Barrister Practice Management Software Review
Updated: Jun 24, 2019
One of the things that any new barrister needs to set up straight away is practice management software. There seem to be a few available on the Australian market, but I have not been able to find any online guide that runs through all of the different features, benefits, etc. I will be testing some of them out out over the next few weeks, and I figured that it would be worth reviewing them for the benefit of any others who find themselves in my position.
So I have played around with some of the available options. My first impressions are described below. A few things about my methodology:
I have not looked at any user manuals or had any introductory calls with customer service people, as I believe that good software should be intuitive, and so if the designers have done their jobs right this shouldn't be needed.
I have tried to compare "apples with apples" as much as possible, and I have selected a handful of features common to all of the software packages that I am looking at.
I have looked at the different costs agreement precedents that the software packages offer, but I have limited my comments to the design of the documents and I have not critiqued their content (because that would be legal advice, and I don't give that out in blog form).
Trial # 1: Silq
The leading practice management software seems to be Silq (get it? Like "silk", but with a "q"). For my reader year, Silq will charge a $20 per month subscription fee plus GST. After that it will go up to $60 per month plus GST (why do lawyers and legal service providers seem to be the only people who still give prices exclusive of GST?). So adding the GST, this works out as $264 per year for a reader and $792 per year afterwards.
First impression: seems good. Nice, modern website. Lots of features. And there is a free trial! Also the website makes the mobile app look pretty modern and snazzy:
So I download the software. And OHMYGODIT'S THE 1990s.
Here's what I mean:
Not quite what the website had led me to believe I'd be using. Bad work, Silq.
I am almost tempted to stop the trial there. Having spent almost 5 years as a solicitor working with LexisNexis's antiquated Affinity practice management software, I was looking forward to being able to use something that doesn't look like it should have died out with Microsoft Dinosaurs.
But Silq is the market leader, so I shouldn't write it off straight away.
So, trying the basics. First thing to do: add in my details. So I go to the "User" pane and add a user. Add a couple of contact details and charge-out rates (excluding GST of course). So far so good.
Next, add a matter. It takes me a little while to figure out that I first need to add a contact person as a client. It then takes a few minutes of clicking around before I can do that. The features are all there, but they are not that easy to find. Everything feels a little more difficult than it has to be. The different tabs and panes are not presented intuitively and are difficult to navigate.
It's all reminding me of Affinity, which is not a positive thing. I always wonder how these providers are able to charge so much for their software without doing the UI development that everyone else has to. It's 2018, there is just no excuse for this.
So anyway, I've added my client, I've added my details, I've added my matter. Next: generate a costs agreement. Hmmm...
Ok, 10 minutes later and I figure out that I find "Document Templates" when I hover my cursor over one little icon in the "Matters" pane that, when I blow it up, looks like an uber-pixelated attempt at a document that may have been passable back when Windows 2.0 was on top of the OS market:
Clicking through on this and I get another confusing set of icons. After playing around with these for a while I figure out that I can go to "Packs" and the "Fee Agreement". Then a little loading thing pops up to tell me it's generating a costs agreement and politely asking me to wait while it reticulates a few splines:
... and hey: a costs agreement! It's not pretty—it has a rudimentary letterhead with my name centred, it's all in Arial 12 pt font, it has indented numbers floating in the middle of nowhere, and some of the paragraphs have no spaces between them. But a costs agreement it is.
I guess that in keeping with the 1990s theme of the software package, the costs agreement had to be designed using Word for Windows version 2.0.
Also I can't figure out where to add all the information before this thing generates, or how to customise the template. And I deliberately left the "fax" and "DX" fields empty when I was filling in my details because, seriously, who uses fax or DX these days? But instead of deleting the fields, it has just done this:
And I'd like to try the cloud features or the precedent database, but it wants me to import some files from the website somewhere, and it says that syncing with the cloud might take hours and it should be left overnight. This is all much too difficult, I think I'm done with Silq. On to the next one!
Trial # 2: Verdict
Next up is Verdict. This is by "bar squared", who are so hip their logo is entirely in lowercase letters, and who are responsible for Lex, which is apparently the market leader in the UK. So I'm expecting big things.
I click through to the website, and it looks impressive. Website is a little dated, but lots of features!
And hey, it even says "When it comes to online software, Bar Squared are the best bar none!" See what they did there?
... but where is the said software exactly? I've been looking at the site for a while and all I can seem to find are contact details. There is no download link, no "register here" button. Curious. They seem to be offering a webapp, but there's no link to a trial version of the webapp anywhere. Also conspicuously absent is any pricing. It seems like they want me to *shudder* contact them first before they tell me any information, like I'm some kind of chump.
I know that trick! I'll have to speak to some sales rep for 45 minutes before they let me try the product. And by the time I'm done they'll probably have tried to bundle a year's subscription in with a 10% discount on a new fridge and free membership to a yacht club. And no doubt they will send me all kinds of promotional emails to fill up my junk mail.
No thanks! Verdict: denied. Next!
Trial # 3: Tiro
So we go to tiro. That's right, not "Tiro", "tiro". Everything is in Helvetica and there is not a capital letter in sight. It feels like we're entering Silicone Valley territory.
And hey: cloud based practice management, 14 day free trial, completely free for readers. These people are speaking my language! And then after the free for readers deal it's $25 per month... ex-GST.
Ah well, I guess no one is perfect. That's $330 per year for anyone who hasn't done the math. This makes tiro by far the cheapest option in this review.
Plus, in a refreshing contrast to the Verdict site, there is a big orange "sign up now" button! Well I can't resist that.
So after a simple sign-up form I'm presented with a very easy contact details form that feels familiar to anyone who has signed up for anything on the internet in the last 5 years. Which is a huge relief. Don't get me wrong, I did enjoy the little trip down memory lane that Silq gave me, but like flared jeans there are some things that are better left in the 90s.
Moving on, adding the client and setting up a matter is all very easy and intuitive. There is a nice clean menu on the left of the webapp which is easy to navigate, and everything is in easy to identify fields with large boxes and nice little "plus" signs allowing me to add things.
I know I looked at the "Matters" pane in Silq, so for comparison I'll look at the "matters" pane in tiro. Here it is:
See that, Silq UX designers? One pane! No tabs! No icons! If I want to add a new matter, I just click the big "ADD NEW" button that's floating up on the right hand corner. If I want to edit or delete a matter, I don't need to press an icon saying "Edit Matter" or "Delete Matter", I just click on the matter and it takes me through to this nice, clean interface:
If I want to edit the matter, I just click "MANAGE". This takes me to another very intuitive and nicely designed form. And if I want to issue a costs agreement, there is a little icon that lets me do that straight away! I don't need to click through 15 different tabs, menus and icons to get there.
Also the costs agreement is easy to edit or generate, and it gives me a nice, clean, and easy to follow template with attractive typography (naturally it's all in Helvetica). And it includes my electronic signature! (not pictured)
Plus it syncs to my Dropbox account! The people at Silq are probably still sending files over Napster or something.
My only criticism is that the rich text editing is a little limited, and there does not seem to be an option to upload a Word template. Still, this is something I can work with, and is a world away from Silq, which did allow you to add Word templates but figuring out how to do that would probably have taken more time and effort than just using the templates without integrating them into the practice management software.
Plus within a few hours of signing up I get a friendly email from a guy named "David" (email address "david[at]tiro.com.au", full name and position not specified) saying that they are about to launch their new version, with "some great improvements around the introduction of editable schedule of rates - including hourly / daily / fixed, better responsive design for mobile devices, and improved workflow", as well as "new templates for costs agreements and invoices". Thanks David, whoever you are!
Anyway, tiro has set the *bar* pretty high (no pun intended). Let's see how the next one goes.
Trial # 4: BarBooks
Last up is BarBooks. They have a readers' rate of $180.00 plus GST for 1 year (again with the ex GST!), then $864.00 plus GST after that. In "normal people" prices, that is $198 for the readership year and then $950.40 afterwards. This means that after the first year, BarBooks becomes the most expensive package that I've looked at. So what do you get for the extra $$$?
Well, first impression is pretty good. The design is clean and modern looking. The contact details form is easy to follow and again feels familiar to anyone who has signed up for something online before (it's strange that this has become one of my main review criteria, but the way the software asks for your contact details does seem to say a lot about the thought that has gone into its design).
Moving on to the dashboard, and again it's cleanly designed and easy to navigate. Plus it has these nifty looking bar charts tracking billed, unbilled, and received fees:
The matters pane is also nice and clean/intuitive:
And It's easy to click through to a matter and then view/edit its details, as well as view and edit time entries:
To generate a costs agreement I just have to click that "New matter document" button and then select "costs agreement" from a drop-down menu. It then gives me a fairly ordinary looking document in Helvetica Neue:
The letterhead that it gives me has the Silq issue that there is a blank space where the fax number is supposed to go, even though I deliberately did not insert any fax number into my contact details.
BarBooks does not seem to sync with my Dropbox account, but one benefit that it has over tiro is that it offers a desktop app as well as a webapp. I know that we are connected to the internet 90% of the time these days, but one nevertheless can find oneself cut-off from the information super-highway for a while (eg while flying or while visiting remote locations), and it would be nice to still be able to access the practice management software.
Well, that seems to be a wrap for now. Only one thing left to do...
For those of you who lack the time or energy to read this full review, here is what the internets call the "tl;dr" version.
lots of features;
looks and feels like it was designed in 1992.
syncs to Dropbox;
webapp and desktop app;
does not sync to Dropbox.
In conclusion, both tiro and BarBooks are offering what look like pretty good products, and there is really not a great deal between them. In the circumstances, that price tag on tiro is looking pretty appealing right now. I think I have made my choice.
UPDATE: 26 September 2018
Now that I have been in practice for a few days and I've been trying these software packages for real, my position has shifted slightly. Also, there was a BarBooks promotion offering $1 for the readership year, which helped a lot.
After using tiro for a few days, unfortunately I decided that I had to switch to BarBooks. That isn't because tiro is a bad product by any means, the problem is that it's a very young product and seems to be still in development stage. It's features are much more limited than BarBooks, and there were a few little things that just made the experience more annoying.
For example, tiro has a timer, so that I can log how much time I am spending on a particular task, but the timer has no "pause" function—meaning that every time I stop the timer, if I want to start it again I have to create a whole new task.
Also, BarBooks has much more polished accounting features. For example, in tiro, I had to enter all of my expenses into a matter called "personal expenses", but BarBooks allows me to enter general expenses into a personal accounting ledger. Also, BarBooks syncs to all of my bank accounts.
I know that tiro is still in development, and I have actually had some very productive email exchanges with them (eg they have admitted that they need a "pause" function and said they are working on it), but at the moment I need a finished package.
If you are reading this a year or two from now, it may well be that tiro has caught up. I encourage you to try it out for yourself.
This has been my first post on this new blog, so thanks for reading everyone! (By "everyone" I mean myself, my parents, and maybe a sympathetic Facebook friend or two. But hey, it's a start).