Legal practice management for Small to Mid-Size Law Firms

Legal Practice Management: Essentials for Small to Mid-Size Firms

Legal Practice Management Software Review Part 2

│ Software review & legal practice business tips by Chuck Henrich

A legal practice management system structures legal work with workflows and information that support the business of law. It is important to remember that law practice is indeed a business; anything that improves efficiency, responsiveness, and resilience will pay off in profitability. Business metrics are equally important to small and large law firms, yet until recently, smaller firms and solo lawyers could not afford the IT infrastructure and administration involved in a legal practice management system.

InvestCEE selected Matters.Cloud to feature on their LegalTech Marketplace because it adequately responds to the specific needs of small to mid-size law firms, as well as solo practitioners. This article highlights questions to ask vendors when shopping around for cloud-based legal practice management.


Editor’s note: Matters.Cloud have asked InvestCEE to prepare a detailed overview of their cloud-based legal practice management solution. This article is Part 2 of the Matters.Cloud software review series prepared by InvestCEE consultant Chuck Henrich. All opinions reflected below are his own. InvestCEE software reviews focus only on legal technology vendors and products that we believe demonstrate quality, thoughtfulness, responsiveness, and legal innovation. Part 1 of the software review series was dedicated to the business functions enabled by Matters.Cloud and is available HERE.


Why do small firms and solo lawyers need a legal practice management system?

Until recently, small to mid-size firms and solo legal practitioners could not afford the IT infrastructure and administration involved in a practice management system. Typically, those systems were developed for larger, more complex organisations, and priced accordingly.

Now, cloud-based case and matter management systems have matured and deliver all the legal practice management functionality solo lawyers and small to mid-size firms need—at a fraction of the cost of in-house systems and with no need for an in-house IT team. 

This article highlights questions to ask vendors (and yourself) when shopping around for a cloud-based practice management system: 

  • What can practice management do for me?
  • What does it take to get started?
  • Can I use it on my phone and my desktop or laptop?
  • Does it manage my documents for me?
  • Where’s my data?
  • How secure and reliable is it?
  • What kind of help and support can I get?
  • Do I have to do any maintenance – like updates and upgrades?
  • What happens if something goes wrong?
  • Why is it a good fit for me?
  • How much does it cost, and what’s the return on investment?

Matters.Cloud answers these questions with the right technology, functionality, and value because it’s designed with smaller firms and solo lawyers in mind. (It was a TechnoLawyer® top 25 product of 2019.)


matters.Cloud Package for InvestCEE Clients

↠ Special Discount – 50% off for six months
€12.50 per user per month for the first 6 months, then just €25 afterwards. No minimum users and rolling 30 day term applies.
↠ Free Initial Configuration Session
We will work with new clients to configure the solution to meet their particular needs. During this session we will cover aspects including setting up matter types, creating activity and expense code sets relevant to your work types, inviting additional users, configuring invoice details and more.
↠ Free Data Transfer Assistance
We will work in partnership with you to import existing data (eg Clients, Matters and Un-billed time lines) into the matters.Cloud system.

What can a matter management system do for me?

The first questions any law practice of any size must ask about a practice/case/matter management system is: What legal and business processes does it support? Does it improve efficiency and effectiveness?

All practice management systems allow you to manage clients and their matters from engagement to archive. Essential capabilities include recording activity; creating and saving documents in organised, secure, flexible folders dedicated to each matter; tracking matter progress against milestones and a timeline; setting and meeting deadlines.

Since all practice management systems fulfil those functions, one key differentiator is how quickly you can get up to speed. A system that covers the essentials with an obvious, uncomplicated interface delivers better value faster, without training. 

Matters.Cloud for example keeps things simple. It clearly labels and organises functions, with a clean, lean, configurable dashboard that surfaces key performance indicators out of the box.

Digital Law Firm InvestCEE Legaltech marketplace
The Matters.Cloud dashboard shows key practice data clearly

The Matters.Cloud developers say they avoid overcomplication as one of their core design principles. They know that small firms and solo lawyers have little time or support to spend getting set up and start working. So Matters.Cloud includes the essentials laid out in an intuitive, simplified design that needs little training.

Few practice management systems cover the entire business process around client matters. Yes, they enable engagement and matter intake. But the practice of law is as much a business as a craft. And doing business like a business means tracking business development: identifying early stage opportunities that may grow into revenue-producing matters with careful cultivation. 

Profitability depends not only on income from time and work expended on the matter, but also the non-billable effort needed to land the business. You need a system that includes the opportunity stage of a client or matter in the overall cost to see whether it’s profitable.

Matters.Cloud’s unique “Opportunity” view allows you to record time and work before a client or matter has reached the engagement stage. You can track and measure everything you do to win an engagement, and convert that opportunity to a live matter with a single button:

Digital law firm InvestCEE Legaltech marketplace
A clear view of all stages of client origination: from opportunity to registering a new client in Matters.Cloud

What does it take to get started with legal practice management? 

The vast majority of lawyers typically work alone or in a small team. They need a system that works straightaway, is easy to understand and simple without being simplistic. That allows them to focus on their profession, serving clients and making money, rather than figuring out how their software works.


“Often people starting out with a practice management system will use just a core set of features. They have constraints on their time that limit their ability to dive deep into advanced functionality. So we eliminate over-complexity in favor of the essentials.”

Donna Flanagan, Matters.Cloud


“User experience” plays a critical role in productivity. Software should be obvious and self-explanatory. It should automate common tasks as much as possible. That makes your experience lighter, easier, and more focused on value than clerical work.

Matters.Cloud have simplified the onboarding process. New customers just need to supply the name of their firm, their email address, and the language they’d like to operate in. (Matters.Cloud is available in 15 languages.)

Matters.Cloud includes template configuration for all EU VAT rates. For example, if you work with another lawyer in a different country, you can import that country’s VAT bands into your instance of Matters.Cloud so you can invoice correctly without having to research or calculate them yourself.

When you start using Matters.Cloud, the system automatically generates comprehensive time record activity code sets for you. So you can record time as soon as you create a matter, without having to configure activity codes yourself.

You may have used time recording and activity codes at another firm, but when you set up your own firm, you ask “what can I do better?” Matters.Cloud includes the American Bar Association (ABA) standard activity codes and translates them for you if you’re working in a language other than English. Even large firms can struggle with standardized activity codes and tax types, so having those already set up and ready to go gives solo lawyers and small firms a head start with no effort. And that’s just a solid starting point—you can amend and extend Matters.Cloud’s lists however works best for you.

Matters.Cloud standardizes on the ABA codes because over time, the legal industry has settled on the ABA codes as a generally accepted standard, whether or not people recognize those codes come from the ABA.

You can work with Matters.Cloud in your own language as long as it’s one of the 15 they support. That eliminates a subtle but ongoing friction where in other systems, your content is in your home language but the software operates in English. 

Matters.Cloud have given a lot of thought to streamlining and automating clerical tasks that lawyers shouldn’t have to do themselves


Can I use it on my phone and my desktop or laptop?

Flexibility and responsiveness to your clients depends on your ability to access their matters wherever you are. Whether you’re working at your desk or you’re taking care of personal errands, your matter management system should travel with you on your phone

The best approach for a cloud legal practice management system is purely browser-based. Some vendors use your web browser when working on a laptop but offer a separate iOS or Android app for mobile phone work. Vendors who take that split approach often do so because they’ve provided a range of complex functionality in the browser that doesn’t fit the smaller form factor of phone, where fingers replace your trackpad or mouse. 

Unfortunately mobile apps that differ from the full-featured desktop browser version introduce risk and difficulty. They increase the development work the vendor needs to do; that increases development costs they may pass on to their customers. Usually mobile apps only include reduced features because of limited screen space. They force you to work differently on your phone than you do on your laptop. They often lag behind their desktop browser versions in terms of features and bug fixes. 

A better, more unified approach is a “responsive” design, where your legal practice management website automatically adjusts its appearance depending on the size of the browser window. 

Matters.Cloud is a fully responsive web application. When full screen, it displays content horizontally, but when it’s narrowed down to the width of a mobile phone it moves content around to present it more vertically. It’s the same content and functionality, just in a layout appropriate for the device you’re working on. That’s best practice website development because it simplifies development and lets you work the same way on any device. 

Responsive design encourages vendors to streamline and simplify their screens. Matters.Cloud take advantage of that discipline to focus their design on intuitive, self-explanatory screens. They avoid over-complexity, and present just the features you need in different contexts. Matters.Cloud’s data entry forms collect essential information out the box. You can extend them as you wish to adapt them to different matters.

Obvious, user-friendly design helps as your legal practice grows. When new people join the team, they can hit the ground running with little or no training. 


“A simple, essential approach encourages lawyers to use the legal practice management system of their choice. The more complicated a screen, the less likely lawyers are to use it.”

Donna Flanagan, Matters.Cloud


Matters.Cloud leverages the mobile apps of other systems they integrate with, like Google Drive or Dropbox. You continue to work the way you’re used to do with those other apps. You can take advantage of their functionality, like document signing and editing. Matters.Cloud gets out of the way, lets you work in those apps as you always have done, and surfaces the results in Matters.Cloud. That’s intelligent workflow design.


Does it manage my documents for me?

Matters.Cloud integrates with Dropbox and Google Drive—the free and the paid versions of both. Both are secure if you follow common sense security practices: never share passwords, share access only to people who need it, cut off access for people who no longer need it.

When you create a matter, Matters.Cloud automatically generates a basic folder structure in the Google Drive or Dropbox account you’ve connected to Matters.Cloud. You specify the initial folders, like “Documents”, “Correspondence”, “Pleadings”, whatever. They inherit initial security permissions that you can change if you wish. By setting up best-practice document management for you, Matters.Cloud allows you to focus on document production instead of admin.

Matters.Cloud relies on the Dropbox or Google Drive integrations with MS Office and Google Docs. You don’t need to configure any integrations yourself. Matters.Cloud will keep track of all your matter-related documents via a live link to your document folders. If you create a folder or document in Google Drive or Dropbox, you’ll see it in Matters.Cloud. You don’t have to wait for the vendor to build or update their integration with either of those cloud storage systems.


How flexible is it regarding accounting and reporting?

Matters.Cloud includes time recording, expense entry, and invoicing out of the box for firms with purely essential finance needs. It integrates with other financial systems like FreeAgent, Xero, and (coming soon) Sage for firms with more complex finances. Those integrations with dedicated finance systems mean you have a choice about which works best for you, and you don’t have to wait for your legal practice management vendor to roll their own finance features.


Where’s my data?

Always question any cloud vendor about how they handle your data. Where do they store it? Who has access to it? When do they back it up? How do they ensure your data storage complies with any applicable laws? 


“Data sovereignty is important for every law firm.”

Donna Flanagan, Matters.Cloud


Legal data must be hosted on servers in a region that complies with any data regulations that apply to your practice. It’s essential to choose a vendor who offers data centres globally, not just in the US, so your data only flows through servers that comply with your jurisdiction’s restrictions. Matters.Cloud covers all regions globally with services available from the Google Cloud data centres in the EU, the US, the UK, Asia, Pacific, and South America. 

Google Cloud handles Matters.Cloud’s infrastructure needs: redundant data storage, segregated data centres by region, uptime and performance. But Google Cloud have no access to Matters.Cloud user data. Those are the same capabilities and restrictions as with Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services.

matters.Cloud Package for InvestCEE Clients


How secure and reliable is it?

In Part 1 of the article series about Matters.Cloud, I explained that security deserves as much attention as usability and feature sets. You may assume a cloud-based legal practice management solution is secure because the vendor says so. But you need to confirm some basics:

  • Is your data stored in a dedicated database or in a shared database? You must insist on a dedicated database. A shared database increases the risk that someone could access or ransom your data if they breach the security of another firm sharing that database.

Matters.Cloud stores your data in a dedicated database per customer.

  • Is your data encrypted whenever it travels and wherever it’s stored, and how secure is the encryption? 

Matters.Cloud encrypts your data end-to-end, both in motion and at rest.

  • How does the system manage logins with external systems like Dropbox or Google Drive? A practice management platform should never store those credentials.

Matters.Cloud uses standard OATH based authentication to connect to third party systems.

The dedicated database approach is essential. Vendors who share databases among their customers expose their customers to unnecessary risk. An unfortunate example of what can go wrong with a shared database occurred in 2019, when 2,500 small firms lost access to their case management system for days due to a ransomware attack against their shared-database practice management system vendor. 

The Matters.Cloud dedicated-database approach eliminates that risk.

Always question who among a vendor’s team can access your data. Best-practice security mandates that the fewest number of people should have permission to do anything with your data. The vendor must continually monitor and adjust permissions as people join or leave. Matters.Cloud for example, restricts access to data to just a few named individuals.

Matters.Cloud supports two-factor authentication for your users via the Google Authenticator app. Two-factor authentication provides an extra layer of security. Passwords alone can be cracked or phished. An additional authentication step using a physical tool like an authenticator app on your phone is practically impossible to circumvent.


What kind of help and support can I get?

You’ll always have questions about how to do something you haven’t done before. Legal practice management systems typically have a built-in help function. They also offer support in case of problems or questions. Ease of access and responsiveness are especially important for smaller firms and solo practitioners who may not have a help desk or trainers on site.

In the application itself, look for info icons or question marks. Clicking on them should bring you to an online help portal. 

Ideally, getting online help involves minimal clicks. Matters.Cloud for instance directs you to their online Help Center and knowledge base. You’re already logged on to Matters.Cloud so you don’t have to log on to a separate support site.

If you can’t find an answer in the knowledge base, you can submit a support ticket. Matters.Cloud provides live support during European business hours. However, they keep an eye on out-of-hours tickets and respond to urgent requests outside business hours. 

It’s great when a vendor realizes you’re having a problem and reaches out proactively. Cloud services make that much easier for vendors because they’re hosting your service and (should) constantly monitor its health. Matters.Cloud takes that further: if they see you in trouble, they may message or call you to see if they can help. 

One question to ask any vendor about support is: what volume and proportion of the support calls you receive are “how-to” questions, versus technical problems or bugs? The answer will tell you a lot about product usability, stability, and quality control. More “how-to” type queries than bug reports suggest the application code is properly tested. Most of Matters.Cloud’s support questions come from new users with how-to questions that have answers in the knowledge base.


Do I have to do any maintenance, like updates and upgrades?

A legal practice management system in the cloud should automatically update itself for you. You shouldn’t have to do anything to keep it up-to-date and bug-free. That’s why they call it “software as a service” (SaaS). The should provide you with continual technical service for your subscription.

Matters.Cloud automatically updates and upgrades for you. You benefit from enhancements as they evolve. As regulations change, the system incorporates those changes, for example in tax types. Cloud systems like Matters.Cloud take over the burden of IT maintenance so you can focus on client service. 


What happens if something goes wrong?

Bad things may happen to good data. Someone might make a mistake you can’t easily fix and you’ll want to roll back to a point before the error occurred. So you need to understand and feel secure about a cloud vendor’s backup and disaster recovery practices.

Matters.Cloud regularly back up all data, retain backups for configurable periods, and assist with retrieving or recovering data as needed, without charge. 

Sometimes servers and data centres experience problems. Matters.Cloud includes automatic failover—switching from one server to another if something happens to a server or data centre. It’s important to know that failover happens seamlessly so you experience no downtime.


“You want a vendor who has a proven track record and procedures in place to ensure business continuity.”

Donna Flanagan, Matters.Cloud


How much does it cost, and what’s the return on investment?

Typically, cloud legal practice management systems operate on a subscription basis: pay as you go.

Matters.Cloud generally price their plans competitively in a variety of currencies. You can try before you buy for 30 days. After that, a low per-user monthly subscription fee kicks in. It’s a straightforward pricing model aimed to make your affordability decision easy. (By the way, non-profits get a 25% discount and currently there is a package offer in place for InvestCEE clients available through September 30, 2020.)

What about return on investment? Let’s say a regular Matters.Cloud subscription costs €25 per month per user. If you bill €150 per hour and Matters.Cloud’s time recording helps you identify an extra 10 minutes of billable time in the entire month, or just over €1.30 per day, the subscription pays for itself. 

Another way of looking at it is opportunity cost: the cost of lost opportunities to do something else with your time. If Matters.Cloud saves you 10 minutes of time across the entire month (or 30 seconds per day) you currently spend searching for documents, or manually calculating invoices, or whatever, then it pays for itself in more time to do something more valuable, like cultivate a client relationship, or CLE, or family time.

Automating any aspect of your business will save you at least 30 seconds per day. Easier, more accurate time recording and invoicing will generate more than €1.30 per day in additional revenue. 


Is Matters.Cloud a good fit for me? 

The developers of Matters.Cloud focus on simplicity and quick value. They’ve designed their legal practice management system specifically for solo lawyers and small to mid-size firms who need to get going with a minimum of ramp-up time and effort. They take care of maintenance and keep the system up-to-date for you.

The Matters.Cloud user experience emphasizes uncluttered, easy to understand screens, organised the way lawyers most typically work. You have the same functionality available wherever you are, on whatever device you use, laptop or phone.

They cover the entire matter workflow from potential opportunity to close with clear visibility on key performance indicators.

Their integrations with other systems, like document storage and finance, enable you to extend functionality as your practice grows.

Your practice and matter data is siloed in a dedicated database, and their development process follows security-by-design guidelines.

Since Matters.Cloud requires little training and maintenance, the return on investment is almost immediate.

So, yes, Matters.Cloud is likely an adequate fit for you and your legal practice. 

MattersCloud SignUp Form

Conclusion

Now is a great time for small firms and solo lawyers to invest in cloud-based practice management. Many vendors have learned the value of simplicity and integrations. Best-practice security is available to anyone. The Matters.Cloud team have developed a solid, flexible solution aimed at small  / mid-size firms and solo practitioners, to streamline the business of law so they can focus on client service and enhance their profitability. Opt in for the Matters.Cloud Package for InvestCEE clients to test key features or contact the Matters.Cloud team to learn more.

And remember, when evaluating any system or provider, you need to ask the right questions and have an advocate on your side to help you evaluate the answers so you can find the right solution for your needs. InvestCEE Legal Tech Consultancy is nurturing an ecosystem of tools and services, including collaborators like Octantus Associates. We advise and assist from vendor vetting to implementation.

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