Legal time and billing software has seen a great deal of change over the past four decades. From punch cards to Web-based time entry, the industry has and continues to make impressive technological leaps. Here is a brief synopsis of some of the time and billing “rites of passage,” if you will, from 1970 to more current times..
1990’s – Current Times
By the mid 1990s, almost all firms had newly networked PCs that had become word-processor and email machines. A split was starting to take place in the time and billing world. Small and mid-sized firms were moving to 100% PC solutions, and larger firms were remaining on UNIX mini-computer systems. This was predominately a database issue. There were no large scale PC-based databases. A vendor could choose FoxPro or ACCESS but neither would scale up to meet the needs of larger firms.
Early DOS-based time and billing systems such as Pyramid or Juris®, originally designed for very small firms, were already starting to creep into mid-sized law firms with Windows-based versions. This allowed firms to finally eliminate their mini-computers at a substantial cost savings. An early pioneer in this endeavor was a West Coast-based visionary, Alan Rich, Jr, who had a PC-based program that ran on SCO Unix. His company was called Elite Data Systems. He boldly challenged the larger time and billing vendors with a price competitive UNIX-based system, which eventually enabled him to become the all-time market leader in larger law firms.
During this time, another disruptive technology made its’ mark in time and billing technology history. After many years of development in the university and defense community, in October 1995, the Federal Networking Council unanimously passed a resolution which defined the term “Internet.” The Internet refers to global linking by unique addresses (IP), with the ability to use a standard communication protocol (TCP/IP), that provides users with access to remote information and the ability to send email messages around the world on a standard platform. The same debate again took place, as it had done during the introduction of the first PCs 10 years earlier. Was this geek toy (the Internet) ever going to have any useful benefit?
The early Windows® PC time and billing systems were, for the very first time, allowing attorneys to enter their own time, perform simple inquiries and view docket calendars. The technology frenzy began around 1997, when firms started planning for the Y2K phenomenon. Many older computers only had 2-digit year fields in their code which was fine until 1999 tried to become 2000. Large numbers of firms had to invest in new systems. It was also time to “standardize,” proprietary was out, standard was in. Even larger firms were switching to Windows®-based time and billing systems, discarding their mini-computers for larger PC file servers. Microsoft® SQL Server became the platform of choice, and the cost of databases and servers plunged over the period of just a few years. Hardware no longer became a major issue as it was in the mini-computer age.
Attorneys, too, were changing. They started accepting desktop PCs as a tool of their trade and even began to travel with notebooks, eventually adopting palm-sized systems such as BlackBerry and now Apple iPads.
More Current Times
Today, firms have come to expect unlimited flexibility, hundreds of advanced bill formats, unlimited rate structures and e-billing. Firms expect fully- integrated collections systems, full-text conflict searching, marketing, case management and docketing that are every bit as capable as their accounting systems. Business Intelligence and Digital Scorecards in a browser screen have put highly complex data analysis in the hands of everyone from novice attorneys to partners who seek information to manage the practice of law and their clients as a business.
Will we circle back to the old days? No? Well, we may see the day when all time and billing systems are 100% browser-based, running from a giant Web server(s). This effectively turns the desktop computer back into a “terminal,” since a Windows®-browser program is identical to its predecessor terminal emulation software. It is also possible that once a firm runs the majority of applications strictly from a browser, the servers will get migrated off-site to the “cloud”. The “cloud” would effectively operate as the service bureaus of 35 years ago. We probably won’t see the paper time sheets and key punch operators again, and no one believes we’ll see firms eliminate pre-bill editing. Other than these changes the basic core of time and billing, along with the rest of the accounting functions, in essence hasn’t changed much in 40 years.