We use a VoIP system, a Skype for Business hosted solution. This provides us with a Skype for Business messenger, Outlook integration, presence (seeing if users are in meetings, on calls, available, etc.), and hosted voicemail. We can easily send calls to mobile phones, call from our mobile phones using an office number, and deploy an auto-attendant. Adding a phone is as easy as plugging a phone into a jack and signing into Skype for Business. There are other systems out there, but Skype is what we are familiar with. Additionally, for hardware, use Polycom devices (VVX telephones and Trio conference phones).

Document Management System

Document management systems are the filing systems for law firms. Firms organize files by client, then by matter, then, in the document management system, common profiles are applied. An example of this is as follows:

  • Filing Information
    • Client: Smith
    • Matter: 00555-Estate Planning
  • Profile Information
    • Document Type: Trust
    • Document Date: January 1, 2019
    • Author: JWS
    • Permissions: Everyone

This structure allows easy access and organization of client files within the law firm. These DMS systems are built specifically to organize in this fashion. It a digital representation of the old form of filing and organization of hard files.

These DMS systems can also allow for external sharing, versioning, off-site mirroring (back-ups), in-depth integration with other software, and extended permissions capabilities (allowing and preventing access to certain users).

At ESD, we use NetDocuments. Other systems exist and really DMS is not all that exciting. It is a place for all users at the firm to store and organize documents. Other platforms include WorlDox, iManage, and Sharepoint.

Email Communication Platforms

Email is critical in all firms. Traditionally, firms had their own on-site hosted email and this can still be the case in many firms for a number of reasons. Primarily, the reason could be security and integration with current firm platforms. The initial question is whether to self-host or opt for cloud-hosted. With a self-hosted system, a firm can go with Microsoft Exchange which runs on a local or off-site hosted server. The alternative is to go to a cloud solution. Based on my discussions with peers, the cloud solution is extremely common and two of the primary options are Google (Gmail based) and Office 365 (Microsoft Exchange). We use Office 365 and avoid self-hosting. I am a strong proponent of Office 365.  It is cheap and works incredibly well. After several years, I have yet to experience a significant outage that would shake my confidence in the service. Further, while email is kept on a cloud server, in most desktops, a copy of all the email exist locally. There are backup solutions for those who desire to have an extra layer of protection. As a last note, Office 365 can integrate with many of the old solutions that previously required on-site hosted email.

An important additional consideration is to consider how other staff members in the firm will be able to view these emails. These communications should be logged in some form or fashion. Out of all of the ESD communication storage options, we have elected to store and file emails in our NetDocuments DMS solution. Clio offers some capability there with its Office 365 add-in, but this did not exist at the time of the implementation of NetDocuments for ESD. A firm should consider how this information might be migrated to another service provider in the future if it decides to change its vendor. For these reasons, we did not elect to utilize the Clio solution for storing firm communications.

Office Suite

When talking about office suites relevant to law firms, word processors are the first thing that come to mind for most. In the legal world, there are two front-runners, Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect. WordPerfect was dominant in the legal industry in the past. Now, I believe there should be an ethics rule that makes it sanctionable to use the WordPerfect. Statutes of limitations and deadlines should be tolled as well when Wordperfect document versions are shared. I am a strong proponent of Microsoft Word and that is what we use at ESD.

As for other parts of the office suite, there are spreadsheet and presentation software. I’m not familiar enough with other offerings to really discuss. As for spreadsheet, it is Excel. There is no equivalent. In a prior life, I was an engineer and financial analyst. Excel is king.

Firms can purchase licenses on a subscription basis through Office 365. We are able to acquire our Office suite licenses and email through Office 365 for a reasonable monthly subscription fee (approximately $10-$25 per month depending on the package).

Additional Systems

These systems, while not required, are extremely helpful to our firm. While some users may use more than others, we find the following to be useful in our field of practice.

Drafting Software

Drafting software generally is a solution that sits on top of word processing software. An example of this type of software is HotDocs, a solution we use at ESD in many ways. For our estate planning documents, we supplement our own forms database with a service we subscribe to which utilizes HotDocs supplying a vast amount of intelligent programmed documents authored by the input of many respected professionals in the estate planning practice area.

In its vanilla form, HotDocs allows firms to take documents and insert intelligent logic and fields into them to allow for a form that can fit a host of uses. Instead of drafting each document from scratch, the user will instead be guided through a pre-programmed interview which will be applied to the form to generate a word document from the pre-programmed form that is based on the interview inputs.

By using a drafting system such as HotDocs (or any other similar software) firms can lower their risk by ensuring documents that leave the firm are consistently drafted.

Document Comparison Software

Sometimes the compare function in Word just does not get the job done. Some will argue that it does, but the truth is that it just does not. Sometimes a firm user may need to compare a pdf form with a Word (or WordPerfect) document. Perhaps, two pictures need to be compared side-by-side to verify changes were not made. Solutions exist to achieve these objectives. Two software solutions that come to mind are Litera Change-Pro and Workshare Compare. We use Litera at ESD, but having used Workshare in the past, I can comfortably say that both solutions are satisfactory. If your firm does any contract review work or negotiation, I highly recommend getting a comparison software.

Contract Analysis Software

Have you ever reviewed a contract and seen something like the following “Two Hundred Thousand and 00/100 Dollars ($150,000)?” It happens, and more often than we like to admit. How about seeing a document with a capitalized term that is critical to the substance of the document but that is never defined?  Maybe we know what this word is supposed to mean, but as a drafter of many contracts, this is something that should not happen. Luckily certain software systems exist to help prevent these issues. We use a service called Contract Companion by Litera (the same people who provide Change-Pro). I have found this software tremendously helpful both in drafting and in review.

Other Tools

An array of other tools exist, however not all are applicable and used by my firm. From E-discovery software, to big data analysis and review software, there are a number of tools out there. Be careful though, through our own experience, I have learned a great tool means nothing without proper implementation. Having a good consultant is key to ensuring that the solution is properly deployed throughout the firm.

Conclusion

In closing, this article could really be a series of about a dozen going into detail about the efforts, expense, and heartache endured trying to land on the perfect systems. If nothing else, I wanted to share with my peers what we have experienced as a firm to help give some guidance. As a matter of note, I feel obligated to add that this article was the product of independent experience and opinion only, specifically my own.

ESD Summary of Software
Other Tools:
  • DocxTools (Litera) – Post-pdf conversion and quick tools for Microsoft Word
  • NextCloud – A self-hosted Dropbox-type file share and storage solution (Free)
  • BundleDocs – A binder creation solution (integrated with NetDocuments)
  • Microsoft Server 2016 (Remote Desktop Services) – Deployment of terminal services applications which need not be installed on each individual ESD computer.
Joshua W. Sage, J.D., LL.M.

Josh is a partner at ESD Law. Josh practices in the areas of tax, business, and estate planning. View Full Profile.