When it comes to building a successful law firm, there are three pillars that must stand strong for your practice to succeed:
The three pillars of success are interdependent and rely on each other. A weakness in one pillar will stress the other pillars to reveal weaknesses in your business.
We know that an organised firm is productive, and productive firms are profitable. With the abundance of technology options available to small businesses, it’s imperative to understand the key features of legal practice management software that will help achieve your goals.
Deciphering the technologies and the features that you need to be successful is challenging, but with the help of this guide, you will be able to recognise that not all features are the same. As a lawyer, you know the importance of having all the facts and that attention to detail is crucial. Similarly, you will realise that legal software programs vary greatly and not all them deliver the depth and detail you need to run a successful firm.
PILLAR I: ORGANISATION
What does it mean to have an organised law firm? For some, it may mean having a clean desk. Others think it's being paperless. However, you can have a clean desk, be paperless, use the latest technology and still be extremely disorganised. Using the wrong technology will cost you in time lost learning an inefficient system, chaos in the office from multiple changes and loss of valuable time you could have spent serving a client.
Simply put, having an organised practice is being able to find what you need when you need it. Ask yourself these questions:
- If a client calls asking what time a meeting is, are you able to provide the answer in seconds?
- If a client asks for a copy of a document, are you able to find it, convert it to PDF and email it to them in seconds?
- When a client asks about their outstanding balance, do you have that information available instantly?
- Have you put a client on hold or called them back because you couldn’t find the information you needed?
- Have you spent more than 5 minutes searching for a document or file?
If you answered that it takes you minutes to respond to client requests or you have difficulty answering, you need to evaluate your current processes and consider the key features of legal and conveyancing software listed below.
Matter management in legal software is the feature that establishes the foundation for all other features to thrive from. If you don’t have the detailed information about your client and matter, you will end up re-entering data or storing critical information in documents that can’t be accessed to utilise in document automation and other features.
Being organised means that you are using a matter management system where you can enter detailed, in-depth information with the capability to leverage that information for greater productivity.
When you create a new matter in your software, you should be able to, at a minimum, enter the following:
- Client contact information
- Other side contact information
- Other side's legal representative contact information
- Important dates related to your file
- Other contacts, such as Banks, Deceased parties, Surveyors and more
The power of software comes from details. Details entered into the matter allows you to leverage the details in document automation, email management and immediate access to information at all times. By having specific information about your matters, you can quickly respond to client calls and questions without searching for a document or relying on support staff to find the answer. If you can give your clients the information they are seeking right away, they will have confidence in your abilities. If you have to give your client a call back after searching for their information for 30 minutes, the client thinks that you are not focused on their case and disorganised. What experience do you want your clients to have?
Every day you sift through your inbox for emails from clients or colleagues. You respond to the emails, create tasks related to the emails and then save the emails to the matter. It’s easy to get buried in emails and having the right system to manage it all is key to staying organised.
Many software programs claim that they have an email management feature, but it’s simply another inbox for you to manage. If you must forward emails on to save, you’re not managing emails. You’re just moving emails from one pile to another. It would be much easier to save the email to the matter in the same way you save a document.
When you must take multiple steps or deviate from the natural process of reviewing and responding to emails to save them to your matter, you’re more likely to misfile or forget to file the email to the matter. The least disruptive process of saving an email to your matter will ensure greater compliance. Look for a solution that allows you to save the emails directly to the matter without having to send or forward it. Once the email is saved, you should be able to respond to the email and have responses automatically saved to the matter with no additional work.
Another aspect of email management many people overlook is ensuring that your emails are not sent to the wrong recipient. The inadvertent disclosure of confidential information is often accomplished by email because of the lack of safeguards in your software. When you send confidential emails to the wrong recipient, it’s not only is this embarrassing, it can lead to malpractice issues or complaints.
Look for safeguards in software that minimise the risk of sending an email to the wrong recipient. For example, when you create an email, are you initially limited to email addresses of the parties associated to the matter? When sending an attachment by email, are you limited to the files in the matter to minimise the risk of sending the wrong attachment? Simple limitations in software can prevent costly mistakes.
Using a software program that has a secure file sharing app is also crucial taking into consideration the increase of cyber crime and the specific targeting of small conveyancing and legal businesses via email. A secure file sharing app provides you with the ability to securely share files with your clients or third parties from a matter. This enables to to view and comment on files received, upload files, read/send messages all from a secure browser or mobile app removing the need for email.
Legal practice management is more than just saving documents to the matter. When you create letters, forms and other documents, you should have the ability to track version history, revert to older versions and have the document backed up immediately.
Tracking Version History:
How many times have you edited a document and then wished you could revert back to an older version? Having the ability to track the version history of a document allows you to revert to an older version and view who and when a staff member edited a document. When drafting a document such as a will, it helps to be able to review old versions especially when clients change their minds or positions.
More important than saving documents is your ability to find documents. You should be able to search for documents, emails, PDFs and other files within the matter. Your search should go beyond the file name and search the contents of the document. You should have filter capabilities to limit your searches by file type, date edited and author. This will help you focus in on the document and search faster.
Additional Document Management Features:
Additional features you should look for is the ability to convert to PDF, combine multiple documents into a single PDF and the ability to use electronic signatures. Such features may seem inconsequential, but you will begin to realise the benefits immediately as you use them.
PILLAR II: PRODUCTIVITY
Have you been at work all day but feel like you got nothing done. You’re not alone. A report by McKinsey revealed that office workers spend 61% of their time managing their work rather than doing it. A “productive” conveyancing or legal business leverages technology not only to get things done faster, but to produce quality work in less time. Features that can help you be more productive are: Document Automation, Tasks & Workflows and Automatic Time & Activity tracking.
Document automation is a feature that is often misunderstood and undervalued because many legal software programs don’t offer a complete solution. When a lot of lawyers think of document automation, they think it’s mail merges and sending generic letters to multiple clients.
However, document automation is the ability to utilise matter details to create letters, forms and other documents that are customised for the client in seconds. Proper document automation allows you to create advanced documents and is intelligent to ask questions, modify gender references, tenses, plurality and much more.
Being productive is not only efficiency, but quality. It doesn’t matter how fast you complete something if it is inaccurate. By taking the human element out of creating documents, you are eliminating the risk of errors. Furthermore, automated document assembly eliminates redundant data entry. You entered the client’s information already in matter management, why should you have to retype it? Technology should eliminate redundant data entry. Document automation boosts productivity by decreasing the amount of time it takes to draft documents, proofread, and allows colleagues to create documents on your behalf.
Task and Workflows
Running a legal practice is extremely task intensive and being able stay on top of all your tasks is vital to your success. A task system, in its basic form, is a to do list with a deadline. However, a truly effective law firm task system provides context to the tasks created for each client matter. Here are some features an effective task system should have:
An effective task system allows you to assign tasks to anyone in the business. The ability to assign tasks creates accountability and ensures someone is responsible for its completion. Although productivity experts do not recommend having more than one person assigned to a task, the dynamics of a small law firm sometimes require you to have the ability to assign a single task to multiple people. Staff members tend to wear many hats and your task system must be flexible enough work with any team.
A task system is only effective if you realise that you have tasks coming due. Your task system should allow you to remind the assignee of the task as well as the assignor that the task should be completed.
Task With File Attachments:
Legal work is document intensive and you often need to assign a task to another staff member to draft or automate documents. However, with hundreds of different documents and templates, it can be very difficult to articulate to a colleague the specific document that needs to be drafted. An effective task system allows you to attach a file to the task ensuring there is no confusion and work is completed on accurately and on time.
Workflows can dramatically increase your productivity by automating processes and reducing errors. A workflow is a number of tasks or events that is sequential in nature with each step being dependent on a prior step or in parallel with another step. You could think of a workflow as an assembly line. Creating workflows eliminates manual processes and human intervention that can cause errors. Once workflows are created, they can be automatically applied to specific matters and used on a consistent basis.
Automatic Time and Activity Tracking:
Many lawyers desire to bill on a fixed or flat fee basis believing that it will relieve them of keeping track of their time. Unfortunately, timekeeping is a necessary evil for every legal business.
We know that it’s best to record the time and activity as we complete the task. However, many fail to keep track of their time in this manner and practice reconstructive timekeeping. Reconstructive timekeeping is when you review files at the end of the week or month and attempt to reconstruct time sheets from memory or reviewing the events attended, documents created and emails reviewed. This is inefficient, inaccurate and some may argue unethical since you may be inaccurately charging the client.
You should be using software that automatically tracks every activity and associates it to the matter. Imagine working throughout the day without worrying about recording your time. Automatic time and activity tracking deals with the nagging voice in the back of your mind reminding you to record your time.
PILLAR III: PROFITABILITY
An organised business makes a productive business, and productive businesses are profitable businesses. As an owner of a small law firm, you need to stay on top of your firm’s performance. A combination of billing and KPIs or Firm Insights are vital to help you check the pulse of your business and increase profits.
You can’t be profitable if you can’t invoice your clients and get paid. When selecting a billing solution, make sure it is specifically designed for your business. Legal billing and trust accounting requires adherence to ethics and trust accounting rules, which generic billing software are not designed for. Violations of trust accounting rules can be detrimental to your business, so make sure you are using legal billing software that can help you stay in compliance with the rules of professional conduct.
As mentioned in the productivity section, automatic time and activity tracking can greatly enhance your productivity and make invoicing clients quick and simple. By using an integrated legal billing system, the time and activities recorded by your legal software can be automatically entered as a line item on your invoice. As your time and activities are automatically recorded, you only need to review the invoices before they are sent to the client.
Sending out invoices in a timely and consistent manner will ensure that your clients pay you on a timely and consistent basis. Provide clear and easy to understand line item descriptions. Clients are more likely to pay the full invoice when they understand the services you are providing. Transparency into the services and clear explanations of your work helps clients appreciate the value of your work.
Firm insights are dashboards that provide KPIs (key performance indicators) to reveal the health of your business. All of the data you enter from matter management, time and activity tracking, and legal billing provides KPIs to report on profitability, marketing trends and productivity levels.
To be profitable, you need to understand where new clients are coming from. Without new clients, you won’t have a business. Therefore, your software should automatically keep track of how many new matters you create, the type of matters created, and referral source. By obtaining these figures, you will be able to make data-driven decisions about where you should spend your marketing dollars, what areas of law are most profitable and the source of your new clients. Also, with automatic time and activity tracking, you can calculate the actual staff cost vs the amount billed and collected to determine the profitability of each matter.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for KPIs for law firms. A software solution that collects complete and accurate data, enables you to make smart and quick decisions and ensures that you retain the most profitable clients.
YOUR NEXT STEPS
These are just a few highlights to help you establish a solid foundation for an organised, productive and profitable business. Smokeball is the solution that can help you achieve the results you desire and help eliminate the admin tasks that bog you down.
Every feature described in this guide is available in Smokeball legal practice management software. Plus, you will have a dedicated account management and support team that is always available to help you achieve your goals.
If you want to learn more about Smokeball, book a free personalised software demo, or give us a call on 1300 33 55 53.