I know a lot of people have never had to paint a floor, or even lay a cement floor, but I'm sure we can all imagine the task. Here is the question: Did you paint towards an exit - or did you paint yourself into a corner, far away from the exit?
Choosing your legal software vendor (LSV) is not as simple as seeing what it can do, and then signing on the dotted line.
No, these days you need to look at a number of issues, and one of them is that you don't paint yourself into a corner. Let's look at a few issues, each with a little explanation so that you can be better informed next time you choose software, OR, next time they change the EULA (End User License Agreement) - which they can do, and it is up to you to read them and either abide or abort!
"Phone a Friend"
This always amazes me, when looking at a new LSV, the very first thing you should do is call a good few colleagues and ask them for their opinion, the good and the bad. My advice, is don't call the ones they have on the proposal - those obviously will be more in favour of the LSV.
"F1" for help
The success of a LSV long term is the level of support they offer the user after the sale has been completed, and the promises of the sales person have long since been forgotten.
Start by calling their helpline, or call centre. I'm sure none of these vendors would mind a call to check the service levels. Once you have called the call centre, ask to be transferred to the head of the business unit. This will help you determine how accessible the responsible person will be if the proverbial hits the fan, and it will illustrate how many people have been put in place to block access to these people. A good company should be able to put you straight through, after first checking with the helpdesk supervisor.
Also check how many times the telephone rings on the other side (less than 3 rings is good)and how long you need to wait to get the service you are calling for.
"Big Brother" is watching
Call up the local Law Society, and ask them about the LSV, if not the LSSA, ask the banks, or auditors - ask somebody that oversees the vendor, but does not actually use the software.
"Back to School" is vital
Training from the LSV is vital, an absolute must. So much so that if you don't take the training, which most offer for free, don't bother using the software. Even if you think you already know the package, or you are self taught - do the training, there will be features you never even knew about.
A lot of vendors are currently offering retraining at no charge, take advantage of it while things are slower.
Note: Ask the vendor for a "Trainer evaluation" form to fill in once the training is completed; this helps them mould their training content. Also, it is important to know your capability once the training is completed, and a summary test at the end of the training is a very good idea. These should be emailed back to the partner at the office, and a copy to the delegate. If the products are downloadable off the web, make sure they have an active FAQ and tutorial - normally these are for simpler applications. Practice Management, Collections and Conveyancing need hands-on classroom style training.
Instant "Switch on"
When changing LSV, make sure the new vendor can import all of your current data into their system, just about all of them can now do this. A database is just structured information; different systems just store the information in different tables. (Over simplified for easy understanding - apologies to the database gurus.)
"Anything you can do, I can do better"
If a LSV sales person tells you that they have features that are missing in your current vendor package. Do yourself a great favour and call your current vendor after the presentation/sales call and ask them if they too have these great features, 9 times out of 10 they do, it is just that you have not subscribed to them, or you have not been told about them.
Also, if the LSV proposes that by using their system, you will be able to increase your revenue per month; ask yourself why your current software system cannot achieve the same thing, with a little customisation from the supplier. Phone you current supplier and ask them about their offerings. Do you service your car, or just replace it every time it needs attention.
"Just how connected are you?"
Is the licensing of the software dependent on connectivity to the internet? Ask them, "If the internet goes down at my office for a week or two, will we still be able to use your software?"
I believe that even though the vendor always owns the software, the onus should be on them to ensure that you have availability to the system whenever you choose to use the system - as that is what you pay for.
Some vendor systems have a licensing system that polls your system for information all the time, and should your connection to the internet be broken, your system cannot be used, as it has not been authenticated by their servers.
If your system was a SaaS application (Software As A Service), which means that your use the browser to access the application over the internet, then I would understand that you would need the internet to be able to work. But if it is a local application, installed on your own hard drive, then you should expect to be able to use it at any time.
Data we capture is ours, right???
Here is another question to ask your LSV, "May I have a sample of all the data your servers pull from our systems? And how often do you extract this data?"
Then there is the whole issue of who owns the data, is it the bank for bonds, is it the estate agents for transfers, collection clients for collection data etc. I do know one thing for sure, it is not owned by the LSV, or whoever they choose to share the information with.
When it goes pear shaped?
Let's say the installation fails, or after 2 years we realise we don't like the LSV anymore, is it easy to abandon ship? For systems that have been around for a number of years it is easier than the new offerings, as you can imagine they have had clients come and go and have been able to export and import data when needed.
Ask your new LSV, to give you a written escape plan, to go back to your current vendor if the new implementation fails. If they say you can re-capture the data after 3 months, think seriously about the risk you are taking. They should be able to export the data from the new system, ready for import into the old system, and you should be able to continue as it nothing had happened, other than losing a bit of time and money.
Pricing - can you afford the new system NOW!
A new software system for you office, should cost as much as you are prepared to spend on a "productivity tool" for the office. Some are more expensive than others, as they might do more than other systems. But, if you need extra billing promised by the system in the future to justify the new system - then I would imagine the pricing is too much. Ask yourself if you can afford the software NOW. Ask yourself how much the software will cost you over 5 years, and then compare them to other systems. Think about whether you and your partners are comfortable spending that amount of money on a system, especially after you extrapolate it over 5 years. It should not be for free, but it should be realistic and affordable.
Make sure the system does what you need
Check that you can change to another vendor easily.
Pricing should be realistic.
Service should be good.
Senior people should be available.
Your data should remain on your own systems.
Training should be good and FAQ should be available to all users.
Speak to colleagues and institutions, for their views.
Make sure that you are able to work on your systems, even when the internet is down. (Saas is excluded, obviously)