In the Spotlight: Best-of-breed vs Build your own software

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IT software is arguably the backbone of business today, particularly in law firms. Commonly, off the shelf systems offer a comprehensive IT solution designed to enhance a law firm’s specific operational and client service efficiencies, but what’s the case for having customised software built to exactly match the nuances of the firm? Or indeed, building your own? To find out, specialist legal IT consultant at Lights-On, Stephen Brown, looks at the pros and cons of Best-of-Breed, Integrated and Build Your Own software solutions.

This article is in two parts – the first focuses on the current software application architecture of law firms, and the second addresses the changes that are being driven by Cloud. This is reflective of today’s environment, which is changing at a phenomenal rate, with Apps for everything, multiple data sets, and a ‘consumers of tech’ society that is embracing the App economy.

Part 1

To begin, lets provide a clear definition of the main types of software solutions:

‘Best-of-breed’: deemed to provide the best functionality, service, support and application on the market to meet a specific need e.g. time recording.  Each product will generally have its own supplier.

‘Integrated software’: meets the needs of multiple requirements for a firm e.g. Practice, Case and Document Management along with time recording.  There will be one vendor for sale and maintenance payments, and multiple departments for specific components of the product, each with service, support and maintenance provisions.

‘Build your own’: created when a law firm builds its own proprietary software in-house and is the sole provider of support and maintenance.

Having understood the options, it’s important to consider the pros and cons for each, as knowing the good, bad and ugly of these will help understand which option is right for the firm.

Best-of-breed – the pros

Software that generally has a specific role in a firm provided by a single supplier.  The key feature is the provision of a deep level of functionality for a specific area of the firm’s management and operation.

Although the name suggests that single software options only do one thing, the reality is that best-of-breed systems can be customised to meet a firm’s needs, without paying for extras it doesn’t need or want.  Simply put, all of the expertise, focus, R&D and budget goes into delivering an application that has a sole purpose.

Importantly, best-of-breed delivers a specific solution for a specific problem which is deemed the best in the field, offers flexibility, customisation, with a greater depth of functionality than is generally found in a competing integrated solution.

Best-of-breed – the cons

Best-of-breed software tends to have a higher cost of integration because in general, it will need to consume or provide data to other systems and solutions. While many consider this to be a long-term investment and worth the additional expenditure, the  costs can look intimidating.

These integrations with other software products can also limit or delay upgrade options in the future as the firm may have to wait for other products to support new versions of a particular solution.

However, any additional cost is offset by increased functionality leading to a greater return on investment or benefits.  A ‘best-of-breed’ strategy can allow a firm to provide an overall technology solution that exceeds an all-in-one system.

Integrated software – the pros

Software for both a law firm’s front and back office, provided under a single software solution umbrella that should provide a consistent application interface and ‘way of working’.  Managing data and ensuring a single source should be easier as all parts of the firm should be looking at the same data e.g. the client records.

An integrated all-in-one software solution can provide a ‘one-stop shopping experience’.  Typically, they are designed with a single user interface that provides consistency across modules, which can expedite the learning curve and amount of user training for efficient operation.

Most all-in-one solutions have tightly maintained integration points.  Switching between modules, client, contacts, documents can appear relatively seamless to a user.

Depending on the type of work it is designed to assist, an integrated solution can provide a cost saving – the cost of purchasing separate solutions may invariably be higher overall with the added, associated training and maintenance costs on top.

Integrated software – the cons

The reality of the situation is that no software is fully integrated.  Even the most comprehensive solutions will need to integrate with MS Office, form providers and web gateways.

Some integrated software tools may be able to perform a range of functions, but the trade-off is that it may not deliver the full range of functionality in some aspects like mobile and artificial intelligence, or be able to cope with extremely large data sets because of its reduced capabilities and functionality.  Simply put, the expertise, focus, R&D and budget goes into delivering an application that has to deliver functionality across a broad list of requirements/needs.

An additional consideration is the increased impact of the inevitable end of life characteristic of an integrated software solution – once an end of life date has been identified there may be opportunity to either purchase another up-to-date integrated solution or separate solutions.  Any migration to or from requires a change for the whole firm rather than just a specific department or function with the firm.

Build your own software

Like everything in life, we all think building your own provides the best. The reality is that many self-build houses run over budget and kit cars are left sat in garages half built. In the same way, building your own software can look easy and ‘cheap’ in comparison to the cost of production software, but the hidden costs paint a different picture.

Having been responsible for a development team, and built, maintained and inherited in-house software development, I know this is an area that requires expertise, knowledge and experience of analysis, code control, design principles, upgrades, bugs, security and support to name just a few.  That is before you get into the detail of documentation, project management and coding principles.

The speaker, author, and legal commentator Tim B Corcoran is especially forthright in his views on whether law firms should build their own software systems. He says law firms should never develop their own software. Not only is it costly, but build-your-own software is likely to involve a firm’s own IT people, but not those necessarily expert in gathering and translating business requirements into tech specs – nor, importantly, tackling all aspects of coding: writing code, testing code, and documenting code.

Creating an entire software solution requires immense skill, and must be followed by user testing, training users, and inevitably fixing bugs on release.

Advice for lawyers is to take your own advice – in the same way clients hire a law firm as the experts in law, then lawyers should stay focused, stick to their day job and outsource the firm’s IT solutions to a dedicated specialist software vendor, who has the relevant experience, knowledge and skills.

I do agree, but to put this in context, it should be noted that there are a number of leading international law firms that have done the opposite and developed and run a bespoke PMS or case workflow system.

Part 2

Horses for courses

Simplistically perhaps, but choosing the right software is a case of ‘horses for courses’.  The choice must be made wisely, and only after some important questions have been answered to identify the most relevant and best software solution for your firm, before making the decision to go with either best-of-breed or build your own / integrated software.

Questions to ask should include:

  • Will the built solution offer a competitive advantage?
  • Can we build it?
  • Can we build it for less money?
  • Can we build it fast enough?
  • Is building this solution the only way to address our requirements?
  • Is the solution based on products on our technology roadmap?
  • Is this the best use of our internal IT resource?
  • Are we willing to accept the risks involved in building it ourselves?
  • Can we provide adequate support and upgrades after implementation?
  • Will this differentiate us from our competitors?
  • What are the firm’s challenges, today and tomorrow?

Be sure to identify the drivers of tech in your firm – is it partners who are demanding a joined-up IT system? Or is yours a multidisciplinary law firm that demands complete integration? Or is the focus on delivering commoditised or knowledge-based law services?

In the same way that we as consumers have individual Apps for banking, shopping and booking holidays, hotels, flights and trains, there are individual Apps for different aspects of the legal journey. This is significant for law firms, as these buying habits must inform whether to select best-of-breed, integrated, or build your own software systems.

Whichever, the decision must also address and consider compliance and the regulators.

Money, money, money

One important point to note is that sometimes best-of-breed solutions become ‘integrated’ by acquisition.  Recent announcements from Thompson Reuters – which acquired HighQ and IntApp which most recently acquired OnePlace and historically Rekoop – will integrate some functionality of the solutions within their own product suite, or keep them as standalone products with the service and maintenance point of contacts diverted to the umbrella company.

They may also have interested VCs well-placed to provide finance should the desire or opportunity arise to purchase a smaller company outright, so it’s in the software supplier’s interests to absorb the knowledge and technology of the smaller solution by either adding it as an additional module, or bundling it within the whole package (with the financials hidden in an overall cost).

Plan to succeed

Consider the mantra ‘Strategy first, software second’. As with most things in life, research and understanding is key. The firm’s strategy is what informs and drives the IT strategy, and underpins the selection of the right software system that supports and enables this.

So consider all the options to establish which software has the best fit with the operation, services and culture of the firm, and its short and long-term plans. Identify precisely what the software will have to do, the available budget and, importantly, what IT support the system will need  once it goes live.

Note: The thoughts outlined in this article are intended to provide insights only and do not constitute advice. Always engage with a qualified expert before embarking on any IT project.

This article was first published in the Solicitors Journal.