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Firm Offer(ing): LexisNexis Cloud-Based Practice Management Suite Arrives

Summertime has brought the sunshine back to New England, at least most days. And, with forthcoming beach trips in the offing, I’m feeling pretty good about listening to some Brad Paisley, in the Jeep, while rolling down some curving ocean and marsh roads, and being buffeted by the breeze. I can’t say that I feel the same way about the weekdays, as the work at LOMAP goes on and on–because we’re not Europeans, and because people continue, almost inexplicably, to open law practices, instead of going back to school for HVAC repair, or something. So, when I’m up in here this summer, I’ve decided to keep myself going/busy writing product reviews; and, I’m going to try to write a decent amount of reviews this summer, too: or, at least, that’s why I’m telling myself (and you, I guess) now. Watch for September 2011, so you can count back to see whether I’ve strung together any significant number of these suckers. Rachel promises to help, too. Or, I made her.

LexisNexis has, for some time, stood by the outskirts of the small village where the full-fledged law practice management softwares stay. Toe-dipping entries, like TimeMatters and PCLaw, never felt like selling out to the water. But, with the advent and rise of SaaS/the so-called “cloud”, LexisNexis is all-in with a new web-based law practice management system, known as Firm Manager–My Firm Manger, I guess you could call it, if you ended up wanting it to be Your Firm Manager, that is, if you really like it. Despite the lack of a more inventive product name (My Firm Manager Is Better Than Your Firm Manager? Unicron? Practice Made Perfecter?), Firm Manager, as the nearest generation of law practice management for lawyers, has a lot of other things to offer up, including other things that you’re far more likely to care more about than nomenclature.

At this point, there are a number of law practice management software systems available to attorneys. (We maintain a listing at our office, in fact, which list tracks these sorts of products, numbering into the high dozens.) In reference to that list and its contents, and with regard to our collective-built expertise, check one for LexisNexis Firm Manager is that it’s got most of the things that you’d expect that a law practice management system would have: client/matter and contact management tools (with conflict checking features, via global search); calendar and task management; document management; time capture (although Firm Manager relies on export to accounting software (like QuickBooks or PCLaw) for financial management, including for conversion of time captured to billing invoices); and, sync with email and sync with/versions for secondary devices. Of course, what separates law practice management softwares is not the fact of their meeting certain dictionary definitions (well, maybe not quite) of what a law practice management software system is supposed to be like; no, products separate based upon how uniquely they render common features, and based upon what new “killer” features (I believe that’s appropriate, and squarely in the wheelhouse of the modern business lexicon) they add to the current landscape. Firm Manager not only succeeds in offering attractive and useful functionality in the ways that you might expect (and some ways that you might not), but also makes some significant and impressive additions to the tools that have come to form the law practice management software canon.

As one non-unique number of a set of beta testers for Firm Manager, I was allowed to peak behind the curtain, as it were, just a little too early, before Firm Manager was officially released, as it has been now. As always, I was determined to run over the system in a thoroughgoing fashion, resolved to investigate every nook and cranny of the new Firm Manager solution, she being brand new. Moving from setup menus, to the various tabs and windows, circling the screen, I think I very nearly met my resolution. My first-person report following is drawn from extensive original notes respecting the product, and a pass-through of this posting by the good folks at LexisNexis, just to get their impressions as to whether I was wildly off-base/lying about anything in particular, and not to be told what to write(!).

Starting up things ab initio (background redundantly, things having been far more important in those days), my introduction to Firm Manager came via its set-up utility, which turned out to be both essentially wide-ranging and fairly intuitive. The Firm Manager set-up assistant endeavors (and succeeds at it, too–sorry to ruin the game), walking new users through the establishment of the major aspects of the system in a comprehensive and understandable way. For those who are technologically-savvy/-initiated enough, the utilization of Firm Manager’s set-up assistant may obviate the need for a consultant, who might otherwise have assisted in the establishment of the system. By way of offering some highlights about the start-up: Firm Manager, as a new user would see upon engaging the set-up assistant, has, generally, a pretty slick interface, including yellow highlighting surrounding current tabs–a nice touch. Within the set-up assistant, you can add users, and define their roles within the firm. Outlook (2007 and 2010) contacts can be synced with Firm Manager, or contacts existing at other applications can be installed, by method of an extracted CSV file–with Mac and Google application integration coming. For matter input, Firm Manager offers templated naming conventions for files; or, if you so choose, you may apply your own. You’ll be able to upload files through the set-up screens (somewhere along the line), as Firm Manager walks you through each set-up protocol; and, you’ll also be able to establish billing rates and codes, using Firm Manager’s derived coding, or, again, some of your own devising. You can pause the set-up process, and come back to it; or, you can override the process altogether, if you’ve already started using Firm Manager–you can add all of the stuff you want in, and get your system down pat, right to your liking, later, through the “My Profile” tab. The potential bottom-line significance of Firm Manager’s in-depth and comprehensive set-up menu is that it may, for the appropriate client, obviate the need to hire a consultant to assist in the system install, getting Firm Manager to play nice with other frequent-use applications, and etc.; in any event, it’s likely that Firm Manager’s intuitive start-up methodology will save you, at least, some set-up expenses; and, that sort of result is imperative for solo attorneys and small firms seeking to reduce costs.

Once you’re through the setting up, having advanced through that tunneling vision, your first dive into Firm Manager will yield, what might be, a striking first impression, respecting the way in which the home screen is broken out. The Firm Manager homepage mainly features four blocks central, within which are arrayed current informations respecting four major aspects of practice management. You have, then, initial, and continuing, access to your calendar (appointments + tasks screens), your matters and your memos. The key to successful law practice administration is managing a docket (and all those things that surround the docket, but . . .); the docket is primary. Firm Manager arrays the main components of any docket (appointments, tasks, matter information + notes (memos)) in a compelling way, that is always foremost of the program. Assuming users make, or have made, the appropriate inputs to the system, this becomes like practice management for the software-uninitiated. To offer up an analogous viewpoint, the home screen of the Firm Manager program is very much like that of the Windows Phone–and, the same theory applies here: that the most important information is always front and center, arrayed in such a way that users have an easy access route by which to take action upon pending matters. Whereas the Windows Phone helps you to check your device more quickly just in order to get back to the business of hanging out with your girlfriend at the club, Firm Manager seems to be a far more mature product, that might still buy you some beer, like Big Perm would, if he were here, and if you asked him nicely, or had your girlfriend ask him. The homefront blocks can be maximized and minimized back (you can view four segments in equal parts, or maximize one of the segments to double its size, to the exclusion of another segment).

Beyond the array of the frontpage, which really is a very nice, and perhaps underrated, feature, in its own right, the functionality of the calendar and matter tools, at a deeper dive, yield some pretty shiny ore. Calendar appointments and tasks are laid out in a highly effective way, under a methodology that’s designed to command your appropriate attention. There are a number of built-in options for tagging meetings. There is a contact look-up feature, accessible from within the calendar, making it easy to tag appointments to matters, and to add attendees, on the fly. Calendar sharing is available, via check-the-box additions of users, and including parallel views of calendars, in addition to an overlay option. Task management is slick and intuitive, too; and, just in case you don’t get it right the first time, ‘Help’ section pop-ups provide immediate access to screenshots as well as explanations of symbols and tools. In addition to a nifty general interface, the tasks bar offers a separate listing for overdue tasks (rather than placing those tasks at the top of a general task list), which again represents the attempt to draw your attention to where it is most required. For matter management, Firm Manager offers an impressively deep set of uniquely effective tools and tabs. One of my favorite features is the presence of a check box for the indication of whether or not an engagement agreement has been signed; offering a check down for a fee agreement as a near-first instance concern in establishing a matter in Firm Manager affirms the importance of the document, as a prerequisite to the intelligent opening of a new case. There is also a check box for deceased clients, which is a touch that can be generally appreciated, save for by the dearly departed. There is a pre-fab box for entering maiden names, which is a nice adjunct to the conflict checking system (= global search within the software–the enterprise search engine used within Firm Manager being an impressive entity on its own, as well, featuring, as it does, highlighting for words in documents). These may appear as small matters (get it) within the system, but these aggregate as very effective checkdowns against malpractice, that are built right into the program. As a consultant who, not infrequently, speaks with attorneys who have had major and minor ethical snafus, I can tell you that small issues can spiral into larger ones; these consistent checkdowns, then, can serve to save attorneys some big trouble, in the long run. Perhaps less dramatic, but, nonetheless, helpful, are the options: to add notes to a matter on the fly; to add ‘client goals’ to matters, as well as to include referrals sources within matter records, and to sort those matter records by referral source: this all being helpful for marketing purposes; to add opposing and related party information (helpful for ferreting out conflict check stories); to add multiple documents/files to matters via an Adobe Acrobat style menu; and, to open calendar, task and conflict check features as pop-ups within the matter screen. And, while the matters interface within Firm Manager works pretty darn well as is, improved linking-to (contacts, documents, appointments, etc.) functionality within matters will roll out shortly.

Surrounding the home screens are a wider establishment of features. Above the Windows Phone sort of tiles, Firm Manager has added tabbing across the top, which functionality works well. It’s similar to what you’ll see within the newest version of web browsers (where tabbing has become an effective (and highlighted) alternative to dropping windows to the tray), like Internet Explorer 9 and Mozilla Firefox 5; this serves the same function within Firm Manager that it does for the browsers: it allows you to save time opening and closing new windows in favor of sliding across top-tier tabbing. A ‘Contacts’ feature, offering tab access once selected, provides built-in search functionality, an export tool and details and notes sections. There are filters for clients and prospective clients (also useful for conflict checking purposes). And, perhaps my favorite contacts feature is the ability to check a box indicating that contacts are ‘mine’, this being a particularly gnarly feature for both small and large firms: any place where more than one person works. For tracking relationships, I can’t effectively enough express my delight in the ‘mine’ filtering feature, which is, again, one of the seemingly small things that adds up to making Firm Manager a really effective practice management tool for attorneys. (The same ‘mine’ feature is available for matters.) The ‘Time & Expense’ tool allows you to establish a target hours goal, that will be measured against your actual hours billed, which allows for the establishment of a nice program for keeping both large and small firm practitioners on track as against their projections; this is another one of those seemingly small movements within Firm Manager, that can spark big results. Although Firm Manager has a time and expense tab, a timer is also anchored to the static home screen; from there, you can begi
n to time, and stop timing, any time you’re anywhere in Firm Manager. When you stop timing, the system will automatically remind you to create a time entry (by opening the time entry window in a pop-up), without allowing you (unless you’re willing to put in some alternative effort) to give over to a staler opportunity to create one later. Outside of time, Firm Manager even offers its own recycle bin, from which you can restore deleted files (since Firm Manager allows you to upload files, rather than taking the easier road of just linking through the file path to that document on your own device/at your own server).

Through the settings menu, you’ll have the ability (with administrator privileges) to restrict users’ access by category of personnel. You’ll have access to certain form templates, including for the creation of initial contact forms, which are generally useful within practice, but perhaps especially for marketing, for measuring return on investment–this in connection with some of the marketing tools available within the system and referenced above. One of the finer minor features of Firm Manager is the ability, within ‘Settings’, to schedule a daily digest reminder for yourself, to be sent to your email. These settled reminders, that relay prevailing, pressing (and overdue) appointments and tasks, are just another of several malpractice avoidance devices built right into Firm Manager.

Firm Manager is a solid entry by LexisNexis into a crowded, and, seemingly, ever-burgeoning, field of law practice management software systems. And, while there are, as I have expressed above, a number of excellent features attendant upon Firm Manager, there are some drawbacks to the program, in its prevailing incarnation. Perhaps the most glaring present difficulty is that Firm Manager does not offer, as an adjunct to its main interface, an integrated accounting program–the best you can do to stay in the LexisNexis universe is to buy (at an additional cost), and export timekept records to, PCLaw. Without the world wide LexisNexis, you could opt for QuickBooks, as a general platform for billing and accounting, or you could try to tie in some other legal-specific accounting software product; however, import may prove difficult, given that export from Firm Manager may only be achieved via Excel or CSV file. (Note, however, that, at least some changes are in the offing: I have been told that Firm Manager will introduce, within the next three months, bidirectional import/export with QuickBooks desktop edition. Why the desktop edition? Because almost 80% of attorneys use QuickBooks desktop, versus less than 10% who use the SaaS version.) On a related head, some of the editing within the time and billing feature is not as intuitive as it should be, which is especially glaring since it is a departure from the slickness inherent throughout pretty much the remainder of the Firm Manager system. There is also limited functionality for establishing flat, or alternative, fees, which continue to grow in popularity. If an administrator, I would prefer to have the ability to limit other system user rights beyond by category designations; the ability to edit access by particular users, even for particular matters, would be a useful improvement. Although there is a method accessible for uploading files directly to Firm Manager (a plus), the tool is still a bit clunky (a minus), with features not yet fully developed (there’s some potential); furthermore, the import process dragged some for me, lacking the speed I would have hoped for, especially when consideration is given that a firm switching over from another product, potentially, would require, again potentially, the upload of a number of documents to Firm Manager, in a short space, which, to be an effective process, would require speed, to get the recently added firm up and (literally) running.

Overall, however, Firm Manager is generally on-point, especially for a brand new product, one that has had very little time to mature upon the market; its combination of current effectiveness and enduring promise is intriguing. The make and model of Firm Manager sets it apart; its discrete features (including: a separate, highlighted listing for overdue tasks; a checkbox checkdown for an executed fee agreement at the head of the matter creation window; a built-in box for inputting maiden names and related and opposing parties for conflict check purposes; and, etc.) and the unique quad screen design of its homepage (listing the most important elements of practice management: matters, appointments, tasks and notes) establishes Firm Manager as a potential sentinel against those easy marks for malpractice (missing deadlines, losing track of cases)–assuming your appropriate inputs, and your actually paying attention to the program so given, as this system, like any other, of course, depends on the individual and collective actors for its appropriate inputs and usage, as well as being susceptible of human error. Firm Manager is much like a luxury car (without the luxury price tag–more on that shortly). I think that most people who drive luxury motorcars, like myself (ho! ho!! ho!!!), will tell you that the thing that separates luxury vehicles from regular, old cars are the small touches. That’s why people pay for them, and that’s why people want them; Firm Manager is impressive and attractive for the same reasons, specifics of which are relayed in the above paragraphs. (Don’t make me repeat myself. Ahem.)

With respect to out-of-product, related considerations, one thing to remember here is that this new law practice management program is not the tabula rasa brainchild of some fresh company that you ain’t never heard of. LexisNexis is a player (maybe even a ‘playa’) in legal; you know the search engine, at least. The fact that Firm Manager derives from a well-funded near-institution, with a number of other and related legal products, will only serve to set at ease the hearts of the present and future users of Firm Manager, in a few ways: First, you’re not dealing with a fly-by-night provider: LexisNexis is here to stay. (That sort of company stability can be an important checkmark for those vetting third party vendors. For more on considerations respecting third party vendors, see this post, at the LOMAP Blog.) Second, the money invested in Firm Manager, and the current interest of LexisNexis, to drive it forward, means that it is likely that funding continues for the product, which will help in its maturation; that combination will serve to pave the road for overcoming some of those shortcomings addressed above. (Plus, continued funding for the project will also compel new features, including a Client Center (for online collaboration), to be rolled out in late July-early August.) Third, the string of big company-chief product-significant usership usually spells out r-o-b-u-s-t knowledge base (think Adobe Acrobat’s), which means that you will find much free, online support, and, perhaps, even, books eventually being written on the use of the program; again, the upshot here is that you’re potentially saving money on consultants, making it work yourself, all D-I-Yy. In advance of the golden age of third party Firm Manager g
uides and guidebooks, LexisNexis has already created a robust helpish segment for users, including: an online community, chat and email support, a number of available help topics for review and virtual trainings. Firm Manager is also willing to enter into a prenuptial agreement of sorts. (It’s like the Kris Humphries of legal management tools. Why do I know this. That’s not a question.) Firm Manager will allow you to export your system data to a zip file, as soon as you’re ready to go. You can also delete and purge your account, if you wish to see it all go away, through the system settings. Neither is Firm Manager interested in holding you hostage via a lengthy contract, a la cellphone providers. Like most SaaS services, Firm Manager offers subscription pricing, at a square deal of $44.95/month, to start. Firm Manager’s also liable to operate anywhere you do, living, as it can, within the major browsers (Safari, Chrome, Firefox, Explorer) and at smartphones and tablets, including those ubiquitous iPhones and iPads, ye white whales.

Firm Manager may end up being just what you need to manage your firm. But, as always, don’t take my word for it. Firm Manager, like most providers in this space, offers a 30-day trial. Take it for a test-drive, before you buy it.

. . .

Liner Notes

Who ever said that the folks at LexisNexis were a bunch of empty suits, starched, stiff and void of personality?

Not me, because these guys can kick it!

Here’re some choice musical selections from the Firm Manager team:

-Loretta Ruppert, Senior Director of Community Management:

Wake Me Up When September Ends” by Green Day

More Than a Feeling” by Boston

Let It Be” by Sir Paul McCartney

Learn to Live” by Darius Rucker

Summer Nights” by Rascal Flatts

Rolling in the Deep” by Adele

-Audrey Mungal, Director of Product Line Management:

Boom Boom Pow” by The Black Eyed Peas

Feel Good Time” by P!nk

Cult of Personality” by Living Colour

Born This Way” by Lady Gaga

Dust in the Wind” by Kansas

-Chris Anderson, Product Manager:

He Went to Paris” by Jimmy Buffett

Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin

I’ve Loved These Days” by Billy Joel

Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day

Steamroller” by James Taylor

Despite the fact that this list represents, probably, the only ever Lady Gag-a link to appear at this blog (I hope you enjoyed it going by; by the way, that song is a complete rip-off of Madonna’s “Express Yourself”; sorry, I’ll stop now), that’s a pretty good, eclectic list of songs.

See, I told you the LexisNexis people were cool.

(No bluegrass, though. Maybe next time. Or . . . maybe . . . right . . . now! Well, alright!)