A simple matter-manager for a small law firm
August 26, 2008 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone suggest a good, relatively simple open-source or low-cost file/client management program suitable for use by a small law firm? The software should be able to schedule/calendar, manage documents, track tasks/to-dos, and associate all of these things according to particular clients/matters. Something that syncs between machines is a definite plus, as is something that isn't a resource hog. We manage the accounting side separately, so that needn't be a component.

I'm the newest addition to a small law firm that is woefully behind the curve technologically, and we are drowning in paper. Scheduling and file management would benefit tremendously from a computerized solution. Because we're a small firm, the big-ticket commercial software options just aren't realistic (and, frankly, from what I've seen of these programs, I would highly resent paying the high fees for their use). The lawyers here are unusually intimidated by computers and software, and so a solution that doesn't involve weeks of training seminars to use would be ideal.

Specifically, we manage our files according to client and matter. The software wouldn't have to track too much detail about the clients (although that would be nice), but we would like to be able to collect things like documents, scans, emails, calendar items, and tasks according to particular matters (perhaps by tagging them). I've read a few things about Evolution as a MS Outlook alternative, but I'm not sure that would be appropriate. Perhaps I'm wrong?

Any suggestions will be most gratefully appreciated. Thanks in advance.
posted by yeliabmit to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
frankly, from what I've seen of these programs, I would highly resent paying the high fees for their use

Speaking as a programmer, the irony of reading this statement from a lawyer is pretty amazing.

If your primary driver is cheap cheap cheap, then yeah, you could set up a server with SUSE/Ubuntu, and build Evolution server on it, and run Evolution clients on people's desktops. But who's gonna run it? More importantly, who are you going to call in the middle of the night because some funky thing happened to the server while a partner is finishing a brief due the next morning? A big portion of the large fees associated with business software is the assurance that it works, and that you're covered in emergencies.

I'd also consider, if you're dead set on going down this route, separating your doc management from your task/contact/project management software- they're two distinct specialties, and I imagine you need to do a lot of tagging and searching of your documents that groupware like Evolution isn't very good at (by design).
posted by mkultra at 10:39 AM on August 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you use Macs, you may want check out the Macs in Law Offices (MILO) mailing list.
posted by GarageWine at 10:41 AM on August 26, 2008

yeliabmit: Can anyone suggest a good, relatively simple open-source or low-cost file/client management program suitable for use by a small law firm?

Just as a side-note, but "open-source" doesn't mean "free." It means people who buy or somehow acquire the software are allowed to do whatever they want with it, including looking at and manipulating the source-code.

More to the point: open-source is fantastic, and it's opened up a lot of horizons. But you should know how it's worked, business-wise. Open-source has been financially rewarding because a lot of companies have begun to understand the model it works on: free for the masses, which include many programmers and other geeks who can give the authors of the program good feedback; and available for a fee commercially or for companies that want more stability or optimization. It's different being a business, and the stability that some businesses demand (yours does, I think) sometimes requires paying a bit for it.

That said, this part of what you say:

... a small law firm that is woefully behind the curve technologically...

is actually fantastic, from a certain viewpoint. I'd be much happier, personally, with this kind of situation because it means that you can put together a system that works right the first time and avoid costly and time-consuming upgrades and changes later. For example: if you wanted to pay somebody (yes, you should pay somebody) to set up Ubuntu on all the office computers and teach everybody to do email that way, you'll encounter much less resistance than you would in an office full of people who already have their own ways of doing things. ("Arg! We've always used Outlook here. What's this ridiculous new thing I have to learn?") You'll find that you always have less trouble introducing something to people the first time than you have trying to get them to change to something else later on down the line.

The reason mkultra made that snipe about the irony of your comment is because, as I hope you realize, you're asking for the moon here: 'I want something cheap, efficient, optimized for our environment, easy to learn, reliable, and user-friendly.' That pretty much covers the whole spectrum of things a system like this can do.

But it is just a small law office. Focus on getting it set up right the first time so that you can save on maintenance down the line. One thing I've seen done in the past that's worked well is using the law firm's connections to leverage a working relationship; I don't know what kind of law your firm practices, but I know a firm that gets its entire office wired by another company in exchange for legal representation and business consultation. Look through your clients; see any IT companies? If so, call them, tell them exactly what you're looking for, and talk to them about setting something up, maybe as an exchange.
posted by koeselitz at 12:07 PM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

One last point: I'm a big fan of Ubuntu, and it seems to me that it's actually going to be easier for non-computer people to pick up. The catch: unless you're a big Linux person (and it doesn't sound like you are) you'll have to have support. Not "search google, try something somebody suggested on a blog and see if it works, then try to come up with another solution" kind of support, like I use at home. Real support.

Canonical, the people who generally finance the Ubuntu project, make their money chiefly by providing commercial support services. I've never used them, so I can't say how great they are, but I've heard very good things. According to their Support Services page, they charge $750 per year for support of a server installation of Ubuntu. $62.50 a month doesn't seem like a lot to pay for support of a network like that.

The thing to keep in mind is, as I've said, you're trying to do it right the first time. The wrong system, one that's not very streamlined or helpful or will need fixing in the future, can cost a lot more over time. You could just stick with what you've got, or try doing a bunch of installs yourself, only to find that a month or two from now you've got to pay some guy a lot of money to fix a problem that's come up. Better to get it going smoothly and keep it up and running.

I'd at least get in touch with Canonical and see what they tell you.
posted by koeselitz at 12:16 PM on August 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd use Google Apps. Tagging, sharing, even email retention, the Sites thing which can be quickly customized to do very powerful stuff, all without having to install a single server. And it's way cheaper than hiring the person who'll recover your data after your mySQL database got corrupted.
posted by dhoe at 1:32 PM on August 26, 2008

@mkultra: Just like with lawyers, sometimes you don't get what you pay for. My previous firm used a commercially-produced matter-management product called PC Law, which is very widely used here in Canada. PC Law was originally just billing software, but back in the late 90's they began bolting on added matter management functionality. PC Law today is a terrible piece of crashy bloatware, but because they marketed aggressively, they enjoy a huge share of the market. We paid handsomely for a support license, but when we actually needed the support (the program would become unusable on random machines every two or three months), they were absolutely useless, and in fact once they made the problem worse. We ended up hiring our networking contractor to fix the problems, and cancelling the support license. The alternatives aren't much better because they're all trying to be easy for PC Law users to switch to, and so they incorporate most of its design shortcomings.

@koeselitz: I am actually somewhat familiar with Linux -- I'm writing this on an install of Ubuntu/Hardy. I'm no expert, but I am a geek by nature, and have been working on and around computers since about 1982. I'm looking for open source software because I what to support it, and also because I know the value of not relying on a proprietary vendor like MS. Unfortunately, nobody else in the firm is even slightly as interested in these things as I am -- I might go so far as to say that they're less technically inclined than the average lawyer... which is saying something. I can probably convince my boss to pay for some extra costs, but since he pays nothing right now, any amount will seem like a leap.
posted by yeliabmit at 7:47 PM on August 26, 2008

I do work with many lawyers and nearly all use Client Profiles. Not free or open source but it takes care of everything, and well. Stable and very few issues for the couple years I've been around it.

Maybe worth checking out, but I'm not sure how much it is.
posted by dozo at 7:57 AM on August 27, 2008

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