New Windows Accounts Systems

April 30, 1998

This article is a version of one of the 1998 series of Nuggetswhich she sells (see advertisement on p 33 of the Magazine). Delia also writesthe Guide to the Internet for Lawyers and the Internet Newsletterfor Lawyers. She can be contacted on 01273 472424 or at

All suppliers need to rewrite their systems every few years ifthey are to keep up with their rivals. However, suddenly, everyone isdoing it – totally rewriting their systems in the new Windows languages andarchitectures. Why? and What difference will it make to the user?

Why is it Necessary?

In terms of just ‘keeping the accounts’, the existing systems from themain suppliers do the job perfectly well. Indeed, the present generation ofcharacter based systems, where the user types in the transactions in a dataprocessing mode, are very efficient and many cashiers view the mouse as acreature from outer space, getting in the way of real work.

However, the limitation of these older systems comes from the fact that theydo not integrate well with word processing, case management and practicemanagement – in other words, that the ‘back office’ systems do not integratewell with the ‘front office’ parts. This integration can only take placewithin the new types of database and architectures characterised by the generalphrase ‘Windows systems’. With these types of systems, the name and addressof a client, say, is immediately available to the word processing programwhereas in older systems they were totally separate.

Microsoft’s Central Influence

Since the operating system used by nearly all PCs these days is MicrosoftWindows in one of its versions, Microsoft holds a leading position in settingthe standards for all new program development. Thus, Microsoft Word has beengaining ground over Word Perfect; Microsoft NT (the networking software) hasbeen gaining ground over Novell; Microsoft databases (Access and SQL) have beengaining ground over various competitors, and Internet Explorer has been gainingground over Netscape.

Whilst these other products are often just as good as the Microsoft ones,developers are very tempted by the ‘all Microsoft’ development path. It justmakes life easier for them, and they are less likely to encounter unexpectedhazards in the integration of the products, along the way. Most suppliers arenow developing the Microsoft way. The new programs may be described as ‘thenew Windows version’, or ‘the new 32 bit version’ or ‘the new NTversion’ or ‘the new client/server version’ but they all mean broadly thesame thing – Microsoft.

Some Points of Explanation

  • 32 bit architecture. Computers manage data in ‘chunks’ of either 8 bits at a time (early PCs prior to the Intel 286 processor), or 16 bits (most current systems) or 32 bits (Windows NT, both as a PC operating system and as the networking software). Windows 95 is a hybrid system in that it deals with data in both 16 and 32 bits, for various of its internal processors. The key point about the 32 bit architecture is that Microsoft’s current generation of systems, and NT in particular, use 32 bits for their processing. Basically ‘more bits is faster’.
  • ‘Open Data Base Connectivity’ (ODBC). This is an important standard for the structure of databases so that they can be accessed by other programs in a pre-defined way and it provides for data interchangeability between databases and programs. This means that (in theory) you could change the database holding the core of a firm’s data without changing the programs which use this data – or vice versa. This concept has yet to prove itself in real life, however; I have not yet found any such interchangeability actually working in the legal systems market, certainly not between suppliers (as distinct from one particular supplier changing the database used for its own systems, for example, between Access and SQL Server, see below).
  • PC-based databases versus server-based databases. The database itself sits on the file server in any case but the way it is accessed differs. In the former case, the PC reads chunks of the database into its own memory and carries out the searching there. In the latter case, the PC generates a ‘Query’ which is sent to the server and the server itself carries out the search (SQL means Server Based Query, generally pronounced ‘Sequel’). Within the Microsoft stable, Access is the PC-based product (cheap) but is generally considered to be suitable only for systems of up to about 20 users, possibly fewer. Microsoft SQL (Sequel) Server is the server-based product. This requires a server licence and then a number of user licences for the PCs on the system; it is more expensive, but is suitable for larger systems. Generally, larger systems – say 10 or more active users – would have a faster response with Sequel Server than with Access, but exactly where it is necessary to make the change is not always clear.
  • Visual Basic and C++. These are languages, sometimes also referred to as Object Oriented Programming Languages (OOPS), which enable Windows-like structures to be created with relatively little effort. For example, the programmer defines a ‘Window’ and it automatically comes with scroll bars and menus in the manner to which the user is accustomed.
  • Other Languages for Windows. Non-Microsoft databases and development languages which produce Windows systems are also in use, including Progress, Visual FoxPro, Sybase, and Delphi. In other words, these products produce Windows systems although the development languages are not themselves Microsoft products.

The Route to Windows

One of the rather interesting things about the present series of developmentsfrom all the suppliers is that you cannot always tell exactly where they are onthis development path. As long as they have a ‘front end’ (often known asFee-earner Desktop) which operates under Windows, you may not know what is goingon underneath. For example, a fee-earner’s request for the matter balance mayinvolve the Windows program going off to an old Cobol accounts program, creatinga query in Cobol ‘on the fly’, setting off the Cobol program to provide theanswer, taking the answer away from the Cobol program and presenting it back onthe user’s screen in ‘Windows’ style. With the massive processing power ofthe present generation of PCs and servers, this can all happen in a second ortwo, and the user is none the wiser.

Several suppliers have started on their new system path by developing a newclient and matter database with the new techniques, complete with a newFee-earner Desktop program. This will allow the fee-earner to make enquiries onclients or matters, input time on the screen, create a bill and manage theworkload (including document creation and processing). This looks and feels likea Windows system. The actual accounts system ‘core’ is however, left in theold form until time, energy and money is available to redevelop it.

Links with the Year 2000 Problem

All this is happening at the same time as suppliers are anxiously examining,and amending, their programs in order to comply with the Year 2000. Somesuppliers have also been encouraged to ‘get on’ with the new systems by thefeeling that they could thereby avoid the effort of making their old systemsYear 2000 compliant.

However, there is a danger here. Since new systems always take muchlonger to develop than the developers expect, and since the first ‘betatest’ implementations can also take longer than expected, the available periodbetween having the new systems fully available and the end of 1999 is gettingrather small. In terms of timing the implementation of a new system, this isdefinitely something that the potential user should watch out for. It could bedesirable to adopt an ‘old’ system, as long as it is guaranteed to be Year2000 Compliant, and leave the full Window system until after 2000.

Should You Change Your Supplier?

You will get a different answer to this question, depending on whom you ask!My own answer, and assuming that you have at present a system from one of thereputable and viable suppliers and that you have been basically happy with thatsupplier, is ‘stay with the same supplier’.

It is a very heavy burden for a firm (ie you) to research the market, attenddemonstrations, read through several massive proposals and then come to areasoned decision – and that is before you even start on the actual conversionprocess. The process of converting past data electronically (difficult,expensive and sometimes impossible) or by hand, installing the actual systemswithout losing weeks of work in the middle and retraining everybody is aconsiderable drain on managerial effort and time which could probably be betterspent elsewhere.

In addition to these general points, there is a particular consideration overthe next two years, as Year 2000 approaches and (we hope) passes without seriousincident. The whole computer industry is going to be very anxious and probablybad tempered over this period and you really do not need any problems which youcould avoid.

Another significant point is that your present supplier will feel at leastsome moral obligation to you, to ensure that you survive Year 2000 intact; a newsupplier will have no such feelings and will expect any obligation, moral orotherwise, to start from ‘now’.

Costs of the New Systems

Many of the suppliers are offering the new versions of accounts and clientdatabase programs free or nearly free to current users under the terms of themaintenance agreement. This is, of course, good news for users, from thesuppliers’ point of view, it helps them to keep their current users fromstraying elsewhere.

There will, however, be costs associated with the new programs since,inevitably, new hardware will be required and new programs, like fee-earnerdesktop and case management, will be charged as new software (which of coursethey are). There will also be new training activities to be undergone andpossibly some conversion to the new formats will be necessary.

A hidden cost (not far beneath the surface) relates to every PC on thenetwork with which you are expecting to be able to access the new clientdatabase and the new accounts system – every one will have to be a good, modern,Windows PC. Older DOS based PCs will not be able to ‘see’ the new systems atall, and older Windows PCs, certainly 486s but also including Pentiums of lessthan say 120 MHz, will just be too slow.

In other words, the replacement of your central software effectively impliesreplacing much, if not all, of your existing hardware. This is the bad news.

Where They Are Now

Here is a short description of some of the main legal suppliers, with myunderstanding of ‘where they are now’. Please note that these comments arebased on my discussions with the suppliers and I could always have misunderstoodwhat they told me. It is also the case that the picture changes all the time. Ifit is important to you to know exactly where a particular supplier is in termsof the new development, I do ask you to check this with the supplier directly.

Access. There is a good new database program with fee-earner moduleswritten in a relational database system called Sybase SQL., but the accountsmodule is still ‘character based’, ie not Windows (still written in Cobol).This will be replaced but over the next year or 18 months. (The present accountssystem is apparently Year 2000 compliant). The new case management software,which integrates with the client database, is due for release shortly.

Aim. The new Windows version of its software is currently being‘beta tested’ in a small number of firms. It will run primarily under NT andthe present information is that the case management has only (so far) beendeveloped for Microsoft Word and is designed to run with NT rather than Novell.

Avenue. There are some excellent fee-earner desktop systems availableas well as new client database and case management software. The accounts systemis still in Cobol (character based) but will be replaced at some point. In themeantime, I believe it to be Year 2000 compliant.

Axxia was quite early into the previous generation of software, with4th generation languages and a relational database, and then added fee-earnerdesktop and case management ‘front ends’ in Windows. The new ‘core’software, which will be NT based, is being developed and is apparently due inthe Autumn but no dates are being given at present.

Linetime already has a series of Windows fee-earner modules calledFeeStyle and I believe that the accounts part of the system for Windows is underdevelopment.

Miles 33 has rewritten its software in Windows under the name ofPrecedent.

Mountain is rewriting all its systems in new Windows 32-bitarchitectures, using development software called Visual FoxPro. These have beenrolled out in stages, the client and matter database, with document productionand case management, being available now and the accounts software currentlyinstalled in the first few firms but not yet, I think, on general release.

MSS . There are already Windows based fee-earner modules and I believethat the accounts modules are currently being redeveloped.

Norwe l got a little behind in the mid-nineties but has put a lot ofeffort into new software over the last couple of years. Much of the system hasbeen rewritten in Visual Basic. The accounts and data input/management part ofthe system (Practice Management System) is still character-based at presentalthough this is now under development in Windows as well.

Paragon. A company called Legato, based on key developer Dave Webber,has developed a set of new systems called Paragon which are fully Windows-based.

Peapod . Relatively new on the legal accounts scene, Peapod hasdesigned a suite of new and integrated Windows-based modules for the smallerfirm.

Pilgrim, the major Scottish supplier with designs on the Englishmarket, was very early into the ‘Microsoft only’ development mode. Their newsystems are now, I believe, available, although there are still relatively fewusers of the new software in England.

Quill’s new software, called Quillennium, is just about to have thefirst sections of their system (the accounts part) installed in the first firmas part of the beta testing. The rest of the system will follow.

Solace has already developed their database and the accounts softwarewhich is now installed in the first users. However, the time modules will takeanother couple of months and the fee-earner desktop modules five or six months.

SOS was an early Windows-convert and I believe that the systems arenow all Windows-based as are at least most of the case management packages whichlink with them (from Solicitec). They are further ahead than most suppliers.

TFB kept the wraps on their new systems throughout the developmentperiod and then announced, in late 1997, that their new systems were just aboutto be made available. The first users are currently being installed for betatesting.

Videss was an early convert to the Windows route and has alreadyrewritten all of its systems in Windows. There are around 80 users alreadyinstalled of which some 30 are NT systems.