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Hannah Gannagé-Stewart

Deputy Editor, Solicitors Journal

The shape of software

The shape of software


Stephen Brown considers the pros and cons of best-of-breed, integrated and build-your own software solutions

IT software is arguably the backbone of business today, particularly for law firms. Off the shelf systems commonly offer a comprehensive IT solution designed to enhance firms’ specific operational and client service efficiencies, but what’s the case for having customised software built to exactly match the nuances of the firm; or indeed, building your own?

This article focuses first on the current software application architecture of law firms; and second, the changes being driven by the cloud. This reflects today’s tech environment which is changing at a phenomenal rate.

To begin with, let’s have clear definitions of the main types of software solutions:

  • Best-of-breed – Deemed to provide the best functionality, service, support and application on the market to meet a specific need, eg time recording. Each product will generally have its own supplier.
  • Integrated software – Meets the needs of multiple requirements for a firm, eg practice, case and document management and time recording. There will be one vendor for sale and maintenance payments; and multiple departments for specific components of the product, each with service, support and maintenance provisions.
  • Build-your-own – When a law firm builds its own proprietary software in-house and is the sole provider of support and maintenance.

It’s important to consider the pros and cons for each because knowing the good, the bad and the ugly will help you understand which option is right for your firm.

Best of breed

The provision of a deep level of functionality for a specific area of the firm’s management and operation is the key feature.

Best-of-breed systems can be customised to meet a firm’s needs without paying for extras it doesn’t need or want. All of the expertise, focus, research and development (R&D) and budget goes into delivering an application that has a sole purpose.

Importantly, it delivers a specific solution for a specific problem which is deemed the best in the field; offers flexibility, customisation and with a greater depth of functionality than generally found in a competing integrated solution.

And the cons? Best-of-breed software tends to have a higher cost of integration because generally it will need to consume or provide data to other systems and solutions. While many consider this to be a long-term investment and worth the additional expenditure, the costs can look intimidating.

These integrations can also limit or delay future upgrade options as the firm may have to wait for other products to support new versions of a particular solution.

However, any additional cost is offset by increased functionality leading to a greater return on investment or benefits. A best-of-breed strategy can allow a firm to provide an overall technology solution that exceeds an all-in-one system.

Integrated software

Integrated software deals with both a law firm’s front and back office, under a single software solution umbrella that should provide a consistent application interface and way of working.

Managing data and ensuring a single source should be easier as all parts of the firm should be looking at the same data, eg. the client records.

An integrated all-in-one software solution can provide a ‘one-stop shopping experience’. Typically, they are designed with a single user interface providing consistency across modules, which can expedite the learning curve and amount of user-training for efficient operation.

Most all-in-one solutions have tightly maintained integration points. Switching between modules, client, contacts, documents can appear relatively seamless to a user.

It can also provide cost savings because the cost of purchasing separate solutions may be higher overall with the additional associated training and maintenance costs.

But the reality is no software is fully integrated with even the most comprehensive solutions needed to integrate with MS Office, form providers and web gateways.

Some integrated software tools may be able to perform a range of functions, but the trade off is that it may not deliver the full range of functionality in some aspects like mobile and artificial intelligence, or be able to cope with extremely large data sets because of its reduced capabilities and functionality.

There’s also the increased impact of the inevitable end of life characteristic of an integrated software solution. Once an end of life date [see article in the August 2019 issue] has been identified there may be opportunity to purchase another up-to-date integrated solution or separate solutions.

Any migration requires a change for the whole firm rather than just a specific department or function with the firm.

Build your own

Self-build houses often run over budget; kit cars are left sitting in garages half-built. In

the same way, building your own software can look comparatively easy and ‘cheap’ but the hidden costs paint a different picture.

From experience, I know this is an area requiring expertise, knowledge and experience of analysis, code control, design principles, upgrades, bugs, security and support, etc.

That’s before you get into the detail of documentation, project management and coding principles.

Speaker, author and legal commentator Tim B Corcoran is especially forthright in his views on whether law firms should build their own software systems and says law firms should never develop their own software.

Not only is it costly but build-your-own software is likely to involve a firm’s own IT people. But not those necessarily expert in gathering and translating business requirements into tech specs or, importantly, tackling all aspects of coding.

Creating an entire software solution requires immense skill and must be followed by user testing, training users and (inevitably) fixing bugs on release.

Lawyers should stay focused, stick to their day job and outsource the firm’s IT solutions to a dedicated specialist software vendor with the relevant experience, knowledge and skills.

Horses for courses

Choosing the most relevant and best software is a case of ‘horses for courses’. The choice must be made wisely and questions you should ask include:

  • Will the built solution offer a competitive advantage?
  • Can we build it?
  • Can we build it for less money?
  • Can we build it fast enough?
  • Is building this solution the only way to address our requirements?
  • Is the solution based on products on our technology roadmap?
  • Is this the best use of our internal IT resource?
  • Are we willing to accept the risks involved in building it ourselves?
  • Can we provide adequate support and upgrades after implementation?
  • Will this differentiate us from our competitors?
  • What are the firm’s challenges, today and tomorrow?

In the same way that consumers use apps for banking, shopping and booking holidays, etc. there are individual apps for different aspects of the legal journey. This is significant for law firms, as these buying habits must inform whether to select best-of-breed, integrated, or build your own software systems.

Also, make sure you identify the tech drivers in your firm; and address and consider compliance and the regulators. One important point to note is that best-of- breed solutions can become ‘integrated’ by acquisition.

For example, Thompson Reuters –which acquired HighQ and IntApp which most recently acquired OnePlace and, historically, Rekoop – recently announced it will integrate some functionality of the solutions within its own product suite, or keep them as standalone products with the service and maintenance point of contacts diverted to the umbrella company.

Your plan to succeed

Consider the mantra ‘strategy first, software second’. As with most things in life, research and understanding is key. The firm’s strategy is what informs and drives its IT strategy and underpins the selection of the right software system that supports and enables this.

So – consider all the options to establish which software has the best fit with the operation, services and culture of the firm and its short- and long-term plans.

Identify precisely what the software will have to do, the available budget and, importantly, what IT support the system will need your firm to have once it goes live.

Stephen Brown is a consultant at Lights-On Consulting and IT adviser and consultant to Lodders