Changing practice management systems

To understand the changes currently being made in practice management systems it is worth first having a quick run through the history of this type of software. The first PMSs differed from their predecessor, the humble accounting system, by being based around relational database management systems. This enabled law firms to produce more meaningful management information because they could use open reporting tools rather than just the standard reports provided by their particular software supplier.

These new systems were also platforms around which fee earner productivity tools could be built. For example, law firms were able deploy online time-tracking systems which enabled them to record up to 20 per cent more time. The conjunction of fee earner productivity tools and better management information meant that law firms could turn their firms into something approaching a normal business rather than just being a collection of free-spirited individuals.

Then came case management systems, used initially for conveyancing and personal injury litigation and then developed into more generalised matter management systems in an attempt to generate similar productivity savings elsewhere. However, there were problems with this. Firstly, lawyers with non-replicable work found the systems were too restrictive and then law firms were faced with increasing regulatory and management issues, such as risk management and money laundering, which made it all more complicated.

So what firms really wanted was a system which was easy to use, attractive to all their lawyers (not just conveyancers and PI litigators) and enabled them to define the business processes to include risk and compliance issues. The largest law firms solved the problem by installing “best of breed” solutions. They would use Metastorm to define the business processes and collect core date and then use a mixture of document management systems, case management systems and customer relationship management to fulfil the requirements of the various departments.

These systems were costly, lengthy to deploy and needed vast numbers of IT staff to maintain them. Things got even more complex when the suppliers of each individual element of the solution started including workflow solutions in their system so there were multiple competing workflow options available. The top 50 or so law firms evolved complex best of breed solutions requiring large IT departments and everyone else muddled along as best they could.

During the same period, the internet was becoming pervasive and firms were using it to spread information throughout their organisations. The time was right to bring normal computer software for lawyers together with new ways in which software could be accessed over the internet. Thus, the new generation of practice management systems provides a workflow engine at its core and uses internet technology to deploy it. Access is through a browser, giving greater ease of use and lower training and implementation costs.

Software need not be loaded onto each PC and, indeed, there is no special software on the PC at all. This makes installation and management much easier and cheaper – and more secure. More people can now work from home or other temporary locations with the same level of functionality as their office-based colleagues without needing complex and expensive “thin client” solutions such as Citrix, whilst the firm has the security of knowing that all data resides on the central server and none is downloaded to the user’s PC or laptop, which could be lost or stolen.

The flexibility of the workflow means that firms can now design and deploy processes that suit their way of working, so they will be accepted by the users. In turn, in addition to standard money laundering and risk management processes, firms can now be more flexible in the levels of service they can offer to clients and can formalise business rules and service level agreements with them knowing that they have the infrastructure to manage these. The web-based nature of these new systems also means that building client extranets will be easier and that expensive deal room systems will not be required. As an aside, although it is still early days, it could be that Microsoft SharePoint Portal will be an ideal vehicle for sharing documents with clients.

These new PMS systems have standardised around the Microsoft SQL Server database platform and offer good integration with MS Office applications. There is now a good chance that the long-awaited holy grail of the complete electronic file is now achievable – even the paperless office. Provided that browser-based technology, MS SQL database and tight integration with MS Office is achieved, the rest of the technology used is less important. Indeed, the worlds of Microsoft .Net and other software development platforms are intermingling, using common standards like Web Services as part of a service-oriented architecture.

What will make the difference between these new systems will be how flexible they are, how easy it is to define and deploy workflows, how well their application elements work (like time recording and billing) and the quality of the management information produced.

Doug McLaughlan is Marketing Director of Axxia Systems. Axxia’s new Practice Management Software DNA is the first business process management system written specifically for legal clients.