Small law offices have had few appealing options for case management and billing in the last few years. The only choices have been old warhorses that are showing their age badly, with interfaces that were obviously designed decades ago, and in some cases running on databases that are long obsolete. Amicus, Time Matters, Abacus, Timeslips, and the rest – quirky, tired, buggy (despite their decades of development), and increasingly unable to cope with new operating systems and new versions of other office software.
The landscape is finally changing. I’m going to call attention to several new programs and services for law firms and small businesses that look just grand. They sport fresh, uncluttered designs and they’re built on forward-facing technology that looks like it will last.
Let’s start with a caveat, though. I haven’t tested any of them. It’s impossible. I’ve done the same thing you can do with any of them that seem interesting: scour the web site, check out the press releases, watch the videos, do searches for feedback from users. I have no special knowledge of whether there are hidden shortcomings or bugs or if they’re just plain unreliable. If you’re interested enough to look into one of these, call me and we’ll do our due diligence together, digging deep and doing controlled tests.
In the next few days I’ll show you a few of the ones that make me optimistic. Let’s start with Credenza.
Credenza Software supplies simple case management and billing tools that work entirely within Microsoft Outlook.
When you install Credenza, three new tabs appear at the bottom of Outlook’s left column: Files, Phone Calls, and Time & Expenses.
When you set up a File (or “Matter” or “Case”), Outlook is populated with new options throughout the program to link items to the File. Calendar items are assigned to Files. Contacts are assigned to Files. Most importantly, each incoming or outgoing email message can be assigned to a File. (There is a checkbox which users would find deeply meaningful: “In future save all messages to and from this email address to the same file.” Can you see how much work that would save?)
Here’s an email message, for example. Note the two buttons at the bottom of the underlying message for “File” and “View Time Entry”. The “Select File” window in front has the checkbox to remember the recipient and automatically assign messages to this file in the future.
When you open up a File from the new Outlook tab, all of the associated items are gathered together from all over Outlook. The File window displays all the calendar items for that file, all the contacts, the time entries, the phone calls, and more. The email tab in a File displays all sent and received messages, chronologically or however you choose to sort them, with a preview of each message as it’s highlighted.
There are many more features, of course: integrated billing, simple document management, reports, and much more.
The most interesting thing about Credenza is that it’s built into Outlook. It is the least intimidating program to learn that I can imagine. There are many law firms that have never moved beyond Outlook because it is familiar and comfortable; Credenza lets grumpy partners stay within their comfort zone.
But the second most interesting thing about Credenza is its technical underpinnings, which you need to understand before we talk about how it works for groups.
When Credenza was introduced early last year, it was essentially a standalone program designed to be used by a solo attorney without a staff. The company had kludged together a method of sharing data among 2 or 3 people but the group sharing looked like it was held together with chewing gum and bits of string.
The company rewrote the program.
Credenza is now designed from the ground up for its data to be run by Microsoft’s Azure database services in the cloud. Azure represents years of work by Microsoft to develop a rock solid method of moving databases onto centralized offsite servers without any loss of functionality. It has been coming online in 2010 and 2011 and represents enormous opportunities for Microsoft with big enterprises going forward. It tells you something that Apple is reportedly running its mammoth new iCloud syncing service on Azure. Security is baked deeply into the Azure services, since that’s a core requirement for large enterprises.
Credenza is one of the first Azure services focused on small businesses. Microsoft is so proud of it that it wrote up a nice case study of how Credenza was developed.
Cloud syncing allows Credenza to share all of its data with all of the users at the law firm, seamlessly and without any limits. It scales to meet your demands, no matter how hard it is pushed. You’ll never outgrow a server. There are undoubtedly practical limits where the program becomes cumbersome to use or slows down Outlook but it seems perfectly reasonable to hope that it wouldn’t even break a sweat working for 5 or 10 or 20 lawyers.
Group features permeate Credenza: shared files, team email, group scheduling, shared tasks and more. When you look at a File, you’re not just seeing your own email – you’re seeing everyone’s email that was sent or received on that file. That is the holy grail for law firms, and this is the simplest way that I’ve seen to accomplish it.
PRICING: If you’re working completely alone, you can use a basic one-person version of Credenza for free.
The group price is $24.95/month per person. There is a long list of features that get turned on with a Pro subscription, including tech support. It’s almost impossible to compare the long-term costs of subscription-based services and boxed software but this strikes me as a perfectly reasonable monthly fee. You’ll see a lot of services that are more expensive when you start looking around.
Credenza is an interesting choice for small law firms. Take a look!