software_devEvery now and then I hear about a law firm that decided to develop its own practice or case management software. In nearly all cases, the project has failed, but not before costing the firm a few million Rand. So just what makes a law firm get into software development?

One reason is that the off the shelf software that they are using doesn’t appear to meet their needs. I say “appear” because these days, legal software it totally customizable, and will meet the needs of virtually any law practice.  So it is most often a case of the law firm not knowing what their existing software is capable of, and not taking the time to find out.

It may also happen if one of the partners at the firm is quite tech-savvy, and likes the idea of developing a bespoke “just for us” software package.  It could also be because the firm sees an opportunity to market their product in competition to the existing software vendors.

So what will you need to develop your own practice or case management software?  Firstly, you’ll need a few million Rand, since software development is expensive. Remember that professional software is never complete, so you’ll need to keep your developers on the payroll for ever. You’ll also need to budget for the fact that your tech-savvy partner won’t be writing any fees for two years while he or she is overseeing the development of the new system. And it won’t just be the tech-savvy partner who is affected, since software development generally requires input from most of the partners in the firm.

Something else to bear in mind is that having a single developer for your system is quite a risk, firstly because if that person leaves your employ, it is very difficult for a new developer to pick up where they left off, and secondly, because after a while the developer might become greedy, and hold you to ransom for a much higher salary. It is common knowledge that as a developer becomes more experienced, they become increasingly attractive to the corporate market – and you can bet that your developer will be well aware of that fact.

Another common mistake is that firms believe they can hire a junior developer at a much lower salary. The fact is that you get what you pay for, and in today’s specialized world, it is unlikely that you will find a single developer who has the database skills, the web design skills, the user-interface skills and the development experience you will need to put the project together.

Sadly, the bad news doesn’t stop there.  Software development is a bit like climbing a mountain. Just when you think you’ve reached the top, you notice that there is another ascent ahead. Then another, and another. Unlike the mountain, with software, there is always another ascent ahead. It never stops!

“It can’t be that bad,” I hear you say. “After all, other people have done it before.” And you’d be partly correct.  Your chances of success will depend on how sophisticated your project is, and whether or not it is intended to be sold to other users.  For example, you might want to develop a simple Will generation programme, and with some document assembly software you could do this quickly and easily.  But if you are planning on developing a full-on legal accounting system, the odds are stacked against you. In fact, if you look at the legal accounting systems available on the market today, you’ll realize that they have all been around a long time. Twenty years ago, software development was simpler, clients expected less from a software programme, and competition was less fierce. So it was possible to develop a major software programme over a period of 5-10 years.

If one were able to establish what the various law firm software packages available in South Africa today had cost to develop, you’d be staggered by the answer. In nearly every case, the cost of development will run into many millions of Rand. This is because serious vendors will employ more than one developer on a project, and the product will be refined over a period of years. Developers will also be more senior/experienced, and thus more expensive.  Also, the software needs to be tested each time a new version is released, and it needs technical documentation, which also costs money.

So don’t underestimate the cost of developing bespoke software for your firm. And if you’re not convinced that it can be as bad as the picture I have painted here, ask around, and you’ll soon uncover some horror stories of firms in South Africa that have invested a lot of money attempting their own development. Software development is difficult – even for the professional software development houses. In conclusion, my advice to you is that if one of the tech-savvy partners suggests that your firm should develop its own case or practice management software, suggest they leave the firm and begin a software house of their own.  You’ll save a fortune!

Contributed by:
Chris Pearson
AJS Group of Companies


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

5 − three =