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One Big Thing For Law Firms Evaluating On-Premises Case Management Solutions

Here’s Why Your Law Firm Should Run Away if the On-Premises Case Management Solution Doesn’t Run on SQL Server.

3/10/2017 Update: We’ve relocated from Orange County, CA to Dallas-Fort Worth, TX! This move means our legal tech services have now arrived for law firms in the DFW area.

We’ll start out by saying that the cloud can be a superior CMS solution for many law firms, but also by pointing out that the death of on-premises case management solutions for law firms is greatly exaggerated. The right CMS solution for your law firm will depend on all kinds of variables – and one of them can be regulatory requirements.

Quick Detour: How Government Regulations Are Promoting On-Premises CMS Solutions.

Many attorneys have experience counseling clients on regulatory requirements, but relatively few have actually had their own firm, its operations, and its systems subject to a regulatory audit – essentially having to explain and justify how they operate, and their IT security policies and procedures, to outside auditors armed with massive questionnaires and checklists designed to satisfy government regulators. But, that is exactly the reality faced by law firms today in the financial services sector, who are increasingly being held to “bank audit” standards due to regulatory requirements placed on “covered financial institutions” by the CFPB pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Act.

The last time something like this popped up was in the early 2000s, with the Gramm Leach Bliley Act (“GLBA”). The GLBA was silent on whether or not it applied to law firms, and the Federal Trade Commission (the agency tasked with enforcing the GLBA at the time) predictably took the position that it did. The ABA actually sued, and won – creating published precedent holding that the GLBA did not, in fact, apply to lawyers. No such judicial or other relief yet exists for law firms under the CFPB regulations, which, unlike the GLBA, expressly place requirements on those law firms representing covered financial institutions.

One thing attorneys who don’t practice in the financial services arena need to appreciate: Failure to pass any part of an audit can preclude the client from retaining your law firm. So, the auditors – and not the business unit – become the true gatekeepers. As a result, law firms in the financial services arena are understandably gun-shy when it comes to the cloud, largely out of encryption and privacy concerns, and also out of a more pragmatic concern tied to the inability of auditors to grasp security in a cloud setting.

Lessons From A Recent Engagement. (Or, Why SQL Server is Critical When Going On-Premises.)

We recently worked with a law firm to enhance their case management abilities, which included migrating one of their practice areas to a new CMS platform. The client ended up going with Time Matters, due to the aforementioned regulatory compliance concerns tied to the cloud, and due to limitations inherent in their current CMS technology (Abacus). Our project involved installing SQL Server, installing Time Matters version 15.1, custom developing the Time Matters application for the specified practice area, migrating data related to the practice area from Abacus into Time Matters, training the law firm’s staff on Time Matters and documenting its use, and building a custom reporting solution to meet the law firm’s business requirements.

[RELATED: OneDemand Now a Time Matters Certified Consultant]

Abacus uses the Advantage database as its backend, which can create significant limitations for law firms looking for more advanced features and control than the Abacus application itself can provide. With the availability of free (SQL Server Express) and open-source (MySQL) databases, the Advantage database has become outdated legacy technology. Any law firm wishing to access their Abacus data for custom integrations or reporting purposes is pretty much hosed, as they are left with either the limited integrations offered by Abacus (basically only Outlook and QuickBooks), or trying to wrangle with an ODBC driver for the Advantage database – which is fickle, complex and frustrating to configure, requires a much more specialized set of coding skills to use than SQL Server (read: expensive), and can be slow and unpredictable in performance.

As I’ve stated before, the “killer app” is now dead: The goal in today’s legal CMS market is to integrate so that the end-user law firm gets all the functionality they want, easily and regardless of platform limitations. This new reality is behind the increasing adoption of cloud-based CMS systems, as their entire business models are based on integrations. And, this new reality is exactly why SQL Server becomes absolutely critical for any law firm evaluating on-premises case management solutions.

[RELATED: 5 Things Your Law Firm Case Management System Should Do]

Any on-premises case management solution using SQL Server on its backend can be extended to do most anything a law firm might wish to have done. For our client, selecting Time Matters – with its SQL Server backend – means we were able to rapidly develop not only the application itself, but also build a complete custom intranet reporting solution that reads the Time Matters data out of SQL Server directly, so they can get real-time insights and reports critical to running their practice area.

And, here’s the best part of using a SQL-based CMS like Time Matters: The free flavor of SQL Server will suffice for most law firms. So, there’s no additional infrastructure cost when selecting a SQL-based CMS like Time Matters compared to non-SQL solutions like Abacus. There’s only upside that comes with better data access, the ability to generate custom reporting solutions tailored to your law firm’s needs, and the ability to easily integrate and reconcile data across disparate solutions.

[RELATED: 3 Reasons We (Still) Love Time Matters]

The final lesson we learned in migrating our client from Abacus to Time Matters was this: The fact that Abacus relies on the Advantage database made the project more complicated, and thus more expensive, than it otherwise might have been. To get the data out of Abacus and into Time Matters – in a format that matched the custom application development we did in Time Matters – required significant labor. We had to export data from Abacus into a comma-delimited flat file, but learned that only some of the data (and not all of the data) could be so exported. This limitation required isolating the missing data, and then having to fill it in by hand. We then learned that the .csv file exported by Abacus was “dirty” – meaning, it did not properly escape/control for characters like quotation marks – which required us to then spend significant time reviewing thousands of rows of data to clean it up. Had Abacus been built on SQL Server, not only would this additional work not been needed, but the need to migrate to a SQL-based CMS like Time Matters may have been entirely moot.

At OneDemand, we love the cloud, and in particular are excited about the growing “software as a service” CMS offerings for law firms. But, we also know that there’s still a market for on-premises case management solutions (which will continue to exist thanks in large part to government regulations). And, for law firms that either need an on-premises case management solution or just want one for other various reasons, we’d strongly suggest that any on-premises case management solution chosen be based on SQL Server. Otherwise, the law firm is limiting its reporting and integration options, and driving up the cost of any work needed to push/pull data from the non-SQL application down the road.

As for our preferred on-premises case management solution, OneDemand is a Time Matters certified consultant serving the DFW region, and we have over 15 years of experience with the program – as a CTO installing and configuring it, and as an attorney and managing partner using it. We’re available to help you leverage Time Matters or any other case management system, on-premises or in the cloud, to transform your law firm’s operational capabilities.

Scott J. Jackson, Esq.

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