Legal Software; Stick or Twist? How to avoid a software change being too much of a gamble!

Published On: April 16, 2024

Hi I’m Alex Simons, I’ve been working in legal accounts since 2000, where I started with a small company called JD Legal Accounts which evolved into The Law Factory LLP. We provide legal cashiering services to legal practices across the UK.

During my time in this field, I have gone from basic data entry to running teams, office management, accounts reconstruction and problem solving. I now handle all new business coming through our doors assessing the accounts position with each firm to ensure we start off on the right foot and keep those books compliant!

During my 23 years I have worked on a lot of different pieces of software and overseen the migration of countless databases from one to another as software evolves. In this blog I am going to detail some of my experiences and advise on software and migrations from a cashier’s perspective.

First of all, the marketplace and how software is sold to law firms has changed completely. Back in 2000 when I first started, software was built primarily for the cashier. Lawyers would run their files on paper. All documents would either be posted or faxed and the most we had to do with it was pay the franking machine bill! Things have changed significantly in the last 20 years!

Now the software is built primarily for the lawyers themselves. The tech companies focus on the legal practice. In fairness to them, this isn’t a bad thing, but as cashiers we need to know how to work with it. It is important to get legal advisors to have that “digital first” mindset, so they increase efficiency and profitability as well as being able to keep things nice and secure and readily accessible. Information is fed into a case management system (CMS) by the fee earners and this directly correlates to everything we do as cashiers. For example, the more accurate their time recording, the more accurate the bill we eventually produce will be!

The key to this however is how the package is sold. Software sales that were previously aimed at legal cashiers, are now directed at the fee earners within the firm. Often the cashier is overlooked. It is therefore extremely important for you as a cashier to stand up and make yourself heard. If there is talk of a possible new piece of software, it is in my opinion, your duty as a cashier to research it as much as possible and determine whether it is right for the firm:

Ask initially:

  • What are we currently using, and what are the downsides with the current CMS?
  • Does the new software overcome the shortcomings of the existing software?
  • Is the new software right for the areas of work the firm undertakes? Legal aid for example.
  • What are the reviews like? Can I ask peers or get feedback from ILFM members?
  • What is the support and training like?
  • Can I get a full demonstration from someone at the tech company with legal accounts experience?
  • Are we going to have to implement significant alterations to our processes and will these alterations be an improvement?
  • Is the software compliant with our regulators?

It is also very important when considering software, to recommend that the firm considers more than one option. The legal market is flooded with CMS packages. Spend the time as a cashier researching which ones are designed for your firm’s area of law and how the accounting is dealt with. Just because a tech company says that their software does “x” does not mean that it is the best one for it. There could be another package that does it better. Get the demo’s and satisfy yourself that you are looking at the right ones, then you can determine whether the change is going to be better for both you and the legal practice staff.

Once you have done your demos you need to ask about migrations and then ongoing support:

  • Who does the migration? Do we have a specific point of contact who can guide us through the whole conversion including the office account and chart of accounts?
  • If the software is one which does outside integration to other packages like Xero/Quickbooks for the office account side, who is responsible for undertaking that migration?
  • How long does a migration take on average relative to the size of your firm?
  • What kind of migration is being done? Balances only or full data conversion?
  • What happens to the historical data?
  • How does the migration sign off work?
  • Do we have access to continued assistance post-migration in case of any issues?

The migration aspect is crucial to get right, especially the accounts because a botched migration can lead to significant misinformation showing on the books for weeks, months, even years, if not done correctly. As a cashier, you need to be confident that the tech company is looking after you and that when you sign off those accounts, you are satisfied you know where everything is.

My overarching advice with migrations is that they are NEVER “seamless”. There is always one issue or another that you will need to overcome. It is important as cashiers to remind management of that fact. Seamless migrations do not exist!

After you have done the migration, you then need to take a moment to get everything set up. I always say: “set up before start up”. Think back to your demo that you had with the sales team. That demo will be perfect. Everything will be enabled, the transactions will show perfectly, the shortcuts, dropdowns, links and outside integrations will all appear to work very well. This will not be the case when you get your software “out of the box!” During your demos you will need to think about what your firm needs enabling and setting up so that you can get what you pay for and maximise the benefits from the CMS:

  • Most important is to always check your VAT registration type is accurate. Before you post anything ensure this is right. It is regularly missed during migrations and sign offs. Please satisfy yourself it is correct.
  • Auto-text/dropdown boxes/autofill fields. These can save hours of typing, make sure you get them set up. They will also help with ledger narrative consistency.
  • Bill templates: Spend time speaking to your provider and ensure that the one for the firm is uploaded correctly and that it works properly before you start using it. Do testers of all types of bill, VATABLE, Non-VATABLE, Disbursements etc. Try to break it. If it does break, speak to the company and ask for a fix. If it doesn’t at least you know you tested it properly.
  • Agree how staff are going to use the software. Are they going to use requisitions/e-chits? Set up everything that the legal practice staff are going to use to communicate with you to keep things on-system.
  • Determine what outside integrations are going to be used and ensure that they work properly. Then make sure that everyone who needs to use them is trained properly. For example, many software companies use integrations for search companies which, when used by the fee-earner, places accounting entries onto the ledgers. This can be hugely beneficial but only if everyone is using it properly.
  • Check your office integration works properly and set up things like your bank feeds and transaction rules. Certain outside office accounting software such as Xero and Quickbooks allow the user to set rules for transactions hitting the office account. Set them up before starting so that from the beginning, the reconciliations are a lot faster for you.
  • Speak to fee earners and see if there are any other aspects of the software that can be set up and used to help them. For example: workflows, key dates and the integration with Microsoft Office apps so that documents are saved automatically and time recorded.

Although a lot of the above seems like it is outside of our remit as cashiers, in my experience it tends to fall on us to get it organised. Despite software companies aiming at lawyers and legal practice for their sales, when it comes to getting everything set up and working properly, the firm often expects that kind of thing to still be undertaken by the accounts department.

Whilst that may seem a difficult pill to swallow, it is in our interests as cashiers to ensure that the set-up is done correctly because everything from legal practice eventually flows to us. The more efficient it is at the top, the easier it ends up being for us. Also, if we like the software and believe it is in the best interests of the firm to continue using it, it is important that everyone is pulling in the same direction.

The next aspect is training. Please ensure you get the training and ensure that everyone else gets it too! There is often the assumption from legal software providers that the accounts team don’t really need training, they know what they are doing. As flattering as that may be, it is imperative that legal cashiers get a significant amount of training time. You need to understand how everything works. You need to ensure you are content with the system’s double entry bookkeeping. You need to learn all the postings step by step, the reconciliations, VAT, reports, COFA reports and how everything is put together. It is the height of importance that the cashier knows how a system behaves and treats each transaction so that when something goes wrong it can be rectified quickly.

My last piece of advice is to provide feedback and ask questions. Ask legal practice staff how they are finding it. Do follow ups and see if they are using it the way it was set up and intended. See if there is anything you can do to help if not. Make notes about your own usage and create a list of queries to raise with the legal software provider. Speak to other ILFM members and ask them for their comments. The better you understand how your new software behaves, the more likely you are to make the most of its features.

So, a few final reminders from me:

  • Make yourself heard and get involved with the process of change!
  • Do your research!
  • There is no such thing as “seamless!”
  • Set up before start up!
  • Get the training!
  • Ask the questions!

I hope this software blog has been useful and helps members of the ILFM. The ILFM is a great organisation that I am grateful to become more involved with. The members and the management are very engaging. The information provided is always of a high quality and very informative. I hope this blog goes some way to add to that.

Alex Simons MAAT
Outsourced Accounts & New Business Manager
The Law Factory LLP