Law Firms Use Technology to Gain Competitive Advantage

Learn more about what technology law firms are adopting to give themselves an edge.

Attorneys and law firms are turning to technology more than ever to improve efficiencies, provide better customer service and gain an advantage over competitors. According to Law Technology Today, they are using the latest technology to personalize connections with clients, stay current with the ever-changing law, network with other attorneys, automatically update legal documents and improve operational efficiency—all of which frees up valuable time for client work.

According to the 2016 Trends and Opportunities in Law Firm Outsourcing survey, conducted by consultant Sandpiper Partners LLC and outsourcing provider Williams Lea Tag, 64 percent of law firms said that investing in such technology is a priority.

So, what technology are law firms adopting to give themselves an edge? Everything from timekeeping and billing software to the latest high-tech tools for client meetings—and even apps for attorneys and clients alike—are finding their place in the practice of law.

Practice and Case Management Technology

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), practice management technology is a powerhouse that no law firm should be without. Yet, many firms do not know how comprehensive and capable this software is for efficiently running a firm and serving clients. Often called “front office software,” it automates key areas including matter management, calendaring and docketing, conflict checking, documents, collaboration, timekeeping and client billing. Such a system provides nearly instant, digital access to this information via one application. This software relieves attorneys and staff from having to enter duplicate data into billing programs and data processors, and many programs link with mobile devices for convenient access to calendars and schedules.

Most practice management software includes mobile apps to record and collect details, and migrates information for billing into a central accounting system. Integration with other solutions is important, of course. Practice management solutions vary in their integration strengths and preferences. For example, AbacusLaw is a turn-key, fully integrated solution that works with online payment services, including Law Pay, and provides metrics and data analytics to measure performance. In its review of five leading solutions, Capterra, a legal software blog, states Amicus Cloud is recommended for law firms looking for an easy-to-use interface, billing application and ready integration with Microsoft Outlook. Clio, a cloud-based legal practice management platform, recently announced that its solution would integrate with the Fastcase legal research platform. It also integrates with QuickBooks, albeit inefficiently, according to Lawyerist, which remarked that QuickBooks poses integration challenges with most law-practice software. Yet, many firms use Intuit QuickBooks Pro for tracking cash flow, salary and benefit expenses, assets and monthly expenditures. For efficient QuickBooks integration, many firms use Time Matters by LexisNexis, which has a strong reputation for integrating with other solutions as well, including NetDocuments, Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft Outlook and Juris.

Practice and case management programs vary in their compatibility by firm size and features. Law Technology Today recommends talking to other lawyers and similar firms about the system they use, how long they have had it, and what they like and dislike about it before investing in one yourself.

Cloud-Based Services

Cloud applications are web-based solutions that users access over the internet instead of from an on-premises computer or server. While server-based practice-management software usually offers more power and features, cloud services offer a simpler, more intuitive approach. If your firm does not need all of the features of server-based software, which is often the case for midsize or smaller firms, then a cloud-based service may be the way to go.

Firms that use the cloud see it as a fast and scalable way to access advanced legal-technology tools without a major capital investment in hardware, software and support. Instead, they pay for a subscription per user. Widely used cloud services include Dropbox, Google Apps, iCloud and Evernote, and those specialized for law practices including Clio, Rocket Matter, NetDocuments, Bill4Time and MyCase. Among the most popular functions that law firms perform via the cloud are time and billing, case and matter management, scheduling and calendaring, and document management.

It is important to note that cloud services are popular in the business world, yet law firms have been cautious about using them for security and accessibility reasons. According to the ABA, lawyers consider the reputation of the cloud vendor most when choosing such a service. Most cloud vendors that serve the legal profession invest heavily in state-of-the-art security technology and precautions. Data retrieval speed and compatibility of downloads are legitimate concerns as well. When considering cloud vendors, learn their method for downloading information, how long downloads take and ask about how they protect data.

Client-Facing Technology

For clients that want secure online access to digital drafts of legal documents and file sharing, consider using digital vaults, another form of cloud service. Legal professionals can store all documents related to a matter and access them using a mapped drive, browser or mobile device. Firms also can meet compliance regulations by sharing links to files instead of emailing attachments, and doing so only to authorized recipients. Digital vault vendors include SmartVault and Box.

Tablets are popular technology that lawyers take to client meetings, depositions, trials, and board meetings as a streamlined option to laptops for word processing, presentations, communications and other functions. Half of all attorneys use a tablet now, according to the Chicago-Kent Law Library blog. The iPad Pro is the most commonly used tablet in the legal industry. It is larger than a traditional iPad, and attorneys favor it for taking notes. And while the iPad Pro lacks easy access to files and full versions of Microsoft Office programs, the Kent Law blog notes that attorneys like the optional Apple pencil (a sophisticated stylus) and full-size keyboard, both of which extend the usefulness of this tablet. Microsoft Surface is less popular but comes with a stylus and runs on the Windows 10 operating system, so it accommodates the same programs as a desktop or laptop computer, including Microsoft Office.

An App a Day…

Finally, some of the savviest law firms offer apps for the use of their attorneys and even their clients. They include:

  • Readdle: an app for the iPhone, iPad and Mac, that makes it easier to access and read documents
  • GoodReader: a versatile PDF reader for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch
  • Fastcase: a legal research service that puts a comprehensive national law library and powerful searching, sorting and visualization tools at lawyers’ fingertips
  • Evernote: captures notes, makes them accessible across platforms, searches for images, text and documents, and lets attorneys share them with others
  • Penultimate: a digital handwriting app for iPad that works like a pen and paper and uses Evernote’s sync and search features

For the extra-creative, Kleverbeast will help law firms build custom apps without the need to know how to code. Some law firms are using the service to build their own apps for clients, such as a Massachusetts divorce attorney who created an app clients can use for quickly calculating child and spousal support.

Digital Crosses the Divide

Regardless of a law firm’s size, its practice specialties or its client base, most law firms benefit from using the best technology services and software that they can afford. While it is essential to research the options before investing in that technology, the right high-tech tools will help law firms navigate the increasingly competitive territory of their industry to find greater efficiency and profitability in the digital age.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Fifth Third Bank and are solely the opinions of the author. This article is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute the rendering of legal, accounting, or other professional services by Fifth Third Bank or any of their subsidiaries or affiliates, and are provided without any warranty whatsoever.