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by Eileen O'Loughlin,
Market Research Associate
Last Updated: October 25, 2016

Legal accounting software is an essential part of an attorney’s practice management system, and frequently revolves around projects and time logs. Because law firms often bill as a function of time, work time and schedules should be highly organized to produce detailed reports for the inquisitive client.

Time can be broken down into date, activity and billable or nonbillable criteria. Goals for total annual billable hours can be recorded and compared to the actual hours worked for evaluation. In addition, software can arrange invoices based on the time logged.

We wrote this guide to help those in the legal field evaluate accounting software. We’ll explain the features and functionality to be on the lookout for, as well as best practices for evaluating systems.

Here's what we'll cover:

What Is Legal and Law Firm Accounting Software?
Common Features of Legal and Law Firm Accounting Software
Evaluating Legal and Law Firm Accounting Software
Key Purchase Considerations

What Is Legal and Law Firm Accounting Software?

Legal accounting software can help streamline the billing and invoicing process and provide law firms with valuable insight into their cash flow. Additionally, as firms deal with sensitive client data, using a legal-specific accounting software can help them remain compliant with laws designed to safeguard private client information.

Firms can purchase legal accounting software in the following ways:

Best-of-breed, or standalone. Law firms may choose to purchase a standalone accounting system if they are currently using case management software that doesn’t have an accounting module, or if their existing billing and invoicing solution doesn’t have all the accounting features they need to accurately track their bookkeeping.

Offered in suite, as part of a larger practice management system. The accounting module is bundled with other business functions, such as the client portal, document management system and marketing. Data transfers seamlessly between applications, which helps save time and reduce errors due to duplicate data entry.

On-premise, hosted on-site on the law firm’s internal servers. Usually sold via perpetual license, the law firm owns the rights to the software. They are charged a one-time, upfront fee and are responsible for supporting and maintaining the software on their own. Firms can make an additional purchase of software updates and upgrades from the vendor as needed.

Cloud-based, hosted remotely on the vendor’s servers. Typically, cloud-based products are sold via subscription licensing, which means the firm pays a recurring monthly or annual fee to use the software for that amount of time. The subscription fee includes the cost for vendor-supplied support, maintenance and automatic updates.

Common Features of Legal and Law Firm Accounting Software

While capabilities vary, legal accounting systems typically include the following:

Time tracking Most law firms bill hourly, so the ability to track the time spent on projects and bill accordingly is crucial. This feature often includes support for flat-fee, task-based, split, contingency and retainer billing. Also includes stopwatch timers, which can be set up to record billable time based on the fee arrangement. Some systems can pull data from other applications, such as calendars or document management, to fill in gaps in billable time.
Billing and invoicing Generate invoices based on the billable time logged by attorneys. Invoices can be sent through the mail or electronically over email and paid via credit card, electronic funds transfer or a secure payment gateway. Customization options allow law firms to personalize invoices with the firm’s logo and client information. Some systems can be set up to alert firms and clients when bills are past due and automatically calculate a late fee to add to the invoice.
Client portal Some systems include a client portal, which allows clients to securely submit files and make payments for services rendered.
Contact & client management Since client relationships are so important, a quality legal accounting solution will contain contact management capabilities, recording information for clients and related parties. Also referred to as “legal CRM.”
Project scheduling Manage your caseload with a tool that stores information like deadlines, events, documents, notes, action items, billing and payments. Can sync calendar with email and create tasks, set reminders and view scheduling conflicts directly from email.
Trust accounting Managing a client’s funds, whether in real estate, family/estate planning, bankruptcy or any other trust situation, brings an extra level of complexity. Trust accounting software will include features to support managing multiple financial accounts, tracking funds, designating escrow agents and credit and debit allocation.
General ledger Allows law firms to manage accounts payable (liabilities), accounts receivable (assets), bank reconciliation and client retainers. Includes login/access for accountant and/or bookkeeper. Helps prepare tax filings based on the information stored in the system.
Financial reporting Generate reports on trust ledgers, client payment history, attorney productivity and more. Filter data by practice area, case file, attorney, etc. and gain insight into business trends.

Evaluating Legal and Law Firm Accounting Software

Legal accounting software should be able to record billing and time information in different ways for flexible application. Although law work is often based on time billing, the right accounting software will provide a range of pay options, as listed above. A good software package can also come with abilities to report for multiple clients at different rates and organize the information according to user preferences.

When evaluating these systems, buyers should consider the following:

  • How deep are the schedule reporting abilities?
  • Does it include appropriate payment arrangements?
  • Is invoice generation linked to payment records?
  • Does it provide adequate project sorting, tracking and progress features?

Key Purchase Considerations

Law firms should keep the following considerations in mind as they evaluate legal accounting software:

Integration: In a recent report, “integration with other systems” was cited as a major challenge by nearly 30 percent of legal software users surveyed. To avoid a similar issue, firms can purchase legal accounting software in-suite, as part of a larger practice management solution. Alternatively, when purchasing a standalone accounting system, firms are encouraged to demo products prior to purchase to determine if they are compatible with existing business software.

Mobility: Even in the legal industry, telecommuting and working remotely is gaining in popularity. Mobile applications allow attorneys to track their time and view client information from any location, on any device with a mobile connection. As billable time ties directly to the accounting system, check with vendors to see how popular their mobile apps are and compare uptime, speed etc.

Security: Since lawyers deal with sensitive and often confidential information, ensure your accounting software has advanced security controls to restrict sensitive information to only the people who need it.

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