Essential Software for Starting a Law Firm

starting a law firm

The Software & Services You’ll Need While Starting a Law Firm

So you’ve decided you’ve had enough of working for someone else’s law firm, and you’ve committed to starting a law firm of your own.

Congratulations!

This will be an exciting (and perhaps slightly nerve-wracking) time in your life. Fear not, as someone who has also taken that leap of faith to start my own business: I can tell you that it was among the best decisions in my life.

So you’ve made the decision and are charting a course for starting a law firm of your. Maybe you’ve even formed the organization. Now comes the fun part: Setting up the infrastructure of your firm. In this post we’ll explore the essential software and services you’ll need to evaluate and ultimately implement to make your firm work. What you’ll realize very early on (if you haven’t already) is that, at your last firm: All this stuff was simply handled for you; all of the necessary software and services were in place (good, bad or otherwise). And, as you build your new firm, you’ll have to do all of it yourself.

Fear not: In this day and age, there are many software solutions, services and tools that can make launching and running your new practice a whole lot easier.

Let’s get started.

1. Practice Management

Whether you plan to build an aggressive firm that does a lot of litigation, or an even-paced, small transactional firm, you’ll need software that you can use to keep track of your clients, contacts and calendar. This is called Practice Management software, and it serves as the hub of your practice. What is your practice, after all, if not a collection of clients, matters, contacts and appointments. You’ll need some software to track all of that–even if your freshly-minted practice will be just you and your laptop until the end of time.

As you no doubt know, there are tons of choices when it comes to legal practice management software. There are cloud-based solutions, server-based solutions, private clouds, software for big firms, for small firms and everything in between.

In fact, it can be daunting. I frequently advise lawyers that are starting a law firm on how to evaluate, select and implement the right software for their firm all the time. And–I’ve (unfortunately) witnessed law firms waste a lot of time evaluating the wrong solutions. They’ll spend hours poring over one software solution, only to realize later that it doesn’t do accounting, something that was in their must-have list. Or document management. It’s easy to assume that all legal practice management solutions are the same or similar–but you’d be wrong. They vary pretty wildly: Some focus on “front-office” functionality such as calendaring, docketing and managing the particulars of each case. Others focus more on “back-off” functions such as billing, business and trust accounting.

There are, for argument’s sake, about 10 major Practice Management suites used by law firms today. Or at least–these “big 10” make up 90% or better of the market (the remaining 10 being lesser-known or niche products.) What I do when I advise law firms is to determine, from the list below, which features they need, and which they don’t. Doing this will narrow the list from ten to a short list of one or two. Then–you can closely evaluate these few, and ultimately arrive at which product is the best fit for you when starting a law firm.

When it comes to starting a law firm, the major components of legal practice management software, from which you’ll want to determine what you need, are:

  • Client & Contact Management (all legal practice management solutions include this)
  • Basic Matter Management (all legal practice management solutions include this)
  • Time Tracking
  • Billing
  • Business Accounting
  • Trust Accounting
  • Basic Calendaring (all legal practice management solutions include this)
  • Rules-based Calendaring / Docketing
  • Form Assembly / Document Assembly
  • Document Management*
  • Case Management by Matter Type (For example: A divorce case, a personal injury case)
  • Client Portal

*Note that many legal practice management applications also purport to include Document Management. This usually involves some exceedingly basic functionality where you can attach or link documents to a matter–and nothing more. By most people’s definition, this is not Document Management, which typically has very robust features for managing your documents, like version management, check-out/check-in, index and search–and more.

Related: Practice Management vs. Document Management for Law Firms

Take the list above and circle what you know you need–or will need in the first few years of your practice. That will help you significantly narrow down the list of contenders, and allow you to focus your time on closely evaluating those few applications.

Use our Legal Practice Management Comparison charts (below) to compare your requirements against the features offered by each solution.

Related: Best Legal Practice Management Software – 2017

2. Document Management

Next up when starting a law firm: Document Management. In my asterisk above I warned that many Practice Management solutions list “Document Management” as a feature, but do very little compared to what a full-fledged Legal Document Management System (DMS) does for you. When starting a law firm its important to identify, very early on, whether or not you’ll need a true DMS.

If the extend of your document management needs are nothing more than a place to store files and organize them with folders: you may not need a fully-featured Document Management System. You may be able to live with a simple file server, cloud-based storage like DropBox or even the basic document management features of your chosen Practice Management platform.

Related: Document Management vs. Consumer-Grade Cloud Storage

So, when starting a law firm – how do you know if you need a full-fledged DMS? This is easy to determine: like our list from earlier, evaluate the list of features and functions below and determine which you’ll need within the first few years of your practice.

  • Document Version Management
  • Index and Search
  • Email Management and Outlook Integration
  • Document Tagging and Profiling
  • Document Change Alerts
  • Integrated OCR
  • Document Check-Out / In
  • Document Deadline Management
  • Scan and Fax Integration
  • File and Folder Permissions

If you need more than a few of these, you won’t find them in Drobox, a file server or your Practice Management solution: You’ll need a true Legal Document Management System.

There are only a handful of reputable Legal Document Management Systems to look at when starting a law firm. Use our Cloud Storage and Legal Document Management Comparison charts (below) to compare your requirements and against the features offered by each solution.

Related: Best Legal Document Management Software – 2017

3. Accounting

I list Accounting as its own category here even though I listed it as a potential feature of a Practice Management solution above. Why? Because most Practice Management applications don’t include accounting. Its important to know this fact when starting a law firm, one way or another your new practice will need some form of accounting software.

Most Legal Practice Management suites, cloud-based and server-based, focus on client and matter management, calendaring, time tracking, billing–and stop there. Many integrate with popular accounting software packages (such as QuickBooks) and force you to keep your practice management and your finances separate.

And many lawyers and legal technology professionals like this separation. I don’t. At least not for most law firms. Why?

Because the finances of a business are the business. And your law firm is a business. The economics of your clients and your cases are intrinsically related to the working of that case: from the profitability of any given matter, to the total revenue from any given client, to the remaining trust balance for any given party: your cases and your finances are tied at the hip. To keep them separate is, in my opinion, a bad move.

Add to that: generic accounting software doesn’t do trust/IOLTA accounting, and using QuickBooks or Quicken to manage trust accounts is a huge no-no according to most state bars. When starting a law firm it’s crucial to know if you’ll be managing trust accounts right away or in the foreseeable future.

For that reason I council most of my clients to get a Legal Practice Management and Accounting solution in one: A single piece of software that does both. Using the carts I provided above–you’ll be able to quickly identify which include accounting, and which don’t.

To be fair, there are probably certain cases where it’s not as vital to have practice management and accounting in the same system. If you plan to only ever bill flat-fee or contingency, to never bill by the hour and you never, ever plan to do any trust accounting: you may be able to get away with separate accounting in its own software. (But even then: Why would you want another piece of software to manage?)

Related Accounting Software Reviews:

While starting a law firm – take a look at our individual reviews of practice management solutions that include accounting as well as our reviews of stand-alone accounting platforms.

4. Office and Email

Of course, as you’re starting a law firm, you’ll need technology staples like productivity software and email. You have a few options here. Gone are the days of buying Microsoft office in a box at a store and getting email from your local Internet provider.

Today the best (almost only) way to get productivity software and services for documents, spreadsheets, email and the like is via cloud-based and/or subscription-based services. Google G Suite, for instance, includes their Google Drive, Google Docs and Gmail for email. This suite often attracts startups with limited budgets… but avoid the temptation. Google Docs lacks the features and depth of full-blow Microsoft Office (love or hate Microsoft). Add to that: data you store on Google drive may not remain your exclusive property (be sure to read the fine print of the user agreement).

Office 365 is another popular option for small businesses: It’s a bundle of Microsoft Office software, hosted Exchange email, OneDrive and other software. Office 365 comes with its own unique challenges for law firms, however. And its not a problem with the fundamental Office or Exchange software, but rather with the cloud service itself:

  • Office 365 may store your law firm’s data, including Exchange email and OneDrive, outside of the US, creating data sovereignty issues.
  • Office 365 is only Office and email, leaving you with a very piecemeal technology platform.

When starting a law firm and getting your email and Microsoft office software setup–be sure to understand the legality and ethics of where your data will be stored.

Related: Office 365 vs. Private Cloud for Law Firms

I do recommend using the Microsoft Office software suite along with Hosted Exchange email, however, not via Microsoft’s Office 365 licensing program. Instead I recommend getting a law-firm-centric solution that includes the Office suite and Exchange email service, such as a Private Cloud for law firms our a practice management or document management software package that includes these services.

This avoids data ownership issues as well as having too many different cloud services and systems (something we affectionally call cloud hell).

Related: Is Your Law Firm in Cloud Hell?

5. Website

Last but not least: Your shiny new law firm will need a website!

When starting a law firm, it’s improtant to remember: Your law firm’s website is more than just an online brochure. Yes, its first purpose is to help current and potential clients find you, and to build credibility for your new practice.

But your firm’s website should also be another place where you do business with your clients. Being that your website is an extension of your office (or–all of your office if yours is a virtual office), it should have meaningful ways your clients can interact with you, including:

  • Client Intake: Your website should have an intake page or form, where they can contact you and share a little bit about what they need help with.
  • Practice Management Integration: Ideally your website’s contact and intake forms will integrate with your Practice Management software. For instance, our own JurisPage web hosting platform integrates with Clio and Rocket Matter; when someone fills out a contact or intake form on your website: A new contact record will be created within your Practice Management software.
  • Client Portal: Many Practice Management solutions include a client portal: A place to share documents, provide case updates and so forth. Your website should link to your client portal, making it easy for clients to log in, use it and conduct business with you.
  • Payment Processing: Ideally your website should also include an easy method to pay their bill. For instance, JurisPage integrates with LawPay, a popular legal payment processor.

And of course, your website should have the professionalism and polish that you do. Fair or not, potential clients will judge you and your capability based on the look and feel of your website. If you’re a small startup firm: this is a great equalizer: You can exert the same level of prestige and capability as a law firm 100 times your size.

Beyond that, your website should be mobile-friendly and easy to navigate and find what you’re looking for. It should also have a blog or news feed, where you can share legal thoughts and insight to your potential clients as well as share your recent announcements.

For guidance on designing a great lawyer website, check out our Law Firm Website Design guide.

Closing the Loop

There you have it–the essential software and services you’ll need when starting a law firm. You have many choices for each, but with careful research and understanding exactly what you’ll need (and what you won’t), you’re on the right track to selecting and implementing the right systems for your law firm. Systems that will work for your fledgling firm today and far into the future.

Good luck!

Epilogue

LexWorkplace Document Management

If Document Management is among your new firm’s needs: Take a look at LexWorkplace. If your last firm used one of the long-running Dinosaur DMS’s, I have good news: In today’s age, you have a number of cloud-based document management solutions available when starting a law firm. Cloud-based legal document management systems like LexWorkplace requires zero server infrastructure and little or no up-front investment. LexWorkplace comes with the legal document management functionality you may have enjoyed at your last firm, such as version management, document tagging and profiling, index and search, autmoatic OCR and more.

LexWorkplace also comes in a variety of bundles that include Microsoft Office, Exchange email and even IT support–potentially everything your new firm needs to get up and running.

Learn More about LexWorkplace

Server-based Practice Management + Private Cloud

If your last firm used one of the older, server-based practice management applications like PCLaw, Time Matters, ProLaw, Tabs3/Practice Master, or Needles: And you’d like to use the same software in your new firm: There’s a solution for that too. A private cloud will host server/desktop-based software along with your documents and email: everything your new firm needs to use the technology you had at your old firm–without the headache and cost of on-premise servers and local IT support.

Take a look at Uptime Practice, our private cloud for law firms. Uptime Practice includes hosting for popular server-based legal software, office and exchange email, IT support and more.

Learn About Uptime Practice