It has been five years since I first started exploring cloud options for lawyers. In that time there has been much progress, but actually less than I expected. I have seen a proliferation of new products for lawyers, but found that most of them lack the maturity of the client/server desktop solutions. At the same time, I have seen a stagnation in the desktop solutions, a failure to embrace change, a failure to innovate.
I don’t intend to identify specific products, but rather to address the trends that I am seeing. The desktop solutions have mostly shifted to maintenance mode. This is reflected in their pricing models which emphasize annual maintenance and support plans. There is less emphasis on new marketing initiatives, and more on “insurance”. If you want support on your current system, keep current on your payments. This shift to annualized revenue, in my mind, is very healthy. It shifts the incentives to making sure the product is stable and dependable. It rewards incremental improvements, over splashy remakes. It keeps the company in regular contact with its client base.
However, software companies need to expand their base. The annual revenue from subscribers will only support so much. There is, and should be pressure, to continue to innovate. Each year there is a new decision on whether or not to renew, the continuing value of the support. In order for everyone to win, the vendor must innovate, and give you a new and renewed reason to work with the product. A key reason is whether your friends and colleagues are excited about the program. Is there “buzz” about the program?
Interface redesign is one route to generate excitement. Many programs were designed for overall functionality many years ago. There are patterns of usage that the vendors know could be improved. How many clicks does it take to get from one place in the program to another? How fast can the user get the information they need to act? Are people confused by a busy interface. Conversely are users baffled by an overly simple interface?
When we shift to the cloud products, the first batch was geared to solo practitioners. They just needed something to manage their calendar, time and billing. The products that have emerged and survived were suited to that task. However, once the solo merged into a group, these systems were more like PIMs (Personal Information Managers) than real collaborative tools. They held surprisingly little useful information. Their ability to customize the user interface for particular practice areas were limited. And surprisingly, when people started putting in hundreds and thousands of billing records, they lacked adequate reporting, billing and accounting features.
Over the past year, the cloud products have gotten better on billing, but many still don’t get the billing workflow. Their methods are convoluted and cryptic. The reporting is opaque. And frankly, users are frustrated and worried. A tool that is meant to manage the law business, simply isn’t giving the lawyer what they need. Yes, they are saving on hardware and new for consultant support, but they are often getting less than what they bargained for.
In the next month, I hope to revisit many of the current products out there for lawyers, and give a renewed look at where those products currently are and where they should be going.