How Applying Best Practices of Software Development Helped Improve the Way Lawyers Work

Best Practices of Software Development for Lawyers

Part 1 – Separation of concerns, or “matter-centric organization in a single ecosystem 

In my engineering days, software development best practices were rules to follow with guaranteed success. Like in math, you could rely on getting the right result if you do things by the book and follow the quality principles in your work. After two years after being in a completely different role, working as a product manager in a law tech startup, I’m starting to notice these patterns repeating in everyday life, sometimes in a good way, but other times also in bad ways too.  

What’s a separation of concerns anyway? 

 In computer science, separation of concerns (SoC) is a design principle for separating a computer program into distinct sections, such that each section addresses a separate concern. When concerns are well-separated, there are more opportunities for module upgrade, reuse, and independent development.” 

Disclaimer for software engineers reading this: I’m aware that the parallels I’ll draw in this article might distort the original idea behind SoC while comparing it to the real-world examples, so leave aside the theory you’re familiar with, and try to perceive the message through the eyes of a lawyer going through digitalization of the legal industry. SoC is just a metaphor I’ll use to explain a common problem and a possible solution here. 

(Some of) the problems lawyers face 

Most of the jobs today produce data in significant quantities on a daily basis and use that very same data in making business decisions. Practicing law is no exception. In order to provide the best legal services, lawyers heavily rely on the information they have about the matter, closely observing the facts, circumstances, and evidence they have available.  

The problem arises when: 

  1. There are too many different data sources to keep track of
  2. All people involved are not in possession of all the necessary files/data
  3. Management of strict legal deadlines aren’t making any of this easier and requires that everything work perfectly. 

In cases like this for law firms, defining and organizing your processes, resources, and work in general can be the differentiator between you and your competition.  

Statistics show that an average office employee spends 1.5 hours a day (6 weeks per year) looking for things, due to disorganization. In a law firm, 1.5 hours per employee lost daily, significantly affects both productivity and receivables profitability. Since this is an obvious problem, an a method of organization technique should be proposed implemented in order to overcome it, and make sure that lawyers’ time is optimally used, and they’re focused on what matters the most – helping clients through doing actual legal work. 

So, how to do you organize your legal practice in the most efficient way that allows for the y, sharing of information while separating concerns? 

Separation of concerns done wrong 

By following this principle, one might come to the conclusion that a well-organized law practice should be powered by independent tools that do a great job in one area, totally separated from other tools in the box, right? However, if you interpret SoC this way, you’re going to have a bad time. 

Let’s say that in your practice you adopt the “there’s an App for that” approach: you’re using use email and calendaringT tool A, task management tool B, note taking tool C, document management tool D, and a real-time communication tool E.  

  1. How many different subscriptions do you have to pay in order to have this setup in place? 
  2. How much time do you regularly waste jumping over from one tool to another, trying to fill in the blanks? 
  3. Did the promise of “Tool A being well-integrated with tool B” meet your expectations? 

OK, if this isn’t working, can we ignore separation of concerns as it’s just causing us more trouble? 

In a solution where we want to have “the best of both worlds”, meaning well separated concerns working together in harmony, we would require upgradeable, reusable, and independent tools in our toolbox, ideally in the same ecosystem. Although the image above is a joke, this a very real challenge law firms face today. 

A different approach – SoC in a matter-centric organization 

Since matters represent the heart of your work, it makes sense organizing things around them. What this means is that in a matter-centric approach, all documents are associated with a matter and stored in the same place. This reduces the time needed to find a specific document you need and eliminates confusion that might come up about where the document is located, who has it, or how to get to it. It also helps against piling up all of the documents from different matters in the same place, which would make harder accessing or maintaining them organized. With the time passing, piled up mountains of documents do not get easier to deal with. On the contrary, storing documents in a way like this won’t scale good at all, and matter-centric approach here wins by far.  

Matter-centric organization of your resources and workflows in a way of matter-centricity is not only easy to setup, but it feels as a natural thing to do. It provides strict guidelines of how things should be done, but not due to without imposing burdensome processes. On the contrary, logical way of arranging and grouping things by matter comes instinctively. As a result, users of a matter-centric system like this can promptly quickly adapt to it, and benefit from easily managing their cases and knowing their way around them.  

Practicing law is a team sport. No matter how good any lawyer is, there’s probably a team of administrators, analysts, paralegals, consultants, and experts working closely together and supporting each other. Even solo law practitioners collaborate with others frequently, with the only difference being their collaborators are located outside of their own law practice firm. In situations like this, where collaboration is crucial for success and it’s happening all around, from start to finish, matter-centric organization helps making it straightforward.  

Communication channels in a matter-centric system are exclusively dedicated to a single matter, making them accessible for all participants to ensure the alignment in their respective work. In this modern era, with all the technology available, accessing resources remotely and communicating from any place in the world became is now a standard.  

To conclude, SoC by the matter is a step in the right direction, however, the question that remains is – is it possible to achieve this in a single, well-integrated app ecosystem? 

Matter365 – Hyper integrated into Office 365 

A simple answer to the previous question is yes, that’s definitely possible and most of the legal practice management (LPM) solutions out there are doing exactly that …In their own app ecosystem. To be fair, they usually offer plenty of integrations with popular widely used tools, but the user experience is just not what customers expect it to be. 

Two main problems with having to deal with a new app ecosystem are: 

  1. Steep learning curve in mastering it, while adapting it to your needs and the way you’re doing things or worse, having to adapt your workflows to conform to the new apps limitations.
  2. Integration with “must-have” tools everyone uses outside of their LPM often falls short. 

Having this in mind, when our the Matter365 R&D team thought of how to bridge these gaps and solve these problems, the idea was to start with the tools lawyers use daily, know well enough, and that are coming from the same ecosystem. Office 365 (recently rebranded as Microsoft 365) is a suite of productivity tools used by millions worldwide, and some of it’s parts includes applications like Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneDrive, etc., are highly acclaimed in the legal community. 

Still, Office 365, however, is  optimized and adapted to the legal industry needs has a few shortcomings when applied in a legal vertical, because due to the product being it was designed for worldwide adoption, and. not being very optimized and adapted to the legal industry needs. We took this as a challenge: 

  • If Office 365 apps are separated from each other are stand-alone applications,  but come in a well-supported and highly maintained Microsoft ecosystem under a single subscription – let’s connect them and utilize use what’s already available in a way lawyers would! 
  • If Office 365 doesn’t offer critical features lawyers can’t spend a day alive without, like time and expense tracking, conflict check, accounting, and trust accounting management – let’s build this!

This way in creating Matter365, lawyers can keep using what they know best and like the most, but their experience will be significantly enhanced in a few different aspects: 

  • Efficiency through automation – One application interface hyper integrated into lawyers’ Office 365 saves countless hours spent on creating, accessing, sharing, and connecting the data from the various apps of Office 365 suite, while enhancing collaboration between team members.  
  • Simplicity through preserving Office 365 look and feel – (Almost) no learning curve. 
  • Security and data ownership – All of the data created in different Office 365 apps is stored in lawyers’ Office 365, not in Matter365 databases. 
  • Added value through extra functionality built on top of Office 365. 

Although an Office 365 license is needed for using our platform, this is a dependency we embraced due to the fact that most of the lawyers today use at least Office suite, and with the value proposition above, upgrading to Office 365 seems like a no brainer. Reflecting back to the engineering side of things, if we can save the time by not inventing replacements to the tools lawyers already use, we have more opportunity to build anything that they’re missing, and improve the integration – of course, by following the separation of concerns principle. 🙂 

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