Best of Breed v One-box Solution

October 10, 2010

In marketing terms, ‘best of breed’ software is a clever description, in that it sounds instantly attractive: after all, what law firm doesn’t want to buy the ‘best’ software available?  But does a commitment to ‘best practice’ really mean making a commitment to ‘best of breed’ software, or is there an argument to say that a comprehensive one-box solution can actually deliver all of the most important functionality that a firm needs? 

Members of the LSSA can argue the point both ways. The LSSA aims to address issues like these so that law firms can gain the maximum benefit from their selected software solutions – whatever they happen to be. 

Taking an ‘all-in-one’ Approach 

Andrew Sherwin, Director at Quill Pinpoint, can certainly see the benefit of adopting a one-box solution – although he wonders whether such an option is really feasible: ‘There is no doubt a ‘one-box’ complete practice solution would be Utopia, but in reality there is an argument to say these systems don’t actually exist. ‘Firms inevitably have to make compromises – even with so-called one-box solutions – and in certain areas, these may be important ones.’ 

However, if a firm has done its research and decides to opt for a one-box solution, there are clearly some significant benefits to this approach, especially for mid-tier law firms with limited IT personnel. For example, not only does a one-box solution leave firms with just one key product to source, implement, train upon and maintain, but data entry is also simplified with this approach, as central records will typically feed into all areas of the application. In addition, all users will generally be operating from a single application desktop, even if some employees end up using more of the system than others. Likewise, according to some, reporting is also an area which is often much easier with a single solution, as opposed to trying to cross-report across several applications.  

Best of Breed: Key Considerations  

Conversely, the main benefit of a best of breed approach is that firms are buying specific expertise in each particular product area, and it may even be possible to source these solutions through a single supplier in order to simplify deployment. Regardless, it is essential for law firms who opt for the best in breed approach to look carefully at the integration capabilities on offer between the applications, and to have a clear understanding that the firm’s specific IT requirements will be met. 

‘It’s vital to make sure – right from the beginning – that your chosen vendors have a good track record of working together,’ according to Darren Gower, Marketing Manager at Eclipse Legal Systems. ‘Firms need to ask questions like: “do the various systems hang together well?” If so, then ‘best of breed’ can offer a luxury of choice if you have the internal expertise and structure to manage multiple supplier relationships effectively.’ 

According to David McNamara, Managing Director of Solicitors Own Software (SOS), despite the potential benefits, there are still some other pitfalls associated with the best of breed approach for firms to consider, including version compatibility (since firms may want to implement one supplier’s upgrade, and yet find that it isn’t yet compatible with other products that the firm is using), and reporting, as it can be more challenging (although not impossible) to provide timely reports across several applications and databases.: ‘It is probably fair to say that best of breed modules are likely to deliver more functionality to the end user than the equivalent module within a single solution. Therefore a firm would need to consider how critical or valuable that extra functionality would be in terms of improved efficiency and service delivery, in order to determine whether best of breed is the more appropriate route.’ 

Dominic Cullis, Managing Director at Easy Convey adds: ‘The requirements for conveyancing are different to other areas of practice. The Land Registry and HMRC have made significant progress towards electronic conveyancing and firms such as Easy Convey have worked closely with them to ensure that our products integrate seamlessly with any new services that are launched. Ten years ago, case management systems essentially automated letters, forms and other documents, whereas now these systems need to work closely with online services and to share information effectively, either directly using XML or via various web services.’ 

Integration Issues 

Integration can be a real headache. In some cases, the ability to avoid this complexity can make an easy-to-install one-box solution seem very attractive indeed – but is that reason enough to ditch a best-of-breed approach? 

‘Ease-of-installation is great, no doubt about that, and this is where the one-box approach makes a strong case,’ says Darren Gower. ‘However, if it’s at the expense of the varied functionality that best of breed can offer, then the firm has to make the judgement – does the convenience outweigh the slight lack of “perfect fit”? Generally speaking, if a firm doesn’t have strong in-house technical expertise and a good handle on managing multiple vendor relationships, then it may find that a one-box solution will provide the path of least resistance, and one that will suit the firm perfectly well.’ 

There is reason to be cautious with the word ‘integration’, however, as it tends to be used to cover a wide variety of scenarios, ranging from links to web sites to full-on data transfer or data sharing, according to Darren Baldwin, Software Development Manager at FWBS Lt: ‘If expectation levels are laid out clearly from the outset then there is no reason why different packages can’t work well together, ‘especially if the various providers have a history of their products being deployed together. And if there isn’t a history of one or more of the products working with another package, then it’s important to find out why. Is it technology constrained, a cloud application not integrating with a desktop, for example, or is it limited by the technologies used to develop it? If the applications are based on tried and tested platforms or open standards, then firms should be confident that a degree of integration will be possible, even if it’s not provided “out of the box”.’ 

‘Firms should also seek confirmation that the supplier welcomes and supports integration activities like these,’ adds David McNamara. ‘At some point, their help and support may very well be needed, and when that time comes, you need to be confident of your requests gaining the right reaction. Having said that, with modern applications built on platforms such as .Net/Web Services, integration is certainly becoming easier than it was even just a few years ago. Most suppliers – including SOS – now offer Application Programmer Interface (API) modules for their software, enabling law firms to integrate third party applications in a very safe, secure and reliable manner. ‘ 

‘There are many ways in which systems can be integrated, particularly with similar technologies being implemented by different software vendors,’ adds Dominic Cullis from Easy Convey. ‘In our experience, where a generic system is used for conveyancing, property and client details may need to be entered several times into various online systems. By comparison, a best-of-breed approach is more likely to have been integrated with these key online systems from the outset.’ 

The Customisation Question 

Whether a firm opts to go for a one-box solution – or decides that best of breed is the way to go – many would argue that customisations are inevitable anyway, once the users get involved. Once a firm begins heading down this path, does it really matter whether it started with a one-box solution or best of breed? 

‘In my opinion, customisation will probably end up being required equally, whether a firm is using a one-box solution or a mix of best-of-breed products,’ says David McNamara from SOS. ‘And, in either case, I think that the ability to customise software more readily and easily is going to be a key requirement going forward. As the legal landscape changes ahead of the introduction of ABS next year, I think all law firms will require far more agile solutions that can bend and flex to suit changing market conditions.’ 

‘Customisations are the way the firm expresses its individuality,’ adds Darren Baldwin. ‘If all firms worked in exactly the same way, then how would one stand out from the others? Having software that will mould to their changes in working practices will enable them to offer new products and services and not be constrained to innovate.’ 

Darren Gower agrees. ‘Any system worth its salt – regardless of whether it is a one-box solution of a collection of best-of-breed products – should offer a good level of customisation, A system that is not customisable will not get the right level of buy in. Forcing staff to work in a particular way might appear to be a good option on paper, but you will come up against the human factor, and you will end up having a hard time on your hands.’ 

Dominic Cullis adds: ‘Many one-box solutions require a significant amount of programming to tailor them to the specific requirements of each practice. Because best-of-breed solutions typically offer more limited, specialised functionality, however, they can normally be tailored by ordinary support staff within the practice, without the need for any specialist IT knowledge.’ 


Along with these other considerations, many firms will want to know about the cost implications of these two options, not only in terms of initial outlay, but also in terms of Return on Investment (ROI) and cost of ownership in the long run? As with many complicated questions, the answer seems to be: it depends. 

‘I would expect best of breed to be a more costly route generally, both at the outset and later on, based on the simple fact that it will involve several maintenance contracts, rather than one,’ adds David McNamara. ‘Having said that, with software-as-a-service (SaaS) gaining ground, then perhaps that may not apply in the future.’ 

‘Price is always very subjective: what’s cheap to one firm is expensive to another,’ says Quill Pinpoint’s Andrew Sherwin. ‘What is more interesting and perhaps more important is the ROI/Cost of ownership question. Firms in the past have often been challenged by the principles of Pareto’s law in as much as they would only really use 20% of their systems, with the other 80% remaining dormant. By choosing best of breed, however, these percentages should be reversed, and therefore should return a much higher ROI and – if correctly and remotely managed and supported – drastically reduce the cost of ownership as well.’ 

Dominic Cullis from Easy Convey agrees, adding: ‘On many occasions, we have found that the cost of tailoring a one-box solution to perform tasks that a best-of-breed product provides as part of its standard functionality often exceeds the total cost of the best-of-breed software.’ 

‘One-box could be considered the cost saving option if looking to replace the whole landscape; this is where some of the cloud-based solutions can look instantly appealing,’ adds Darren Baldwin. ‘What firms need to consider though is that, if some key parts of the system are performing satisfactorily, it might be better for the firm to simply remove the poorly performing parts and leave the areas of the system that do perform well. To do this, however, they will need to source a product that integrates well with what they already have in place.’ 

Does Size Matter? 

When making the decision between a one-box or best of breed approach, it seems that size does, indeed, matter. Bigger firms (with more users) will have to consider areas like performance, scalability and maintainability, and then decide if a dedicated product with experience in that particular arena is a safer bet. Conversely, smaller firms may benefit from having a more simple one-box solution, as it should keep down costs, and the ability to work with a single supplier will make implementation and maintenance easier. 

‘Smaller firms usually don’t employ any IT staff and therefore rely upon the services provided by their software supplier,’ according to Dominic Cullis from Easy Convey. ‘A best-of-breed application designed for purpose can normally be tailored by a secretary working within the firm, and is therefore ideal for the smaller “high-street” firm. There are, however, going to be compromises, no matter which option the law firm chooses. In our experience, the best option for a firm specialising primarily in residential conveyancing would be to opt for a best-of-breed conveyancing solution, and then use the generic case management capabilities often included with their legal accounts software for other areas of practice.’ 

‘The size of the firm will have a major part to play in this decision,’ according to Darren Baldwin from FWBS Ltd. ‘Smaller firms will worry less about high performance and scalability, and instead may need more help with the implementation and roll out, and will therefore want to keep things as simple as possible. As others have said, larger firms will have their own IT departments that can take over parts of the implementation, and so these issues may not be as important for them.’ 

Others feel that the issue is less black and white. For example, regardless of their size, firms will need to be sure of the level of management and organisational skills that they have in-house, and will also need to consider whether the partners can justify dedicating a salaried position (or positions) to managing these systems and relationships effectively. 

‘I do believe that size of firm is a factor at the moment, but only in terms of a psychological barrier which means that larger firms tend to be more receptive to a best of breed solution,’ says Andrew Sherwin. ‘This attitude is changing however as partners/fee earners from larger firms leave and open up much smaller niche firms, and bring their experience of best of breed with them.’ 

Training and Support  

When it comes to activities like training and support, common sense would suggest that it would be easier to get these services from a single software vendor than having to interact with multiple providers to get support and training for several different products – but is that always the case? 

‘With a one-box solution, you will have just one port of call – a single supplier – for your training and support requirements, that’s true,’ says Darren Gower from Eclipse Legal Systems. ‘However, that can be a good thing if, and only if, your chosen provider is competent in these areas. If not, you may find yourself paired with a system which you use for every area of work, but which is not actually as good as you would like, which means that all areas suffer.’ 

Quill Pinpoint’s Andrew Sherwin agrees. ‘The problem with relying on support from one company on a multitude of disciplines is that they often simply won’t have the answers you need,’ he says. ‘Support from a specialist, best-of-breed software vendor on a discipline they live and breathe is often much more valuable. It is also important to consider what “support” means, as this has changed over the years. In the past, support was simply “how do I….?”, whereas nowadays support is often “what should I…?” The first question is often easy to answer, but the second relies upon experience and understanding of the area being supported. This is where best of breed vendors shine and firms get a real advantage. After all, you wouldn’t go to a commercial lawyer for a probate case, or to a conveyancer for defence of a criminal speeding allegation.’ 

Choosing the  right  path

‘If you’re considering Best of Breed, you need to ask yourself: what’s the real reason? Will it benefit your fee earners and your bottom line, or are you just copying the larger firm down the road?’  says Darren Gower.  ‘Best of breed can bring great results and give you the best of all worlds, but managing the multiple projects and those multiple connections does take time, dedication, and resource. For most firms, a one- box solution will fit the bill perfectly well.’  

‘This kind of “all in one” solution certainly sounds tempting, but – if even if such a thing does exist – it would still need to be adaptable to fit with the way the law firm works’, adds Darren Baldwin from FWBS Ltd.  ‘In other words, the choice between a one-box solution and best of breed will ultimately depend on each firm’s particular situation and needs.’

Andrew Sherwin from Quill Pinpoint agrees.  ‘You can’t buy a car that does absolutely everything, so why would you expect that from a software solution?’ he adds.  ‘A seven-seater people carrier is a car, but a totally different proposition than a two-seater sports car, which means that consumers have to make certain key judgments and decisions about each before deciding which to purchase, based upon their individual needs. Law firms choosing between one-box solutions or best of breed are now doing the same thing, especially as practices become more specialised in different areas.  Instead of worrying about what everyone else in the market is doing, the firm should educate themselves about the pros and cons of each option, in relation to their unique circumstances.’

As well as being the LSSA Chair, Ian Wimbush is the CEO of Peapod LEGALOffice