Many firms feel they can only afford to implement one of the two, that there has to be a choice between Document Management and Practice Management. Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a case of assumed (it sounds good, but isn’t true) logic. There are many practice management and document management systems available. New cloud based practice management systems are being released, constantly making it more difficult to choose.

Some of the major players in practice management systems (currently) are: Amicus Attorney, Lawbase, Practice Master and Time Matters. Some practice management systems are available as a cloud program (SAAS where access is through a browser), as opposed to some which are WAN-based and can only be accessed remotely via an RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) connection or a hosted environment.

While there are lots of document management systems available to the legal community, the two that have become well-entrenched (for many good reasons) are NetDocuments and Worldox. As one would surmise, NetDocuments is a cloud solution, while Worldox offers both a WAN solution and a cloud version.

Document Management is Not Windows Explorer:

While many firms have developed a folder system in Windows Explorer for saving documents by client and matter, users must be diligent to follow the prescribed document naming protocol, and it may take as many as ten mouse clicks to save a document in its proper place. Users in a hurry will often just save the document to their local desktop – disregarding that protocol. If you rely on Windows Explorer, documents will not always be in the right place. Users waste too much time looking for documents and the latest versions. Using document management eliminates these frustrations.

Document management systems, however, provide users with filtered lists of documents; the ability to save and reuse searches, the quick and responsive ability to perform a full-text search (for any word/phrase within any document), and the concept of an (almost) closed-system (meaning that unless a user specifically avoids it, they will be automatically asked to save their (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Adobe for example) documents into the DMS system. Finally defining the often-required security to store documents using Windows File Explorer in a typical law firm is almost impossible to do without an IT specialist (while a power-user in charge of Netdocuments or Worldox can do the job.)

Document Generation is not Document Management:

And finally, don’t be confused by HotDocs, which sounds like a DMS, but is really one of the best document generation tools available. Document generation tools pull data from a source (typically a practice management system or the results of the “interview” and merge that data with static text to create a finished form document (think: welcome letter, retainer letter, referral letter, etc…) Most practice management systems either have a merge feature built it, or integrates with HotDocs.

Each Firm Has Different Needs:

To start, different firms have different needs: firms which place a premium on the accessibility of documents would place the emphasis on what a document management system (DMS) would provide them, while other firms, whose needs would be driven by knowing the details of a matter and have the ability to relate them, would be more interested in a practice management system.
As you read the last paragraph, did you say to yourself: “but what if I need a little of both?” If that was the case, then you need to fully investigate what each system can deliver and then make an informed choice from there. For most firms, selecting either or both of the above systems is one of the most important decisions they will make. (And let’s not forget the all-important billing/accounting systems, which should be evaluated with how they can integrate with a specific practice management system.)

Some practice management programs offer basic document management systems functionality (they can allow the user to store and retrieve documents from the DMS with minimal interaction.) While this is something to evaluate, a full-featured DMS will often: a) make it easier to save/retrieve documents and b) offer better/faster search functionality when a user needs to find a document using some features as a “fuzzy” search or full-text search options.

Document management systems, on the other hand, do not capture the breadth of data that a practice management system is often customized to retain (and if you don’t customize your practice management system, you should be!) A DMS that makes it easier for a user to store a document within the system (or can even force a user to save every document stored within the system) is often more powerful and full-featured than any comparable DMS-function a practice management system will include.

So How Do You Choose?

Like anything else: do your due diligence. Make a list of the features/functionality that you think your firm will need. Watch video reviews/demos on YouTube or wherever you can find them. Talk with other firms/attorneys who have evaluated/used the products that you are considering. Discuss the functionality that you think your firm will need with those that will be using those features! Fully understand what exactly is being done to perform the necessary day‑to‑day functions within your firm.

Then contact a consultant that works with more than one of them (you will benefit from a comparison of features from a perspective other than your own.) You will also benefit from working with a consultant who doesn’t have to sell you the ONE PMS or DMS that they work with… Have them demo specific functionality. Discuss a conversion plan for either/both programs, depending on what you decide your firm needs. Decide on the implementation and training that will best fit your firm (yes- you will need training on the software – trying to save money on an implementation of this type by NOT including training is flat out one of the most misguided cost savings effort a firm can make.)

Finally, purchase, check your plan, and implement the software that will best serve your firm.

Article by Jeff Stouse, C&S LegalTech Consulting Group LLC

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