Practice Tips: Integrated accounting and case management systems

David J. Bilinsky, Practice Management Advisor

I am often asked to recommend a “good, simple and cheap accounting system.” I tell people there are lots of programs that fit this description. But why go with a simple accounting system when, for a few dollars more, you can get an integrated accounting and case management system that will do so much more than just balance your books.

The difference can be compared to acquiring an “econo-box” car that simply gets you to and fro and a vehicle with a built-in GPS that allows you to select your destination, gives you real-time information and then tells you how to get there.

A typical “good, simple and cheap accounting system” costs about $400. But it does not provide you with trust accounting or any specific legal practice management features.

Contrast this with an integrated accounting and case management program and you will quickly see the difference. In addition to “good, simple and cheap” accounting, these types of programs include calendering, contact management, document management, conflict searches and a host of other utilities that provide significant added value.

Many equally good integrated accounting and practice management software packages are available: PCLaw, LawStream, SmartWeal, Tabs III + PracticeMaster, ProLaw and Brief Accounting are among the most popular. They cost a bit more than a simple accounting system — PCLaw is about $750 and the cost increases as you add users — but for a solo or small firm practitioner the cost is quickly recovered through added management applications.

An integrated accounting and case management package will perform all the traditional functions of a typical accounting program, such as preparing reports and balance sheets. But it can also help you monitor and achieve your financial goals the same way a GPS guides you to your desired destination.

For example, if you set an annual billable hour goal, your system can determine the weekly and daily billable time required to attain that goal then calculate your actual time logged and provide you with feedback so you know if you are on track.

Furthermore, an integrated system will allow you to create a budget and then track your actual expenses and income against the budget. This allows you to see if you are running your practice within the financial constraints you set for yourself.

You can also monitor work in progress on an individual file to ensure you don’t exceed any billing limits you and your client have agreed on. This allows you to take early action before a file becomes a problem.

Another feature is that you can set an annual net income target and use the program’s financial reporting features to give yourself real-time feedback on how close you are to attaining your goal.

If you have set a goal to open a certain number of files in a specific practice area, a case management package can also be used to track your progress and to provide feedback. In addition, you can set quality of service standards, such as responding to all telephone calls within 24 hours, and use the program to ensure you meet your targets.

These days, the additional features and capabilities of true integrated legal financial and case management systems outweigh the small cost differential as compared to basic accounting systems. Once you have tried them they will win over your heart and soul by helping you attain your goals.