• Paul Longhurst

Should I stay or should I go… the practice management dilemma for smaller law firms


3Kites ran a seminar back in 2015 called ‘PMS – the perfect storm’, so named because practice management products like Thomson Reuters’ (TR's) Enterprise and Envision, LexisNexis’ Axxia and Tikit’s FirmWare were all in the twilight of their existence and heading up to that software heaven in the clouds (or whatever existed before the cloud).


We discussed the available options which, for medium to large law was dominated by Aderant Expert and TR 3E. However, the small law sector still had options including the likes of Peppermint, DPS, SOS, LineTime and Tikit’s P4W providing what we referred to as full practice management with most incorporating the accounting, time capture, billing, case and document management functions required by these firms. Through a series of acquisitions, many of these products have now been subsumed into much larger entities with deep pockets and huge technical resources dwarfing those of the founder-owner businesses which had still managed to give great service to a loyal following.


Developing products for the cloud is a costly business and the continual churn of enhancements which the market demands along with maintaining integrations (eg for Office365) is a long way from the major releases which came along once every 12 or 18 months allowing the suppliers of old to reap rewards on limited budgets.

All of which is progress but a progress which leaves many smaller firms pondering what to move to next if their PMS or case system now needs replacing.


Difficult choices

There are some exciting, if not always fully matured, products waiting on the blocks with cleaner, more intuitive interfaces which understand the need for both front and back office users to work with them. However, if these are deemed too risky a selection in 2022, should firms move to the likes of Aderant and TR which now offer cloud variants and include matter management capabilities, albeit not the fully integrated case and document management wrapper required by high volume businesses dealing in low margins where every keystroke counts?


Move too early and the firm might hitch itself to an exciting but unproven product which struggles to establish itself.


Peppermint is now gaining a solid foothold in the case management arena but is no longer selling its practice management system, leaving those that bought in the last few years considering another change. LexisNexis also struggled with LexisOne before selling to SA Global which redeveloped this as Evergreen but without the legal sector penetration it would have hoped for.

And many of these options are primarily practice management systems without the key functionality that will need to be replaced with additional products such as standalone case and costly document management tools.


Vision

The important thing here is not to panic buy. Start with a vision – what does the firm want to achieve and what tools does it need to support this ambition?

It makes sense to look at cloud-based options now as buying on-premise is akin to buying diesel cars just when others are installing a charging point on the driveway. The practice management system should be a long term solution (we think of this as being for the next ten years at least) whilst case management is particularly difficult to replace because of the time and effort required to replace all those flows that have been coded to guide your staff through RTAs or PI cases.

In short, avoid buying into a technology which is likely to reduce the value of your investment here. On the basis that your firm hasn’t changed these systems for many years, recent experience can really help here. It is useful to work with people, both contractors and consultants, who have been through this process recently and know the market (making sure to avoid anyone who already has the answer before knowing what your firm’s specific questions are).


These specialists should work alongside an internal team which is able to reflect the firm’s key requirements – this is, first and foremost, a great business change opportunity so make sure to get involvement from across the practice, both front and back office.


And lastly, it is important to understand just how much change these projects involve so make sure you have a seasoned project manager to run your implementation as the best ones can make what is an undoubtedly difficult project a whole lot less stressful.


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