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Large firms and corporations with hundreds of lawyers and big budgets might not have trouble finding a single software program for complete practice management with integrated time, billing and legal accounting. However, for small firms and solo practitioners, finding such a program can be challenging. Besides the obvious budgetary concerns, many small practices can’t afford the extended loss of production caused by installing and learning a new software program, not to mention the time involved with entering current and historical data.
Fortunately for today’s small firm, practice management software with full front office and back-office legal accounting capabilities need not break the budget, and has the potential to maximize profits when properly used. One example is LexisNexis’ PCLaw 8, designed for firms that have one to nine timekeepers.
As a freelance paralegal, my experience with working for solo practitioners has been that they often use several discrete programs to accomplish front office (practice management) and back-office (timekeeping, billing and accounting) functions. In fact, the front office tasks are often managed by nothing more than Microsoft Outlook for e-mail, calendaring and contacts, and Microsoft Windows Explorer for document management, while Intuit QuickBooks Pro often handles back-office accounting and billing tasks. This can result in a monumental waste of valuable time and resources lost to data reentry, error and continuity problems from worker to worker (i.e., your method might not be my method).
Purchased by LexisNexis in 2005, the award-winning PCLaw now integrates with other LexisNexis products such as lexis.com (research), Total Practice Advantage (integrated legal software solutions), HotDocs (form document preparation) and Shepard’s Citations (for cite-checking cases), as well as core third-party programs such as Microsoft Outlook, Word and Excel, and Corel WordPerfect. Combined with the power of back-office accounting designed especially for lawyers, PCLaw streamlines the most important tasks legal professionals routinely perform.
PCLaw’s front office capabilities include conflict searches, management of calendars, contacts and tasks, as well as document, e-mail and phone call management. PCLaw’s clean and uncomplicated interface is not only refreshing but also functional and inviting, unlike other software programs that can overwhelm users with a multitude of options that obscure the common and simple features. Simple timesaving steps, such as the ability to enter dates in the date field in abbreviated form (e.g., “90106” for the date Sept. 1, 2006), make data entry less burdensome and promote efficiency.
One of the most impressive and welcome features of PCLaw is the ability to contemporaneously track time spent on work-related activities. The design and implementation of this feature sets it apart from other time-tracking software that I have used. PCLaw installs a toolbar featuring a timer that can be integrated with Word, Outlook and Internet Explorer. The toolbar is unobtrusive, small and straightforward, with start, pause, stop and cancel buttons, and handily displays elapsed time. While some programs offer almost all possible options, a dialog box appears that has all of the options you could possibly want — post entry, delay post entry, review entry — upon stopping the timer or exiting an integrated program. Additionally, the “Time Sheet” button on the toolbar provides access to quick and direct entry of time without using the timer. You can quickly view daily hours worked (allocated as billable, nonbillable or adjusted in a number of different ways), by simply opening the monthly calendar for a particular timekeeper.
The timer feature worked flawlessly with Outlook and Internet Explorer, although I was disappointed when I encountered problems using it in Word and WordPerfect. When I enabled the PCLaw toolbar in Word, my system would freeze when I tried to exit, and I had to then invoke the task manager to exit Word. On the other hand, in WordPerfect the PCLaw toolbar was blank. Once I got through to customer support (free for 60 days with purchase of a license), they were responsive and patient in addressing this issue. It turns out that LexisNexis is presently working on a resolution to be included in the next point release. Because, in my view, PCLaw’s time-tracking tool is exceptionally well designed and valuable to paralegals and lawyers, and because of my confidence in LexisNexis to resolve this glitch soon (if it has not already done so), my disappointment is tempered by excitement. Having these handy timekeeping toolbars alone could increase profitability by capturing work-related activities in real time, while encouraging efficiency, time savings and stress relief.
PCLaw’s robust back office capabilities provide many accounting tools specific to law firms, including trust account management, retainer handling, productivity reporting, a contingent fee calculator and settlement statement generation. Standard accounting functions include billing, accounts payable, general ledger, check writing, bank reconciliation, expense recapture and generation of financial statements. PCLaw supports standardized electronic billing in more than 30 formats and has a tool for converting billing statements into PDF format. Users of LexisNexis Total Practice Advantage (see Reviews, November/December 2006 LAT) have the added benefit of bidirectional, real-time synchronization of billing and client contact information between the two programs.
Included with PCLaw 8 is the PCLaw Express module, which allows portable computer users to connect to the office and synchronize work done off-line. Also included in version 8 is the PCLaw Satellite module for exporting data to disk, a network location or e-mail, which then can be imported back into the main PCLaw database.
In sum, even though I experienced problems with the timer, my favorite feature, I like PCLaw 8 more than most other, more expensive practice management software products. For small law firms and solo practitioners, PCLaw allows employees to integrate both front and back-office functions to meet objectives without having to spend an arm and a leg.
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