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Is fully integrated software for law firms better than separate software packages?

 

 

Every law firm is different, each with its own unique characteristics. A law firm that practises several areas of law, manages complex cases and has sophisticated fee earner needs is probably better with a fully integrated suite of practice management software. Especially for its staple software modules such as legal accounts, case management, time recording and CRM (client relationship management). The more straight-forward law firm, specialising in just one niche area of law perhaps, may be fine with separate applications.

Definitions

The fully integrated route:  When it comes to legal practice management software, the integrated route offers modules that enable law firms to run every aspect of their businesses. They tend to be written by the same authors and are fully integrated, designed from day one to work together. They typically include:

  • Legal accounts software that is compliant with the rules of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)
  • Feature-rich case management software, with workflows, covering everything a fee earner could possibly need for running their cases profitably with maximum efficiency,
  • A range of time recording options that will resonate with busiest and most reluctant users.
  • A number of value-add modules such as:
    • a range of document management tools
    • specific compliance modules that support law firm in this highly regulated profession
    • plus client portals and apps

The separate packages route:  The alternative, which some law firms opt for, is a range of disparate software packages that they either run separately, or that require a level of systems integration. This usually involves the mainstream accounts packages such as QuickBooks, Xero or Sage for example, plus separate packages for case management, document management, time recording and CRM etc.

With mainstream accounts packages, the firm has to ensure it is fully on top of the SRA’s accounting rules, as compliance functionality is not generally built in as standard, as it is with legal accounts packages designed specifically for the profession.

Depending on the Practice’s needs and resources, the disparate route can be effective, if well-planned, the firm has a close and solid partnership with a solid systems integration company, and the level of integration required is well-defined and not excessive.

Cost considerations

Sometimes the main reason for choosing separate packages is to save cost. However, most firms find they need some level of integration, and so may choose to engage with a systems integrator to make their disparate packages work together. This can work if managed well. However, it can end up proving relatively costly in its own right, as the integration of packages that may turn out to be on different platforms, and were never actually intended to work together in the first place, can be difficult to design, test and support. If you’re going down the ‘separate packages’ route, it is highly advisable to make sure the scope of any integration work is clearly documented and signed off to avoid any costly surprises, or scope creep.

With a fully integrated suite of software, often the extra packages you may need in the future are there from day one. All you need to do is switch them on as the firm grows into them. There may be a cost for switching additional modules on with some providers. However, others will be included in your monthly SaaS (software as a service) fee.

What integration options should law firms expect?

From a good legal software partner a law firm would expect its mainstay modules (legal accounts, case management, time recording and CRM) to be fully integrated aspects of the same suite of software. However, you would also expect a decent supplier to offer further integrations to a comprehensive list of other relevant software tools. In the midst of today’s technological revolution, there are thousands of excellent SaaS (software as a service) solutions available to law firms, and the list is growing daily. With this level of choice, it is so easy for businesses to end up with software overload. And whilst integration can be highly effective and sophisticated, it’s all about balance. A legal software partner that understands the market, as well as the kind of tools that bring value to a law firm will be able to advise on which application integrations are likely to bring the biggest benefits.

The kind of value-add integrations a law firm should expect, over and above the main, staple practice management modules are:

  • The main legal sector submission portals
  • Court services integrations
  • Government portals
  • Conveyancing searches
  • Digital dictation packages
  • ID and verification tools
  • Postcode lookups
  • Self-serve portals
  • SMS
  • To name a few.

In the name of open operability, some suppliers even offer integrations to complementary document and workflow tools, and other legal accounts and finance systems (other than their own), and other CRM packages (other than their own).

The best software suppliers are also open to talking to you about further, new, up-and-coming integrations you may need.

Levels of integration

There is a difference between a simple interface between two software packages and true integration. If you buy a fully integrated legal practice management system, its tools utilise a common database in real-time, with minimum file duplication. If two pieces of software were never designed to work together in the first place, significant effort may be required to achieve the level of seamlessness required for every day working practices for law firm users. For example, if a separate case management system is only required to pass data one-way to a mainstream accounting system for straight-forward billing purposes, a simple interface and upload could work fine. However, where billing data is complex and dynamic, an integrated suite of legal software where accounts and case management have been designed as part of the same suite to work seamlessly, obviously would be far better.

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)

Today we have APIs, Application Programming Interfaces, which make software integration easier. An API is a software intermediary that allows two or more applications to talk to each other. In our every day lives most of us are utilising APIs all the time without even knowing it. An API enables software developers to create complex integrations more easily. In a world before APIs, developers often had to start their integration projects from scratch. Now, in our world of interoperability, we recognise that the world of software is a better place if our applications can talk to each other, and the trend is an API-first approach.

If you are seriously thinking of switching to new software, and want to talk about your ‘fully integrated’ vs ‘separate packages’ options with an experienced legal software consultant, please feel free to book a discovery call via our website at any time. You may also find our BIG Switching Guide for Law Firms insightful.

Access Legal has 400+ staff with many years of combined legal sector experience. As part of the Access Group, which has 55,000 B2B customers including 3800 law firms, Access Legal offers three flavours of practice management software, a set of powerful conveyancing tools, a range of cloud computing services, as well a suite of first-class legal compliance & learning products – all designed specifically for the legal profession.

Though acquisition, the company has brought together six well-established legal sector suppliers that offer this unrivalled tech stack for law firms. Between them, our 3 suites of legal practice management software offer over 100 value-add integrations.

Access Legal

Access Legal
Working in partnership with more than 3,500 UK law firms and underpinned by over 30 years of sector experience, Access Legal provides an unrivalled suite of complete software solutions. From case and practice management, finance, accounting and business intelligence to learning, compliance and HR – Access Legal helps firms take control of their time, improve efficiency and productivity. By providing software to manage every aspect of a firm’s operations, Access Legal enables ambitious firms to reach unlimited potential and have the freedom to focus on clients and people to drive profitability and growth. ​​​​Access Legal is part of The Access Group, a leading provider of business management software to mid-sized organisations. It helps more than 35,000 customers across commercial and not-for-profit sectors become more productive and efficient. Its innovative Access Workspace cloud solution transforms the way business software is used, giving every employee the freedom to do more. Founded in 1991, The Access Group employs more than 3000 staff.