Best of Breed v. Integrated v. Piecemeal v. Outsider

Just as the business of law is at the start of a revolution, the platforms supporting firms, Practice Management Systems (PMS), are facing similar challenges. There are the traditional PMS brands that have been around for decades, and others that seem to have sprung up almost overnight.

Some with many thousands of users, and a maturity that deserves more attention than a feature checklist comparison typically provides. Just this week I received a phone call from a firm that has tried/used 4 PMS’s in the last few years. Experience ranged from “awful” and “incomplete” for two local under-capitalized products, to “not locally compliant” for the two well funded international options. All lacked refinement that comes with maturity.

A feature that has 10 years of refinement from user feedback based on frustration and insight is likely to be superior to the new release even if it is an attempt at copying the established feature. Too often, the subtlety in the superior user experience is lost on the imitator. It might only be longtime users of the established product who find issue with the new product. Too often it is an unsophisticated user with a new vendor and product who embark on the same user experience journey others have well and truly travelled.

Testimonials are important, but their value increases with the experience and sophistication of the user. I have recently seen the release of a “world first” module, as proclaimed by the PMS vendor, and extraordinarily, the editor of a legal tech publication supported the claim. Yet, there are thousands of users of a more established PMS who have had the benefit of that feature for a decade, albeit under a different name. I suspect it was because the editor had a BigLaw background, and that segment of the market has only relatively recently discovered the matter/case management component of a PMS.

There are a few types of PMS “options”. These might include:

  1. Best of Breed: mature, feature-rich products that work together. They allow you to pick and choose, and are typically built around a favorite product such as Outlook, document assembly or document management. They are often found in the large firms.
  2. Integrated: Traditional off-the-shelf/shrinkwrapped PMS which try to do everything, with mixed success across a range of modules. They are typically in small firms. What you see is what you get, like it or not, but if you are prepared to compromise, it can be good value.
  3. Piecemeal (App bag/bundle): This could be a range of apps for the desktop, and also on the tablet and smartphone. Solos can be a big user of this approach. The problem with the piecemeal approach, is that it is difficult to scale beyond the power solo user. It is, however, a useful research lab for other PMS developers.

An advantage of the truly integrated PMS is that not only does the application share data, but it also “knows” what you are doing regardless of the module in use. Too often lawyers talk about the burden of time recording. That is because they use the wrong PMS.

Better systems capture time effortlessly as a by-product of the system helping you do the work. Regardless, contemporaneous file notes should never be viewed as a burden. Their completion after the task has been done, helps you remember the details, and might save your skin in court. Having the system automatically record the meta data about the file note and time record (matter, contact, date, time and duration), allows you to focus on the important details of the record.

The de-emphasis of time billing with alternative fee arrangements, and the unnecessary perception of the burden of time recording, undermines a strength of the integrated PMS. This is exasperated by changing behaviour towards file notes. One lawyer recently told me how he uses email to the relevant person as a form of file note. That has some attractions, as long as there is a system than allows others in the firm to see the chronology of a matter at a glance. However, not all of what you need to record in a file note might be included in an email.

To make life easier when choosing a PMS, and to keep up with the changing legal landscape, speed is of the essence. It is best to use as much of an integrated PMS as you can. If a general component/module is not up to scratch then replace it with a “best of breed” application. Document assembly is one such area where the system’s “dumb merge” might not be sufficient for all users and you need a dedicated document assembly program to do more sophisticated tasks such as IF/THEN logic. Nevertheless document assembly within PMS’s is improving.

Such an approach means that you can extend each lawyer’s capabilities as their specialty, or individual matters require with a growing wealth of apps, content and legal products. These extras can act as satellites to supplement the main platform’s features.

Like the new business of law, your apps need to be very “social” and talk to each other preferably via an API in the PMS. This ability to link all sorts of other programs to the base platform might be where the traditional legal PMS is lacking, and where non-legal systems have an advantage. Too often, the API for the legal PMS is lightweight, vapourware or incomplete.

As law becomes increasingly business-like, and more professional management and marketing people move in to run these service providers, they will bring with them non-legal systems such as SalesForce and Filemaker. Such platforms excel at integrating with third party applications. This will turn these outsiders into powerful PMS platforms, and, as with lawyers themselves, provide a new level of competition to the “legal establishment”.

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