I was asked the other day what a law firm should look for when choosing a legal accounting system. The answer wasn’t what I expected, although it was surprisingly logical when I thought about it. In South Africa, most legal accounting systems have been around for many years – so they are not only full-featured, they have also proven themselves over the test of time.
So the odds are that they will all have the accounting features a law firm needs. The reason I say “accounting features” is because some practice management systems also offer other functionality, such as FICA, CRM/contact management, debt collections, workflow/process, document management, diary, etc. So is one system better than the others?
It is safe to say that every legal accounting system on the market has some problem or other. It is just a fact of life. It doesn’t matter how big or expensive the system is, or how small and simplistic – ALL legal accounting systems – local and international – have some flaws. The industry is full of stories of law firms who couldn’t invoice for weeks because of a system failure, or where the firm’s accounting information had been corrupted, or where transactions simply went missing. Software is never perfect, and I am not just talking about legal accounting software. So given that legal accounting systems all have some failings, what should you look for in an accounting system?
Firstly, you should look for good customer service and support. Will you be able to get help when you need it? Will the support people know how to fix your problem? How easy are the support people to get hold of? What is their attitude? Without good customer support, no matter how wonderful your accounting software might be, you are going to be in for an unhappy experience.
Secondly, and closely linked to customer service, is responsiveness. If you have a problem, is it resolved speedily? If you encounter a bug, how long does your vendor take to fix it? Or do they simply fob you off saying it will be fixed in the next version? What if you want an enhancement? Does the software vendor listen to your needs, or do they not seem to care? Remember what I said above: All legal accounting systems have some problem or other, and all software will go wrong at some point. But it is how long the vendor takes to resolve the problem out that is most important.
Thirdly, you will want a system that is stable. It is acceptable if you have a glitch every now and then, but not if the system falls over a few times a day.
Then, you’ll also want a system that is easily maintained. If there is a version update, it should happen painlessly.
Lastly, the world trend is to rent the legal accounting software inclusive of all support services. This means you won’t have any nasty surprises if the system does give trouble, or if you need assistance. (Another little known fact is that most of the problems experienced with legal accounting software are as a result of user error, and not a failure of the accounting system.) The problem with billable support is that it discourages users to ask for help. So they waste time trying to resolve a problem where they could simply have phoned the vendor’s helpdesk for free assistance. The same applies to training: Firms invariably won’t train new staff or re-train existing staff on the accounting system because it is too expensive to do so. The result is that the users become less and less conversant with the system, ultimately costing more in support and downtime than the training would have cost in the first place.
So, if we summarise the above points, most accounting systems can do the job, but it is the level of customer service and responsiveness that is really important. So is attitude. And if you want to get the most out of your system, opt for an “all-in” pricing model and make sure that your users are comprehensively trained.