At a briefing held at its Eagan, Minnesota headquarters last week, Thomson Reuters announced (among other things) the launch of Firm Central, its new cloud-based practice management tool targeted at 1–10 lawyer firms. The company will officially launch Firm Central at LegalTech New York later this month, and the product will be available to customers in February.
Thomson Reuters is playing catch-up with Firm Central
West Publishing (which Thomson bought in 1996) began indexing American law via the Key Number system in the late nineteenth century. Studies show that West headnotes (organized in the Key Number system) provide lawyers with more value than the editorial enhancements added by LexisNexis (West’s/Westlaw’s/WestlawNext’s only real competitor). Thomson Reuters wisely leveraged the value of its indexing system when it developed the WestlawNext search algorithm. As a result of Thomson Reuters’ strategic use of its unique content, WestlawNext is the benchmark against which other legal research products—premium (LexisNexis and Bloomberg Law), low-cost (Fastcase, among others) and free (Google Scholar)—are measured.
With Firm Central, Thomson Reuters is in a vastly different position. The much younger, more nimble Clio and RocketMatter launched in 2008, and MyCase launched in 2010. Even fellow behemoth LexisNexis got the jump on Thomson Reuters, taking its Firm Manager out of public beta in early 2011.
Firm Central features
At launch, Firm Central will contain three primary practice management components: (1) a matter manager that allows users to associate documents, e-mails and contacts with matters; (2) a time and billing module; and (3) calendaring functionality.
The matter manager
When a user sets up a new matter in Firm Central, the application automatically creates folders for that matter within Windows Explorer (within the Firm Central folder), Outlook and WestlawNext. To load an email or document into Firm Central, simply drag and drop it into the Firm Central matter folder.
Once a document or e-mail has been added into Firm Central, it can be viewed within the application’s document viewer. For all Firm Central users, citations within documents and e-mails accessed in the viewer are linked to the cited material in WestlawNext and, if there is negative history, flagged with the applicable KeyCite flag. Firm Central users who also subscribe to WestlawNext will be able to click the citation link to view the cited material and the KeyCite flag to view the to the full KeyCite result (Thomson Reuters has not yet decided what access will be provided to Westlaw Classic subscribers and to users who do not subscribe to either WestlawNext or Westlaw Classic). Users can also initiate WestlawNext research sessions from within Firm Central (i.e., without having to login separately to WestlawNext). Documents saved to a matter folder within WestlawNext are automatically associated with the matter in Firm Central.
Documents and e-mails cannot be modified in the Firm Central document viewer. However, the original documents and e-mails can be opened, viewed and modified in their native applications.
It is important to understand that Firm Central is a completely hosted solution that does not automatically create locally-stored versions of documents and e-mails that are saved within the user’s Firm Central folder. This presents a problem if internet connectivity is lost. However, the problem can be solved by using an automatic backup program such as Second Copy to save local copies of all Firm Central documents.
Time and billing
Firm Central’s time and billing module is fairly standard. Features include:
- a built-in timer
- preloaded ABA billing codes
- hourly, flat-rate, and retainer billing options
- billing by client, matter, activity, and firm member
- one-click invoicing in Legal Data Exchange (LEDES) format
- history that speeds up client-conflict checks
- trust account management
- payment processing
- a desktop widget that enables time entry even when the user is offline
- an Outlook plugin (compatible with Outlook 2007 and 2010 for Windows only) that allows users to create new time entries as appointments in the Outlook calendar and convert emails or appointments to time entries
Thomson Reuters didn’t develop Firm Central’s time and billing module. Instead, Firm Central uses a third-party application developed by eBillity. Although users can subscribe to Firm Central without subscribing to the time and billing module, in my view timekeeping and billing functions are critical to enable the user to benefit from the efficiencies that practice management systems are designed to provide.
Users will have the option of handling calendaring through Firm Central’s integration with Outlook or using Firm Central’s native calendar. However, the time capture methods described above in connection with the Outlook plugin will not work with the native calendar. Additionally, no other calendar integrations (such as integration with Google Calendar) are currently planned.
The Firm Central home page
The three-column layout of Firm Central’s home page will be familiar to WestlawNext users. At the top of the left-hand column are notifications concerning all recent Firm Central activity by firm members. Underneath the notifications is a News & Insight feed that contains brief summaries of litigation-related news.
The top of the center column displays the user’s recent Firm Central activity. Underneath the Firm Central activity is a WestlawNext search box (along with the option to change jurisdictions), and underneath that is a list of the user’s most recent WestlawNext activity.
At the top of the right-hand column is a simple user-specific task list. The task list does not include due dates (unless the due date is included in the name of the task). This means that tasks can’t be searched by due date. Underneath the task list is a link to the time and billing module, which is discussed in more detail above. The bottom of the right-hand column displays the user’s recent activity in Westlaw Form Builder, an existing Thomson Reuters document automation product to which users must subscribe separately. (Prices for Form Builder plans vary by state and practice area, and start at $69/month.)
Finally, in the top right-hand corner of the page is a search box. Users can search the content of all documents and e-mails within Firm Central using natural language or Boolean search, and search results can be filtered by type (contact, e-mail, document, etc.).
How Firm Central stacks up against the competition
Firm Central’s feature set at launch is weak compared to the features offered by its main competitors:
|Client portal||yes||coming Q1/Q2 2013||yes||planned|
|Document storage||unlimited||unlimited||unlimited||10 GB per firm + 2 GB per user (option to purchase additional storage)|
|Document automation||included||included||included||via Form Builder, starting at $69 per month|
|Tasks||shared, matter-level task list|
link tasks to matters
assign tasks to other users
|link tasks to matters|
assign tasks to other users
tag tasks to assemble a Getting Things Done System
|link tasks to matters|
assign tasks to other users
|individual task list
tasks cannot be linked to matters or assigned to other users
|E-mail integration||user forwards incoming, and copies outgoing, e-mails from any e-mail program to Clio's matter-specific and/or global maildrops||via IMAP (details)||user forwards incoming, and copies outgoing, e-mails from any e-mail program to MyCase; e-mails must then be manually associated with matters||Outlook|
|Other integrations||Outlook contacts, calendar and tasks|
Google Calendar and Google Contacts sync
|Google Calendar sync (Google Contacts sync under development)|
Outlook contacts and calendar
|CaseLogistix (e-discovery platform for search, review and document coding) (planned)
Case Notebook (case analysis software to organize, analyze, and collaborate) (planned)
|Search||global search||global intelligent search (autocomplete)|
Boolean search available
search results can be filtered by type
|Online bill payment||credit card processing via PayPal,* LawPay or LawCharge||coming Q1/Q2 2013 (details pending)||credit card processing via PayPros, Inc., Authorize.net or PayPal Pro*||credit card processing via PayPal*|
|Support hours||8 am - 8 pm ET, M-F||9 am - 8 pm ET, M-F||Hours not listed on website||24/7/365|
*Because PayPal does not provide an option to have client funds deposited into a trust account while transaction fees are debited from an operating account, this may create ethics issues when accepting credit card payments for unearned fees.
Although Thomson Reuters did not announce a price for Firm Central, the company says pricing (including the cost of the optional time and billing module) will be competitive with other cloud-based practice management products, which generally cost $30–$50 a month per user. To encourage Firm Central users to subscribe to WestlawNext (and vice versa), Thomson Reuters will offer package discounts. Additionally, each Thomson Reuters customer will have a single assigned sales representative for both WestlawNext and Firm Central.
UPDATE 1/28/13 11:30 a.m.: According to the newly-launched Firm Central website, Firm Central will cost $35/month per user, and the time and billing module (which I consider to be critical to any practice management system) will cost $25/month per user.
Analysis: the limited benefits provided by Firm Central’s integration with other Thomson Reuters products don’t outweigh its shortcomings
At the Eagan briefing, Thomson Reuters explained that its goal is to “evolv[e] from a content business to a true solutions organization [by] integrating [its] core legal information with software and solutions in a way that has a positive, and productive, effect on [its] customers’ workflow.” However, in my view, integrating WestlawNext into a practice management system provides limited benefits. I concede that there is some value in the KeyCite flags that Firm Central automatically applies to citations that appear in documents viewed in the application’s own document viewer (the value is particularly great for Firm Central users who don’t otherwise have access to a reliable citator because they don’t subscribe to WestlawNext, Westlaw Classic or LexisNexis). However, I don’t find it time-consuming log on to WestlawNext to retrieve and/or KeyCite a source cited in a document (even if I have to retype a citation that appears in a pdf document). Similarly, it’s not onerous to open a browser tab and log on to WestlawNext to search or to view my recent search history. Moreover, because citations are flagged and linked within the Firm Central document viewer, but documents can’t be edited within the viewer, displaying documents in the viewer actually adds a step to the user’s workflow, rather than streamlining it.
Firm Central’s integration with Form Builder will be helpful only to those lawyers who subscribe to it. The primary benefits of Form Builder over other document automation programs are: (1) Form Builder contains forms from well-known, highly respected sources and authors (such as McKinney’s New York Forms); and (2) Form Builder users get free access within WestlawNext to any authority (including statutes, codes, and relevant analytical material) cited in a Form Builder document or its commentary. As indicated in the chart above, although Clio, Rocketmatter and MyCase don’t offer integration with form books, all offer automated document assembly using the user’s own templates. The absence of that kind of document assembly tool is a significant drawback for Firm Central.
While the WestlawNext and Form Builder integrations arguably have some value to some Firm Central users, the News & Insight integration will provide little, if any, value to most users. The News & Insight feed (which cannot be hidden) is not customizable by practice area or jurisdiction. In my view, including a News & Insight feed (which is, after all, freely available online to anyone who wants to subscribe to it in an RSS reader) takes Thomson Reuters’ goal of integrating its various products too far: a practice management system should focus on management of the firm’s matters, not serve as a vehicle to distract users with information that is most likely not relevant to their practices.
Like its main competitors, Firm Central offers global search. Although the ability to apply Boolean search to documents within Firm Central theoretically brings the same benefits that Boolean search brings to legal research, in practice that benefit should be negligible because: (1) a firm’s own documents are a much more limited haystack in which to search than primary law materials are; and (2) a firm’s documents that are identified by search are more likely to be familiar to the searcher than the results of a primary law search, making it easier to choose relevant documents from a broader results set. Additionally, while search results within Firm Central can be filtered by type of document, that’s not a significant competitive benefit because Clio, RocketMatter and MyCase separate search results by document type.
The two most significant drawbacks of Firm Central are its task list and e-mail integration. While the Firm Central team stressed its goal of making the product easy to use, the simple, user-specific task list is woefully inadequate for any professional. With respect to e-mail, while Thomson Reuters found that 70—80% of Firm Central’s target market uses Outlook for e-mail, for the significant minority of small firms that don’t use Outlook, Firm Central isn’t even an option.
The unavailability of online bill payment via a merchant processor that can debit fees from an operating account means that Firm Central is simply not an option for yet another group of firms—those that want to accept credit card payments for unearned fees.
A client portal that enables clients to access their records or check case status at any time offers the benefit of convenience and saves costs by eliminating the need for staff to respond to client requests for information. Client portals also offer a secure way to share documents with clients (and vice versa). Because Thomson Reuters plans to add a client portal to Firm Central (although it’s unclear when that will happen), the absence of a client portal at launch isn’t a dealbreaker.
The one area in which Firm Central should have a clear advantage over the competition is the availability of live support: while Clio and RocketMatter offer live support during what can be termed “extended business hours,” Firm Central support will be available 24/7/365. On the other hand, one reason to use a practice management system is to become more efficient, which should presumably reduce the need to work outside of extended business hours.
The bottom line: although Firm Central’s pricing is competitive, the product itself isn’t.
This review is based on information Thomson Reuters provided at the Eagan briefing; a more detailed demo provided by Ben Vickers, Director of Product Marketing for Firm Central; Laura Zastrow, Firm Central’s Senior Product Developer; Brian Mismash, Director of Product Strategy for Firm Central; and Cecile Schauer, VP of Small Law Product Marketing; and additional clarification by Vickers and Zastro.
Thomson Reuters paid travel expenses for many of the journalists and bloggers who attended the Eagan briefing, including me. I am also featured in customer testimonials for WestlawNext. My previous posts about WestlawNext are here. For more on Firm Central (and the other products Thomson Reuters announced last week), visit Law Technology News (another article here), Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites, 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, jasnwilsn.com, the ABA’s GPSolo eReport and Dewey B. Strategic.