By Nic Perry, last updated August 17, 2021
When I was Director of Operations at one of the biggest private criminal defense firms in the Northwest US, picking and transitioning from paper files to an all-digital system was one of my biggest projects. I literally looked at every single software available at the time to pick the solution that was the absolute best for us. Now, I don't think that all firms need the same software, but I do think they should all think through the same points, and, a good flexible solution like we went with will work extremely well for a lot of very different firms.
The most important thing is to think through how this software will fit at your firm, what you absolutely need it to do, and what you'd love it to do. I'd love to talk through this on a free call - I usually work with Actionstep, and really like their software, but if it isn't what you need, I'll also tell you that and we can talk about what you need to look for or hiring me to help figure it out for you. These are the aspects we'll be thinking about when we talk.
This article will start with the broad strokes of things you absolutely need to consider, then we'll talk about different aspects software can help with individually so you can think about which of those things might be needs and how you might need them to work.
There is a lot to consider below, and we are confident we can help. We offer two free calls to help think through all these points, the first call will answer any questions you have about the topics and talk about where you are now, then our second call will talk about your needs and help point you in the right direction for where you need to go. At that point, we'll figure out if it makes sense to keep working together or if you are going to keep working on finding a solution on your own. Find out more about this free service and schedule a call. You can also read about my favorites near the bottom of this page.
When you choose a software, make sure there is a team still actively working on making it better. Sometimes even big name software can be pretty stagnant, which means your software slowly feels more and more limited and outdated. Some companies spend most of their time on general support and don't really try to make much better. When I reviewed all the options out there, some not only weren't moving forward, they already looked ancient, with a feel closer to windows 95 than something modern and fully helpful.
Working in the legal industry, security is one of the most important things to review since firms often have abnormally sensative information as well as an ethical obligation to protect their clients. Thankfully, most modern solutions are already pretty secure for most purposes. With any software, there is no such thing as being 100% safe, so if you work with data that is exceptionally sensative or likely to be attacked, you might want to jump through some extra hoops like services that can run on your own server or at least with lots of options to lock down access - for instance with Actionstep you can limit logins to certain IP ranges and times of day to limit the ability of anyone to get a password and log in from elsewhere. If this is especially concerning for you, Mauve Morpho can help talk through what the different options mean, like self hosted, air gapped, and encrypted at rest to help you decide what your firm needs.
Portability is all about having access to your files when you need them. If your attorneys spend lots of time in court, they need access to their files in court. Now, this is directly in competition with security, but there are still lots of ways to help encourage security while allowing for access remotely. In the past, these attorneys might have relied on paper files which are extremely vulnerable, so it doesn't necessarily take much at all to be more secure, but using firm owned devices with secure passwords that can be remotely wiped helps take your security to the next level while still allowing for portability. If you don't need portability, then you can consider more local options if that's a good fit for your firm.
No one software can do everything in every way. Because of this, firms often need to use multiple pieces of software to cover everything they need their software to do. The less that software talks to each other, the more you have to manually transfer and connect. For instance, if your credit card processor is connected to how you handle accounting, you might be able to have payments auto applied to invoices instead of having all that entry be manual. There are some helpful tools to help connect different software, a common one that Mauve Morpho is very familiar with is Zapier, which has a fee of its own, but can connect parts of hundreds of different software services to help accomplish what you need.
When you trust a software with part of your business, you are trusting that software with your livelihood. It is critical that the software you choose can be depended on. Some of that comes down to the quality of the code and being activley maintained to avoid catastrophic gaps, another part of it is using hosting you can count on. When you choose to host on your own servers, you have to make sure your servers are completely reliable, if you trust a service to do it all themselves, you have to trust their servers to be completely reliable, or, pick a service that uses reliable services like Amazon's AWS.
When you look at software, just about all of them have some options for customization, but they might not have many or not have the ones that matter to you. Customization could include the look and feel of things you send to your clients or the number of customized fields you can add to track the things that matter the most to you and your firm.
Quality is the less tangible feeling you get testing or looking at a piece of software. Some solutions have everything on paper, but nothing works quite right and reviews talk about frequent errors in how their data is handled. They might be great services once they get the kinks worked out, but until then, you are probably best served with something of higher quality.
One super useful feature for firms bigger than just a couple people is some form of a workflow. Depending on what you need, there are lots of flavors that can do different things for your team. Sometimes it is as simple as displaying what stage a file or case is in so you know at a glance the basics of where it is and who should be working on what. More complex versions can automatically send emails, set tasks, prompt for data, send bills, or otherwise automate the way your team works to help make sure nothing is missed while also saving time and providing peace of mind.
For firms that charge hourly, easy and flexible time entry is essential. For your firm, you might not need tracking at all, or you might need something specific like various hourly rates, different rates per matter or discounted rates for certain clients. Some software can make all of this pretty straightforward, while others might require a lot of manual tweaks if you need to customize much of this.
Task management helps make sure everything gets done and provide peace of mind by giving your team task lists they can work from. These lists let you check on your team and let the team members know exactly what they need to to each day. At the most basic, these lists are entirely manual, but tied with a workflow or some basic automation you can have tasks automatically appear to help your team stay on track.
Every firm has important dates. Depending on how your firm works, there are lots of ways you might want or need to handle these. You may be able to just use tasks to track dates, a central calendar, or lots of individual calendars. It might be important to tie those dates to the related file, or you might just need to hold them somewhere and the format isn't very important. Think about what you need from a calendar and make sure the software solution you go with helps manage those important dates.
Beyond basic calendaring, you might also need something to easily schedule meetings and calls with your clients.
Some firms don't worry too much about notes, the processes are straightforward and they trust their memory and emails to fill in any blanks. Other firms use file notes for everything to make sure they know exactly what happened on a case no matter how long it has been or who touched it last, and without having to depend on memory alone if there is ever a dispute with a client. Even if you haven't kept detailed notes before, it might be helpful to have software that makes it easy to make those basic notes in a centralized place.
Document templates can make document creation so much faster. Lots of people already keep basic templates of some kinds, that help them move faster with bones that just need quickly filled in with specifics. Solutions with good document management can help take your templates and take them to the next level with auto populating details from all over the file ready to go out after just a quick glance to make sure everything was entered into the system appropriately. Especially for fixed fee firms, document and email templates can be a game-changer for a firm. Firms that charge hourly can also benefit, automating the non-billable portions of a case, keeping clients happy with lower fees, or if it's ethically ok in your area, charging standard times for that document creation based on how long it would have taken, pocketing the time savings from every document.
Email templates are just like document templates except for your emails. At the most basic that's just a place to keep those basic templates, but it can also pull in bits from all over to speed up your email creation.
Once you have email templates, automation can make a quick process effortless. Email automation could fit into lots of portions of your files. A common choice is to use document automation during the hiring process to encourage prospective clients, ease the hiring process, and help turn them into clients. Automation can help anywhere you always send the same email though, like closing letters or general check-in emails.
Depending on your current setup, you may want to leave billing as it is, or you may want to move to something with an integrated or at least more closely tied billing system. Sometimes that's as simple as wanting a few fields or details pulled into an electronic file or automated emails. Other solutions have completely integrated billing and accounting to keep more of your work in one place.
If you want to integrate billing, you may also want full integrated accounting, or you might like keeping these separate so that you can have a separate system from your billing for auditing/double checking. Make sure your solution fits in however you want it to fit and doesn't become a stumbling block.
Another pretty basic feature is contact management. Most solutions with contacts can track lots of them, but not all of them do that in a tidy way. If all you really need is your clients, anything will do, but if you want to be able to keep track of how all these tie together, you need to make sure the solution you choose understands how all your contacts relate in a way that works for your firm. You may also need custom data here, tied to individuals based on what type of contact they are - again, not all solutions will do that or may use the same fields on all contacts so you have lots of blanks to dig through on each contact to find the details you need for that type of contact.
You may also need some sort of client portal or way to securely send messages and files back and forth with your client. At the most basic, you can do that with a normal email (although not very securely) or use secure email platforms, while other solutions like Actionstep give your clients a place to log in, view files, upload new ones, and send you messages. You might not even need this feature for your clients, sometimes it is just as helpful to share securely with contract attorneys or even opposing counsel.
All the data in the world doesn't help if you don't have a good way to view it. Complex reporting or customized views could be incredibly important for you to keep a solid handle on all of your files. Pretty much all software has at least a few options for getting basic reports, but the best options will let you build cusotm reports or views to see exactly what you need to see. It can also be helpful to let different people see different views, since you need to see much different things when you are checking through case status versus working on billing.
Email campaigns are the next level of email automation. Email campaigns are automated email series that send more than one email to someone. A common use of this is for sharing more about your firm while encouraging a potential client to hire, but it can also be used in other places, like helping educate clients on aspects of what they need to do or what you are doing for them.
The normal term for this is a CRM or Contact Relationship Manager. A CRM is designed to help you turn potential clients into actual clients. A good CRM will help your sales or intake team keep on top of leads, follow up regularly, and track all the details of the potential case until they hire or decide definitively not to hire.
Web forms can do a variety of things for your firm. The most basic are basic new-lead forms on your website for potential clients to reach out with the basics of their case. More advanced web forms could automate your fee agreement or handle longer questionaires in a way that's really easy for your clients.
Text messaging can be a really handy feature. There are lots of different options here depending on the exact setup, from automated texts, text campaigns like email campaigns, basic reminders, or general communication.
Especially for CRMs, integrated phone call systems can be a huge help, these can let your sales team dial with a click and tie call history directly to their file. Other options could just be a phone app to let you dial your clients with a click, without having to worry about accidentally punching in the number wrong.
These days, video chats have become an essential part of pretty much everything. Meetings that would have been over the phone or in person can both be improved with video. The more your video chat system is integrated, the more easily you can set up your meetings. Some CRMs have their own video platform built right into it, while others can connect to zoom, or at the most basic have templates you can put standard room links into.
A knowledge base or wiki can help keep all your policies and proceedures together. Every record and template you usually keep around to help your team approach things in the same way can all go into your knowledge base. Some solutions have some sort of knowledge base built in, but there are also stand-alone solutions if that's a better fit for what you need right now.
No software is going to do everything and do it exactly how you want, so deciding is always a bit of evalutating the trade-offs, but there are definitely a few that are more likely to have the right features in the right way. Even if you just want to pick one of these and go, reach out to Mauve Morpho and at the very least we can give you an introduction which can help you get a bit of VIP treatment with some vendors.
It's probably already obvious that Actionstep is my favorite. It has tons of features and checks most of the boxes above.
My other favorite is Practice Panther, which is great for firms that don't need quite as many features, have a huge problem with collecting successfully, or have a lower budget. I also think Practice Panther is the easiest software to use.
The last one I like is FileVine. Filevine is a less clear recommendation, it has a lot of the same sort of features as Actionstep but designed slightly differently so if Actionstep doesn't do it quite like you want, FileVine might. The biggest problem with Filevine is if you go to leave Filevine the data export is messier than the other two are. Since you aren't likely to change too often it isn't quite a deal breaker, but does bump them to the bottom of my preferred list.
If you'd just like an intro to one or all three of these companies, send us an email and we'll get you an intro right away.
There is so much to consider in case management that it can definitely be overwhelming. Set up your first call and we can help walk you through the whole process as well as looking at what you might need in addition to case management software to connect all the processes at your firm.
Set up a call so we can talk about your software needs.