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Practice Management Systems for Corporate Law Departments

How many small corporate legal departments use practice management systems? According to a survey I did in preparation for the 2000 American Corporate Counsel Association Annual (ACCA) Meeting, not many. If you are a single-lawyer department, you may be able to get organized with Microsoft Outlook, but Outlook is not practice management software. The benefits of legal-specific practice management programs for attorneys in private practice have been recognized for years, yet a lot of in-house departments have yet to realize the organizational and efficiency benefits that can come from a good automated practice management system. I think most corporate law departments recognize the need to use technology to better organize their practice, but they donít know how to go about doing it.

If your department hasnít yet adopted an automated practice management system, is this the time to do it? If so, what should you be looking for? How do you choose among the many available options? How do you avoid choosing a system that will be obsolete in a couple of years?

I recently wrote an article (available at http://www.lawtechnews.com/january01/second_opinions.html) in which I suggested that the future of case management for in-house attorneys is on the Internet, and that the next couple of years will see some major advances in these types of on-line systems. We are going to see better-integrated systems that will be easier to use and that will allow for a much greater degree of communication and collaboration between law firms and their clients. We will also see more systems designed around a project management or workflow model, as opposed to systems that are merely repositories for information, as many of the current systems are.

One of the big problems with existing systems is that law firms and corporate law departments generally use different systems, and there is usually no way for the practice management system and billing system used by your law firm to talk to the system used by your department. Multiple inputs of the same information are required to get the information into the different systems used by all the parties. Also, the information contained in practice management systems typically is available only to licensed users, which generally means only law department personnel. Clients are asking to have more information about their cases and matter available when they want to see it. If you want to provide case or project information to your business people with an occasional need, you probably donít want to buy a license for them (and go through the hassle of training them to use the system), so you have to figure out some other way to get the information to them. Intranets and extranets have addressed some of these issues, but they often simply amount to another system that information must be put into that doesnít communicate with either the law firmís practice management system or the corporate law departmentís system. It can also be difficult to integrate these technologies into the departmentís normal workflow.

In the ideal world, information should have to be input only once, and it should automatically be available to everyone who has a legitimate need for it, in whatever form they want it (including wireless). In the ideal world, there should be no difference between your practice management system, your intranet, and an extranet, except for who has access to what information and how that information is presented to different types of users. Most law departments are far from these ideals today.

Two of the technologies that promise to address these issues are portals and peer-to-peer networks. Portals can allow users to have easy access on their desktops to the information that is of most interest to them, and usually allow that information to be delivered to the users in a way that is most useful to the user (e.g., the client is often interested in different information about a case than the in-house lawyer is). If you donít know what a personalized portal is, check out myYahoo (http://my.yahoo.com/). A specialized legal portal can be found at http://www.lawyerexpress.com. For an example of a portal integrated with a practice management system, see what ProLaw is doing at http://www.prolaw.com/prolawportal.html. Theoretically, you could have all of your important case information available through your web browser on your desktop, and your business people could have access to whatever information you choose to make available to them through their own personalized portal. Rather than requiring special software, a web browser and an Internet connection is all that is required.

The concept of a peer-to-peer network is that computers communicate with each other so that information on one computer can be made available to other authorized users. Napster is a well-known, if somewhat infamous, example of a peer-to-peer network. In the legal area, such a network, developed around common standards, could allow a corporate law departmentís practice management system to access information stored in its law firmsí practice management systems and vice-versa, eliminating or reducing duplication of information, without necessarily requiring the law department and the law firm to be using the same system. This concept is described in an article by William Bice, president of ProLaw, that appeared in the February issue of Law Technology News. It can be found at http://www.lawtechnews.com/february01/tech_trends_p26.html

While I have significant doubts that lawyers will want to open up their own hard drives to outsiders, I think the concept of sharing information that may be stored in another system outside of your own organization makes a great deal of sense. 

ProLaw plans to roll out its Provolution Peer-to-Peer network later this year. ProLaw press releases seem to indicate that other practice management vendors will be able to enable their systems to link to information in the Provolution system. If this kind of open systems approach works, this could be a big step toward the goal of seamless system integration of law firm and law department information.

Another system I find interesting is the CynOps system from TyMetrix (www.tymetrix.com). TyMetrix is an ACCA Alliance Partner, and it appears that they are very focused on the needs of corporate counsel. TyMetrix has been known for a long time in the time-and-billing world, and their CynOps system is a new web-based matter management system for corporate counsel. What I like best about how the CynOps system has been described to me is the focus on workflow and process. There is an article that discusses what TyMetrix is doing at http://www.tymetrix.com/mc_corp_counsel.html

TechnoLawyer Article on practice management systems that include collaboration tools. Clearly, better systems are coming. However, one of the biggest questions in my mind is how quickly these new types of systems will become available (and affordable) to smaller law departments. Some of the major technology vendors donít even want to talk with small departments. I think that will change. At some point they will realize that the small law department market is a relatively large market and is worth going after. Once these systems are designed, there is usually very little additional investment required to add additional users. A lot of the costs come in system customization, and I think smaller departments will be willing to sacrifice a high degree of customization in favor of simplicity and lower costs, so I see no reason why these systems canít become affordable and practical for smaller departments in the future.

One reason I think this is so important is that I can foresee a future in which the most progressive law firms will use systems like this to cement their relationships with their corporate clients Ė and possibly even try to take over many of the functions currently provided by the law department. If information can be entered in one place and made available to many people, we donít need as many support staff. If outside law firms can more easily communicate directly with the client, and provide the client with useful information, we may not need as many in-house lawyers. The challenge for corporate counsel will be to figure out how we can continue to add value that canít be duplicated by outside counsel, while at the same time taking advantage of these new tools to get more efficiency and value out of our outside counsel. The good news is that better systems will allow us all to be much more efficient and effective in providing legal services to our clients.

So where does that leave us in choosing practice management systems for today? I would love to be able to say I have all the answers. Implementing a practice management system is a big commitment Ė not only of time and money, but it can lock up your data in a format that may not be easy to convert to a new system. Some of the vendors that exist today will not exist in five years. Who will the winners be? Who will be committed to the small corporate legal market? There are a lot of questions that no one can know the answers to. Given the uncertainty, one of the first questions to ask is: ďHow urgent is my need for a practice management system?Ē If itís urgent, you are going to have to make a decision using the best information you have. Perhaps the information here can at least help you ask some of the right questions. If you can wait, my advice is to wait and see what develops in the next couple of years.

I am trying to keep up with whatís going on in this market, but I donít yet feel that I have any good answers, especially for smaller departments. I like the TyMetrix focus on workflow and process, I like Amicus Attorney's look and feel, and I like the ProLaw Provolution concept of sharing information. For the time being, I'll keep searching for the Ultimate Practice Management tool. 

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This area also includes the following:

Overview of the Products - What vendors sell practice management systems designed with the needs of in-house departments in mind?

The Survey - What information is available about the various systems? What will they do for you, what will they cost?

The Real Story - Experiences - both good and bad - of those who have actually used the systems. 

Last Updated: 05/11/01

 


Copyright 2001-2005 David A. Munn