New Zealand Law Society - Actionstep — product review

Actionstep — product review

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Actionstep screenshot

Actionstep is a cloud-based practice management system developed and marketed by Actionstep here in New Zealand. It runs primarily through a web browser.

I wanted to review this product because I am passionate about the potential for cloud-based products like Actionstep to help make law practices more efficient. I have heard about the product over the years and my IT company supports a couple of clients that use it, but I’d not seen or used the product myself prior to this review.

Full disclosure: being a proponent of cloud software and the founder of my own cloud software startup, it’s fair to say I have a passion for NZ-based cloud software companies. This passion is partly why Actionstep is the first product that this correspondent has reviewed for LawTalk, although I am confident that this hasn’t made me any less objective than I otherwise would have been.

In fact, I suspect that my previous experience with many awful legal practice management systems, combined with my knowledge of cloud-based applications gave me a healthy dose of cynicism approaching this review. I like to think I know where software developers hide the bodies.

I braced myself to expect the worst so I wouldn’t be too disappointed if Actionstep turned out to be a dud.

What is it?

Actionstep is a practice management system for law firms. It was launched in 2005 and was originally conceived as a generic solution for business customers. It wasn’t initially tailored to any particular industry, although over time Actionstep has found its niche and they now cater specifically to the legal profession.

Actionstep is cloud-based (the program runs from Actionstep’s servers and your data is stored in their data centres) and web-based (you primarily access it via your web browser). It costs $60 per user per month, which includes all application features and functions.

Actionstep does provide options to host your data in-country if you’re concerned about data sovereignty issues, although additional charges may apply for non-standard hosting options.

Who would use it?

Going into this review I assumed that Actionstep would only be suitable for smaller practices, but I was pleasantly surprised by its ability to appeal to larger practices, too. Features such as advanced workflows (allowing different people or teams to be responsible for each stage of a given matter), document automation and the ability to integrate with third party products mean that it is likely to be just as suitable to larger firms as it is to the sole practitioner.

Key features

Actionstep is positively brimming with features and functionality, which is simultaneously one of its key strengths and weaknesses. It’s a strength as, when used to its full potential, I have no doubt that Actionstep would be an excellent force multiplier for any legal practice, allowing you to do more with less. It’s a weakness, as neither of the two current Actionstep customers who I spoke to use the product to its full potential. Neither of them (both smaller firms) even seemed to realise some of the sexier features were there, let alone how to use them. Key features include:

Integrated client management

These are mature enough that you’re unlikely to require a separate Client Relationship Management (CRM) system. Includes an online portal for giving clients secure access to their matters and documents, which is excellent.

Advanced workflows

These are truly excellent. You can set up different workflows for different matter types and automate a range of mundane tasks, including client communications. Workflows do require a certain amount of configuration and ongoing maintenance, but it’s immediately apparent how they could make large or small practices more efficient and more accurate.

Document automation

No need to maintain separate practice management and document management apps. Actionstep doesn’t have quite the breadth of features that some specialised document management systems have, but it does integrate well with Microsoft Word and the tight integration with the rest of the app means you don’t have to waste time switching between systems, searching for documents, etc.

Trust and practice accounting

The trust accounting module is excellent. I doubt that many medium to large practices would use the accounting module for running a practice, but Actionstep does integrate natively with Xero, which is great.

Third party integrations

Actionstep’s ability to integrate with a range of third party apps, such as Google Mail, Xero, Google Drive and Zapier, make it potentially very powerful indeed. The integration with Zapier is most intriguing. This functionality, which is currently in beta (customer testing), provides the potential to integrate Actionstep with over 800 other apps. You could, for example, automatically update a distribution list in MailChimp when a contact is created or send someone an SMS when a file note is created.

The Good

Despite my best efforts to be cynical, I did find a lot to like in Actionstep. The product is mature and feature-rich and everything worked just as it should. I was impressed at how little set-up was involved to get to the point where I could use the product’s core functionality – you could easily be up and running within a couple of hours of sign-up if you were in a hurry.

The team at Actionstep have obviously spent a lot of time slaving over integrating Actionstep’s features and I think they’ve done an excellent job. Instead of having separate applications for managing clients, matters, documents, time recording and client communication, everything is right there in one easy to use application. There are lots of nice little features, such as the ability to do time recording and to record file notes using a smartphone app – very useful if you’re taking client calls on the road.

There are also lots of useful, unobtrusive interface features that are designed to minimise time spent inputting and looking for information. You can, for example, jot notes into the scratch pad and then convert those notes into a file note. You can also easily see key details for each matter from the ‘matter ribbon’ that appears at the top of the screen – very useful indeed.

I would envisage a small practice owner needing only Actionstep, Google Apps (email and file storage) and Xero (accounting) to run their practice. I’m not sure a larger practice would need much more than that, although your IT provider may try and convince you otherwise.

Because Actionstep integrates with Google Drive and Dropbox (two cloud-based file storage services) it provides access to practically unlimited storage, meaning you can securely and inexpensively store all of your firm’s files in one place. Note that neither Google Drive nor Dropbox provide in-country storage options, so these services might not be suitable if data sovereignty is an issue for your practice.

The Very Good

The absolute killer features of Actionstep have to be workflows and third party integrations.

Workflows have the potential to make any size practice more efficient and more accurate. For example, you can set up workflows for on-boarding new clients (sending out engagement letters, welcome emails, etc) and for various matter types. The handoff between teams is seamless and occurs automatically as the matter progresses from one stage to the next. You can even configure reminders and warnings to avoid deadlines being missed.

Actionstep’s third party integrations range from the relatively simple (such as integration with Google Mail and your existing calendar) to the complex (the sky’s the limit).

The Bad

Despite a thorough search I didn’t find any dead bodies. Actionstep is stable and mature and everything worked as expected.

The interface, while not unappealing, is a little out of date and could use a bit of a spruce-up. Compared to some of the practice management systems on the market today, however, it looks positively space-age, so I doubt this will be much of a turn-off.

The biggest drawback I could find with Actionstep is that most practices are likely to require a bit of professional help to get the most out of it.

Features such as workflows and third party integrations are really powerful, but implementing and maintaining them is likely to be beyond the capabilities of the average user or practice owner. Actionstep does hold regular webinars and classroom training sessions if you or one of your team wants to give it a go.

Regardless of who maintains the product, you will need to invest in setting up and maintaining these workflows to get the most out of the product, but it’s likely to be well worth the investment.

In Summary

My verdict on Actionstep is overwhelmingly positive. It is clear that the developers have taken the time to really understand how a legal practice operates and how to best support this via software. Using Actionstep I can see opportunities for practice owners to get rid of their servers (and all of the unnecessary hassle that goes with them) and to make their practices more modern and efficient.

Although it can be set up in minutes, most customers are likely to need professional help to implement Actionstep and to get the most out of advanced functionality such as workflows.

Damian Funnell is a technologist and founder of Choice Technology (an IT services company) and (a cloud software company).

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