Computers for the Very Small Firm

March 1, 1999

Small firms are under pressure from all sides at present – rising costs ofstaff and premises, rising insurance and indemnity fund premiums, never-endingchanges in requirements from the Legal Aid Board, the changes to civilproceedings being introduced by the Woolf reforms and demands to computerise, toname just a few.

With respect to computers, we are both often asked, from our respectivepoints of view, to help such firms with advice or information but it can oftenbe very difficult to suggest a suitable way forward. This is despite the factthat we both believe passionately in the need for, and importance of, smallfirms in the overall pattern of the provision of legal services.

In this article, which we are providing free of charge to anyone who requestsa copy as our own small contribution to the survival of such firms, we have puttogether the information in our files and collected our thoughts in an effort toassist.

Why is There a Problem?

Small firms do the same type of work as larger firms (or at least broadlysimilar), and therefore need much the same type of software to assist them,including accounts, time recording, management reporting, client database,marketing, word processing and also case management for whatever types of workthey do, including conveyancing, landlord and tenant, debt collection, personalinjury claims, family law and crime.

For each type of software, there is a cost of purchase, installation andsupport, as well as a learning curve for the people using the software. Quiteapart from the financial costs, there is a serious need for IT skills andexperience to be available in-house; it is simply not possible to purchasesystems (however expensive) and get them up and running without a major input oftime and skill from the people in the firm.

From the point of view of the suppliers, the need for time and effort toinstall the systems is often just as large as for a larger firm – but thesmall firm is very unlikely to be able to pay for this. Having declined toaccept installation and training assistance (because of the cost) the firm willinevitably be a major drain on the resources of the supplier, whether or notthey are actually paying for this support. Thus, many of the leading suppliersin the legal market are simply not interested in the small firm.

Another factor in the unwillingness of many suppliers to get involved is thatthe small firm is likely to have purchased the hardware from major retailoutlets (such as Dixon, PC World, Dell or Gateway) and then to expect thesoftware supplier to ‘get it all working’. Whilst, in theory, most types ofcomputer equipment sold these days will run together in a ‘mix and match’environment, in practice, it takes considerable skills to build a workingnetwork from assembled bits and pieces.

Three Solutions

There are three basic ways for a small firm to approach computerisation, andthe method to be chosen really depends on the level of skills and resources(including time and money) available in each individual firm:

  • If you have skills available to assess, purchase, assemble and develop individual components, you can choose the ‘mix and match’ way. This is also sometimes called the ‘best of breed’ approach but it must be stressed that this really does depend upon their being some form of in-house IT resource.
  • If you do not have these skills – which is the case of most High Street firms and almost all small firms – then you should choose the ‘total system’ from a single supplier approach. (You may also see this referred to as an ‘integrated solution’.)
  • Finally, there are a number of alternative solutions available that some firms should consider but which do not fit neatly into either of the other two categories.

Mix and Match

You will need to assemble items from most of the following groups ofproducts.

  • Accounts and time recording – some of the suppliers listed later in this article will sell basic software to cover these requirements for under £1,000. They will then provide installation and support services as you require, and are prepared to pay for, but will not necessarily take over all your problems, such as the integration of their software with third-party case management, word processing or forms systems.
  • Word processing – both Corel WordPerfect and Microsoft Word are widely used amongst law firms but if you are buying a new PC you will probably find it comes ready loaded with Microsoft Word. As most secretaries now also train on Word, this may be a relevant factor if you need to recruit staff.
  • Electronic legal forms from Laserform, Peapod (Printaform), Oyez or ProForma.
  • Case management either from your accounts system supplier or from one of the suppliers which provide relatively low cost ‘stand-alone’ types of case management, such as Laserform or Amicus Attorney.
  • PC hardware from some of the sources mentioned above.
  • Network cabling from a local cabling specialist.
  • Networking software – there are a number of alternatives but the most frequently encountered are Novell NetWare and Microsoft NT.

In some cases, small firms can find a local computer supplier who willprovide the hardware, cabling and networking software – effectively the‘infrastructure’ for the system. This can work quite well since these localsuppliers are often hardworking and relatively cheap. However, they are unlikelyto be able to assess and advise on the specialist legal software required andyou will be thrown back again on your own resources in assessing, purchasing andinstalling these systems.

The Total or Integrated Solution

If you do not have a high degree of IT skills within the firm, then your onlyviable option may be to purchase a complete system from one of the UK’sspecialist legal systems suppliers.

You will find a list of potential suppliers with experience of working withsmaller firms later in this article but it would still be a sensible precautionto ask for references from other small firms who are using the system concernedto confirm that the company concerned can really ‘deliver’ and also thatthey are the sort of people with whom you want to enter into a long-termbusiness relationship.

Alternative Solutions

There are also a number of alternatives to the outright purchase of a legalaccounts system.

  • Using a legal bookkeeping service, which processes your work on their computer systems and provides you with either regular reports or a computer terminal offering direct access to your records. You still retain the option of having your own IT systems to handle word processing and other legal applications, such as case management and legal forms, but without the overhead of running an accounts system. Four organisations currently offering legal accounts bureau services to smaller firms are Legal Bureau Services (tel: 0181 778 7335), Legal Accounting Services (tel: 0181 203 9335), Miles 33 Smart Alternative (tel: 01344 861133) and Quill PINpoint (tel: 01206 395650).
  • D-I-Y/Spreadsheets. Over the years a number of solicitors’ practices have enjoyed varying degrees of success with legal accounting systems they have developed in-house – Microsoft’s Access database software is the starting point for many of these ventures. Another option that can minimise the labour and tedium involved in preparing solicitors’ accounts manually is to use a spreadsheet program, such as Microsoft Excel (Excel comes ‘free’ with a lot of new PCs), which both simplifies the task of organising and adding up long columns of figures. Having said that, the D-I-Y approach is potentially very time-consuming and should only be considered by the computer literate.
  • Legal ‘organiser’ programs. These programs do not address the problem of solicitors’ accounts (these will still have to be prepared either manually or via a bureau) but can automate other aspects of practice management, including client and matter record keeping, document filing, time recording and case management, including diary maintenance and to-do list scheduling. Three products that fall into this category are Amicus Attorney from Gavel & Gown (tel: 01780 766661), LegalDocs from PerfectDocs (tel: 01271 42887) and Sage Timeslips (available from PC World).

Factors to Consider

For many firms, the choice between the ‘mix and match’ approach and atotal integrated solution will boil down to a simple matter of price. However itis essential that, when faced with such a decision, a firm does not createlonger-term problems for itself by opting for what, in the short term, appearsto be the cheaper solution.

For example, a stand-alone accounts system may address your immediatebookkeeping and practice management needs but will it be possible to expand thesystem at a later date by integrating it with a case management system? If theanswer is ‘no’, then the only option, at that later date, may be to jettisonthe original system and replace it with an integrated solution.

Although the total cost of an integrated system, purchased from a singlesupplier, may appear much greater than ‘shopping around’ for the elementsseparately, the software parts can usually be purchased on a module by modulebasis. For example, you could buy accounts this year, time recording the nextyear and then different case management modules (to handle different areas oflegal work) in the years to follow.

Another way to spread the cost is to use a leasing approach. One supplierquoted a three-user system (meaning three PCs running accounts, time recordingand basic ‘workflow’ software, together with word processing, at around £15,000;this could apparently be provided on a lease rental over four years at £390 amonth (and this is fully tax deductible).

It is therefore essential that any immediate IT purchasing project shouldalso reflect the firm’s longer-term practice development strategy and that thecosts should be seen in the context of that overall strategy.

The Suppliers

The following suppliers, who have all professed to being committed to meetingthe needs of smaller firms, are listed in alphabetical order and each entry isqualified by a few explanatory words.

Unless otherwise stated, the entry level price is for a single-user softwarelicence. Add VAT plus the cost of hardware to all budgets. There will also bethe costs of implementation and training (which can often be in excess of £400a day). Readers should also check for ongoing costs, such as hardware andsoftware maintenance charges (you cannot do without these).

Note also that not all the systems below are new ‘Windows’ systems. Forthe purposes of this article, we have also included older DOS-based systemswhich are often the cheapest of all.

C-Law Solicitors Systems (01548 857775) – very low cost stand-aloneaccounts and time recording system. Entry level price: £549.

Cognito Software (01363 775582) – integrated accounts and timerecording system. Can be linked with DPS case management software andCognito’s own trust and probate software. Entry level price for small firms:£1,500.

CPL (01758 613035) – low cost accounts and time recording system.Can be expanded to include case management and legal aid franchisingapplications. Entry level price: £1,100.

Edgebyte Computers Ltd (01253 899311) – integrated accounts and timerecording system. The system can also be linked to the company’s own casemanagement system. Entry level price: £995, which includes installation,training and three months’ support. A single user ‘starter pack’, whichincludes the hardware, can be obtained for around £2,000.

Irwin Associates (0171 237 6356) – the company produces the ultralow cost Virgo Accounts package. It is DOS-based but the entry level price isjust £99.

IT Accounting (01803 856566) – the company’s Cashier program isanother low cost accounts and time recording application. This can be integratedwith general purpose case management and legal aid franchising software. Entrylevel prices start at under £500.

James Strachan & Co (01983 812677) – the company produces thestand-alone Strongbox accounts and time recording system. Entry level price: £595.

JCS Computing Solutions (0121 355 6789) – the company’s LegalLedger suite now includes accounts, time recording, client/practice database andcase management software. Entry level price £1,700. A total ‘starting’solution (hardware and software for accounts, time recording and casemanagement) is around £5,000.

Laserform Law (01565 755154) – the company’s legal accounts andtime recording software can be integrated with an extensive range of electroniclegal forms and case management software. Entry level price £900.

LawPak Financial Services (01342 826 308) – there is a new Windowssystem available, based on the original DOS-based LawPak system, but now fullyrewritten using the Access database. The price for a single user system is £1,000with £350 for the first year’s maintenance and training is available (but notalways needed) at £150 a day.

Management Support Systems (MSS) (01252 371121) – the company’snew AlphaLAW-esprit system (replacing its older AlphaLAW Junior product whichwas sold to around 900 small firms) offers a powerful Euro-compliant accountsand practice management solution for smaller firms. The software can be expandedboth in size (to meet the needs of larger firms) and in scope, to encompass casemanagement applications. Entry level price: £895.

MicroTRIAL (01949 851109) – this small but long-established companyprovides accounts and time recording systems with around 65 users. Entry levelprice: £950. A total starting system, including hardware and a day ofinstallation and training, would cost around £2,500.

Mountain Software (01476 73718) – Mountain produce a comprehensiverange of integrated accounts, time recording, legal aid franchise and casemanagement software modules (including a criminal legal aid billing system).Mountain is one of the five ‘recognised’ products in this year’s LawSociety ‘Software Solutions’ guide for smaller firms. Entry level price: £2,500.A ‘starter’ system, including hardware, would cost around £4,000.

Peapod Solutions (018574 8288) + Practice Ltd (01432 351041)– the Osprey accounts and practice management system from Pracctice is one ofthe five ‘recognised’ products in this year’s Law Society ‘SoftwareSolutions’ guide for smaller firms. The product can also be intregrated withPeapod’s Printaform electronic legal forms and workflow software to createwhat the two company’s describe as a One Stop Solution to law firm officeautomation. Entry level price: around £3,000. Users are also required to takethe three-day training and implementation package for £1,800.

Perfect Software (01656 720071) – the company’s low cost PerfectBooks accounts and time recording software has had a lot of input from the SolePractitioners Group. There are already several hundred users and the companymakes a special selling point of being able to satisfy the legal aid franchisingrequirements. Entry level price:£575.

Professional Technology UK (0164 815517) – the company’s Seriatimand Quaestor accounts and practice management products can also be integratedwith case management software and, unusually, a costs drafting system. Entrylevel price: £598, however the company can also offer a pay-as-you-go dealbased on the number of live matters.

Quill Computer Systems (0161 236 2910) – the company’s newQuillennium accounts and practice management system is one of the five‘recognised’ products in this year’s Law Society ‘Software Solutions’guide for smaller firms. In addition, the company can supply a range of casemanagement applications, legal aid franchising and systems for criminalpractitioners. Entry level price: £5, (but this includes unlimited trainingplus first year software maintenance). There is also the PINpoint legal accountsbureau service mentioned earlier, with costs starting at £350 a month.

Solace Legal Systems (01780 764947) + Gavel & Gown (01780766661) – The Solace Millennium accounts and practice management software,running in conjunction with the Amicus Attorney case management system is one ofthe five ‘recognised’ solutions in this year’s Law Society ‘SoftwareSolutions’ guide for smaller firms. Entry level price: from £990 for Solaceplus £550 annual licence. Prices for Amicus Attorney start from around £400for a single user system.

Solicitors Own Software (SOS) (01225 448664) – The SOS WindowsAccounts system is one of the five ‘recognised’ products in this year’sLaw Society ‘Software Solutions’ guide for smaller firms. This widely usedsystem includes a number of interesting management information tools and, inaddition, can be seamlessly integrated with Solicitec’s extensive range ofcase management applications. Entry level price: £3,000 and at least threedays’ training is required, at £500 a day.

System One (01730 267000) – The company produces a low coststand-alone solicitors accounts and time recording system called NOMOS. Entrylevel price: £500.

Textsore (01823 698100) – The company produces a low coststand-alone solicitors accounts and optional time recording system calledSolledger. It can also be integrated with conveyancing and probate casemanagement software. Entry level price £695.

Note on Y2K Readiness

All the suppliers listed in this report state that the latest versions oftheir software are Year 2000 compliant – even the DOS-based products. (Despiteits age, DOS itself is a Y2K compliant operating system providing you usefour-digit date format, ie ‘1999’ instead of ‘99’.) However readers mustverify for themselves whether the older ‘legacy’ versions of these productsare compliant and it is good practice in any case to ask the supplier about Year2000 compliance.

Readers should also note that even where applications software – such as asolicitors accounts system – is compliant, there may still be millenniumbug-related problems lurking in the computer hardware (particularly the PC BIOS)and the operating system (particularly some of the older version of NovellNetWare).

Copyright 1999 Delia Venables & Legal Technology Insider. All rights reserved. The contents of this document may be copied and forwarded to other people providing the source is properly acknowledged.

Disclaimer: This article contains general information and personal opinions only. While every effort is made to ensure accuracy, no guarantee is expressed or implied as to the validity of the information and the authors cannot accept liability for any loss or damage which may arise from any errors or omissions. All trademarks and brand names are acknowledged.