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Can MS 365 Replace Law Practice Management Software?

Microsoft rolled out Office 365 in 2011, a subscription plan instead of the traditional installed Office suite of products. In 2020 the name of the subscription became Microsoft 365. There are different plans for home and work. The Business Standard and Premium versions come with the installed software constantly synchronized through the cloud to browser and app versions. It comes with cloud file storage, the powerful Exchange and SharePoint hosted servers, Teams for group communications including video conferencing and many more apps and tools to keep a business humming. The question is inevitable––does a firm need a purpose-built law practice management system or will the powerful Microsoft 365 suite suffice?

The Short Answer Is Not Really

Most small and medium firms buy the MS 365 Business Standard or Premium versions. Out of the box these subscription plans lack essential tools that are standard in modern law practice management applications law firms rely on to run the business of a law practice.

To name a few missing features, Microsoft 365 (Business Standard or Premium) does not have business reporting, time tracking and billing, court rules–based calendaring with ticklers, general ledger and trust accounting, conflicts checking, client portals, credit card processing and e-signatures.

You can try to replicate some features that are mostly standard in practice management applications. Much can be done with Excel spreadsheets, which are powerful if you have the skills and training to use them for tracking tasks, conflicts, time tracking and accounting. Teams can serve as a hub for internal and some external communications and collaboration, and the workspaces can be set up to include client files, communication, project plans through MS Planner and more. SharePoint can act as a document management system, an intranet and can house apps and custom-built workflows. Microsoft Lists, once part of SharePoint and now offered as an app, is a combination of database and spreadsheet and is versatile for tracking litigation, matters and tasks. Microsoft Word has long had the ability to merge data from spreadsheets and other data sources, create templates and provide some document assembly.

In addition to all the products that come bundled with the MS 365 Business Standard or Premium versions there are more products from Microsoft that can help provide a business platform. With Windows 365 you can have a virtual desktop on any device. Business Voice adds full-featured VoIP. Other tools like Dynamics 365 Business Central provide accounting, project costing, financial reporting, customer relationship management and more. Microsoft Power Platform supplies data analysis and reporting, custom built apps and automations by bundling Power BI, Power Apps and Power Automate. Yet, for all these sophisticated tools and features, to meet the needs of a law firm there would need to be a tremendous amount of customization and expense.

 What Is Microsoft 365?

There are many flavors of Microsoft 365, which can get confusing. There are personal and family plans, work plans for small and large businesses and plans for education. Law firms in the small business category (up to 300 users) will focus on business plans, which are:

  • Microsoft 365 Business Basics: $6 per user, per month and includes no software (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook), just web and mobile versions only.
  • Microsoft 365 Apps for Business: $8.25 per user, per month and does not include Teams, SharePoint, or the hosted Exchange server.
  • Microsoft 365 Business Standard: $12.50 per user, per month and includes desktop (software) versions of the Office suite plus the browser and mobile apps; Teams for collaboration, video conferencing and webinars; and hosted Exchange and SharePoint servers for business email, contacts, calendars, document libraries and workflows.
  • Microsoft 365 Business Premium: $22 per user, per month includes everything in Business Standard, plus cyberthreat protection and access controls. It comes with Business Defender, endpoint security for devices, Information Rights Management, email encryption, mobile device management and more.

Most law firms will want to choose Business Standard or Business Premium to get the full complement of hosted servers, installed Office applications, video conferencing and collaboration tools.

If your firm has a Microsoft 365 Business Standard or Premium account, the list of tools available through the subscription is not limited to what is listed on the Microsoft sales website. If you go to (soon to be the Microsoft 365 app) and log in with your work account, you can click on the “square of squares” in the upper left corner. Then choose “All Apps.” You may see unfamiliar names like Bookings, Delve, Lists, Power Automate, Stream, Sway, and To Do. Depending on your subscription, you may have full access to these other products, limited use or it may require an additional subscription. Some of these lesser-known applications can be useful for law firms.

Bookings, like Calendly and Accuity, lets clients book appointments that flow directly to your Outlook calendar. You can have many types of meetings (intake, depo prep, eat and greet, etc.) and you can set up rules so your calendar is not overwhelmed. You can create a nice landing page with your firm logo. You can set up Bookings pages, so clients get text and email reminders and email follow-ups. Clients can cancel or reschedule meetings easily.

Forms are a lightweight and easy-to-use tool to gather information from clients, send a client satisfaction survey and many more uses.

Power Automate lets you create workflows and automate tasks between Microsoft products and other business products. For example, if you get an email from a particular client with an attachment you can automatically have the attachment saved in a OneDrive, Teams or SharePoint folder. Or create a task in Planner from MS Forms and post a message to Teams. Or create an Asana task when an Outlook email is flagged. There are hundreds of templates, and you can customize them for your needs.

Planner is an easy project management tool that lets you create task assignments and deadlines for matters. You can view Planner as a stand-alone web app, on your mobile device, or in Teams. In addition to matters, your firm can use Planner for marketing plans, onboarding and more. Each plan has project reports and lots of filters. Users have an “Assigned to me” view to see all tasks on their plate. You can add plans to the Outlook calendar, add them to a OneNote notebook, copy a plan to use as a template and much more.

To Do is a powerful personal task list. Flagged emails, Planner tasks, Outlook tasks, tasks from your daily Viva Insights emails and more are automatically suggested on your task list. You can also create shared tasks list templates with assignments for other people in the firm.

There are so many apps in the MS 365 Business Standard and Premium beyond Office, Teams and OneDrive. And many communicate with each other, sharing information so you have more context and connections to flow through the products.

Structural Differences

A major differentiator between MS 365 and law practice management systems is the underlying design. MS 365 is a suite of software and apps, tied with server products. Unless you have done some extensive customization or create a database using the Access application (PC Only), MS 365 is a suite of applications that share information between the products. For example, you can see an Outlook email thread if you share a link to a Word document through OneDrive. Or, if you flag an email for follow up it will appear as a suggested task in To Do. You can create Power Automate connections to automatically move attachments from email to SharePoint or Teams or email to Teams based on select criteria.

Most law practice management applications are built on a database structure. Fields and inputs are shared across the platform. You can see all your client/matter information through dashboards that pull all the fields into view. If you change the name of a client, that change persists across the database. You can run reports, drill down, add custom fields and integrate with other applications like QuickBooks to share common fields through synchronization.

Basics of Law Practice Management Systems (LPMS)

One major distinction between MS 365 Business Standard or Premium and a practice management system is organization and out of the box functionality. LPMS assume an organizational structure focused on clients and matters. From pre-intake, intake, billing and matter close the systems meet the needs of most law practices. They corral all the information pertinent to a matter––documents, communications, deadlines, time and billing, trust account management and workflows. Effectively used, a lawyer can call up a client or matter in LPMS and see the progress in a matter lifecycle.

For example, a search across LPMS will reveal documents, financials, communications and more. Search in MS 365 is significantly weaker. You may have to run multiple searches in multiple ways to find all the information you need to assess progress on a matter or prepare for a client status meeting. Without creating a purpose-built, conflict checking app in MS 365 with a tool like MS Lists, a spreadsheet, database or customizing Outlook contacts, a firm’s conflict checking may not be extensive or sophisticated enough to satisfy the needs of conflicts checks that include D/B/A, fuzzy search, name variations, associated parties, etc. Plus, this information is typically entered into an LPMS for potential, current and former clients as a part of the workflow. In MS 365 a firm would have to create the workflow to input the information needed to do a conflict check.

While a firm can create a spreadsheet to track time and billing information and use a mail merge to generate invoices, without using an additional sales tracking tool MS 365 simply doesn’t provide what most LPMS have as core functionality. These include establishing for each client how they will be billed (flat fee, tracked time, subscriptions, etc.), origination and responsible attorneys and staff, trust account balances, invoice generation, PCI-compliant credit card processing, accounting or accounting integration tied to a bank account and more.

Another major difference between MS 365 and most browser-based LPMS is a client portal. While a firm can set up a SharePoint portal or Teams workspace to communicate, meet, share files and brainstorm with a client, the functionality is limited and requires creation and organization of these shared spaces. It also assumes that the client has an MS 365 account and the sophistication to use it. Client portals in browser-based LPMS are set up to collaborate and share with clients, using information already resident in the system. These can include secure communications, upload and download of documents, appointments and deadlines, bills and payment and tasks. The client creates a username and password unique to their legal representation, not one that might be shared or accessible to their family or work.

Hybrid Options

If you have rejected a full LPMS in the past, a few tools on the market use your existing business applications to add functionality and a client/matter organizational structure. One is Matter 365, an overlay that leverages the power of MS 365 and QuickBooks Online to create a client/matter structure. Create a new matter and Matter 365 provisions Planner, Teams, OneNote, OneDrive, Outlook Groups and SharePoint along with QuickBooks Online. The product itself then gives you a client/matter dashboard, instead of having to go into each app for an overall perspective. It adds time and expense tracking, plus a conflict check. It also integrates with Gravity Legal for payment processing. All data lives in your Microsoft tenant, not stored in Matter 365, and you log in with your MS 365 account. This product is new in the scheme of things, and costs $30 per user, per month when billed yearly.

Another product that uses MS products is Curo365. Curo365 customizes Microsoft Dynamics 365 Sales Enterprises for law firms. Leveraging the tools in MS 365 Business and Power BI for analytics, plus Business Central for finance, this is a sophisticated all-in-one product. The cost is based on Microsoft licensing, $95 per user, per month for legal professionals and $40 per user, per month for administrative staff. Curo365 requires at least 10 legal professional licenses.

Unbundled Options

If your firm has found that Microsoft 365 is sufficient for most tasks but lacks a few necessary features, you can take advantage of third-party tools that provide integrations to add what is missing for firms.

Docket management: Add-ons like LawToolBox integrate with MS 365 (and lots of other products) through Teams and the Outlook calendar to create deadlines and ticklers for filings based on court rules. Similar docket management add-ons include

Conflicts checking: There are few stand-alone conflicts checking applications left, as they are commonly available in LPMS. You can use a spreadsheet, use a time/billing application with specific conflict checking functions or build a database in MS Lists. Some stand-alone options are Client Conflict Check, iManage Conflicts Manager and RTG Conflicts Online.

Time/billing/accounting: Many firms use QuickBooks for time tracking, trust account management and accounting. However, QuickBooks does not integrate with MS 365 to make it easier to track time. There are many stand-alone time and billing applications, and some integrate with MS 365. For example, TimeSolv has an Outlook add-on to create time entries for drafting emails and turning calendar events into time entries. Soluno offers billing, trust accounting and general ledger and accounts payable and has MS 365 integrations.

Document assembly: While you can use MS Word natively to create fillable forms, clause libraries and assemble documents from spreadsheets, there are easier and more powerful tools for lawyers. Add-ins like Pathagoras, TheFormTool family, Word LX and many more are often more robust and easier to use than the tools built into Microsoft.

Document management: When you have too many users or too many documents or emails, file naming conventions, foldering and archiving, retention schedules, and search bog down when left to each end user. Tools like NetDocuments, iManage, DocMoto and others can help a firm keep documents and emails organized and searchable. These tools also often include more robust versioning, email and document profiles, better search and secure collaboration than what is in OneDrive or SharePoint.

©2023. First published in Law Practice Magazine Vol. 49 Issue 2 Mar/April 2023 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.