The Digital Divide: Examining Legal Software Systems

Do you cringe when you hear non-lawyers discuss “charging” someone with a tort? If you point it out, odds are they will not appreciate the distinction between criminal and civil violations. But there is a difference. Similarly, there are countless attorneys and law firms who believe that practice management and document management are interchangeable terms and synonymous forms of legal software systems and law firm management software. But they too are different, as you will see below.

Document Management

Legal document management helps you…well, manage your legal documents. This includes not only records such as contracts and court filings, but also work product such as emails, case notes, and the like. Do you already have a document storage system? Sure you do. Any central hub or shared drive that multiple members of your team can access constitutes a document storage system. But just as document management is not practice management, document storage is not document management.

What are your expectations and needs regarding your law firm’s document management software? The defining feature of a document management system is that the user is provided with ways of manipulating and organizing that stored data. You can use DropBox or something similar at a nice price point to store your files, but don’t expect the (necessary) functionality of a full-fledged document management system. Do you need your confidential documents to be protected with the highest level of digital security? Then you need a document management system. Do you need your data indexed cleanly and fully searchable? Document management system. Do you need a scalable solution that syncs seamlessly across devices? Document management system for the win.

Misleading Marketing

Distinctions between legal software systems have been deliberately blurred by sales and marketing divisions. It’s easy for a storage provider to brand itself as document management. But can you minutely categorize your documents by type and current status? Can you filter your documents by date of incident and not just by date of last modification? Can you link your documents to related contacts in your directory? If your current system does not have these and other capabilities, you are using a document storage service and not a document management system. It may be past time for an upgrade.

Imagine you are working on a big case and many members of your team are involved. Each team member may have multiple versions of multiple documents across multiple devices. That could be a recipe for disaster and time wasting (or even malpractice) — unless you have a quality legal document management system. Google Drive, for example, is a document storage system that might appeal to you on name recognition alone. But, as Dennis Dimka, founder of Uptime Legal Systems, notes in a 2017 blog posting, “Google Drive for lawyers can cause serious issues when it comes to the precise level of document management needed in the legal industry.” Aside from limited functionality, Google Drive can raise security concerns for your confidential documentation.

As Dimka argues, “Anyone who has a Gmail account (or who uses GSuite) has a Google Drive account. That’s standard knowledge and it could be the first place hackers will likely try to go to login and obtain your data or hold it hostage. At its basic level, all it takes is figuring out a user’s login email and password.”

The Document Management Difference

Okay, by now you’re starting to see that you want true document management as part of your law firm management software approach. It can be nice (and sometimes critical) to have searchable images and OCR-enabled files. It’s great (and often essential) to have your email on a matter integrated with your official documentation on the same matter. It’s wonderful (and typically paramount) to have precise folder, sub folder, and sub sub folder organization of multitudinous records. Document management, then, is clearly a superior choice for most lawyers than simple document storage.

Legal Practice Management Software

Now back to the original question: How does document management relate to practice management software?  Consider document management your resource for substantive matters and practice management your solution for regulating the procedural elements of your law firm practice.  Your office calendar and client database are examples of practice management software functionality. Scheduling appointments and generating auto-populated forms also fall under the purview of law practice management software. There is also the important matter of client billing and payment. Basic accounting features like time tracking and invoicing are encompassed by practice management software. 

A recent development in legal tech is attorneys opening up to the idea of client portals. A portal is an encrypted hub for clients to communicate with firm attorneys and receive updates on their pending cases. Look to legal practice management software to begin catering more to the idea of client portals in the coming years. This is another situation that illustrates the subtle but unavoidable distinctions between document management and practice management systems. Now, armed with your deepened knowledge, you can start making more informed decisions on how to run your firm at greater efficiency and profitability.

What About Case Management?

Case management is another term you’ve probably heard being tossed around. If you’re frustrated at the overlap in terms when it comes to law practice management software, it’s understandable. After all, you didn’t go to law school to become a business mogul or software guru. Still, as a lawyer you understand that semantic nuance can telegraph meaningful distinctions.  Case management refers to a software platform for specific case maintenance.  It is an advanced hosting, communication, and reporting system for your case files. As you can see, the three management systems do indeed occupy different primary niches, even where there’s some spillover and overlap.

Your Options

You can think of the three options in legal software systems this way: If your objective is storing, organizing, and altering documents of all kinds, you’re thinking of a narrow document management system. In contrast, if you’re seeking software to help you stay on top of specific and ongoing legal matters, you want the broader umbrella of case management. Finally, if you’re talking about the tools to run your general business that all organizations need regardless of their specific expertise, then it’s practice management you seek. 

If you need all three, as many or most firms do, consider an all-in-one solution like GrowPath as your foundation. GrowPath provides you with secure legal document management and really shines when it comes to case management: features like intelligent reminders and instant client communication help you stay on top of your cases and make your clients feel valued. When it comes to general business functions like client intake, lead conversion, employee tracking, and marketing analytics, it’s GrowPath to the rescue once again.

Choosing Wisely

So evaluate what you need for your firm based on your preferences, size, and budget. And be sure to make the right choice in adopting case management software that will decrease your stress and increase your profits. If you need help choosing the best legal case management software, no problem: we have a guide for that as well. 

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