For accounting firms, the term "practice management" covers a range of definitions that includes virtually everything from codes of practice to the assignment of parking spaces. But when it comes to software, the term rapidly focuses on four capabilities that the management of any accounting firm needs to have available:1. The accurate collection of time, expense and billing data, with the added ability to integrate this information into the firm's internal accounting system.

2. A contact management system that provides for strong client and staff communications across the widest array of communications devices and technologies. For most software developers, the starting point for this capability has been integration with Microsoft Outlook and with various smartphone and PDA devices.

3. Workflow management and reporting capabilities that provide instant snapshots of the firm's financial and workflow health, with the ability to assign and re-assign resources (both staff and material) to projects on the fly.

4. The ability to slice and dice the data in myriad ways to determine the exact blend of staff, resources, clients, services, partners and projects that will maximize the profitability of the firm, while at the same time enhancing the value of its services to clients.

No single software application on the market today meets all four of these needs completely, though some come very close. Unfortunately, most of these are integrated with or tied to accounting software suites that may make them less useful for accounting firms using other internal accounting systems.

At the economy end of the market for practice management products are a number of applications that began life as just time and billing systems, but are rapidly evolving to become excellent management tools for small and midsized firms. At this end of the market, advanced data manipulation may take a back seat to ease of navigation and greater flexibility in reporting.

Our 2007 overview of practice management software includes six of the top packages available. While all are exceptional in their own right, they vary widely in cost, features and specifics, so that accounting firms will need to closely examine their own needs before narrowing a list of candidates to consider for implementation.

CASEWARE TIME

CaseWare Time is a strong and evolving practice management solution for accounting firms, with features that respond clearly to the need for enhanced workflow management, firm management, internal accounting and client communication.

The heart of the system, beyond the basics of timekeeping and reporting, is the management dashboard CaseWare Today. Built on Microsoft's Outlook and Exchange platform, CaseWare Today links data from Time to Outlook's contact management and personal management features to eliminate duplication of data. This contact management system is enhanced with word processing and spreadsheet capabilities to provide for effective client communication, including the ability to save and send documents in PDF format.

Strong reporting and data manipulation capabilities are also core to the application. Partners are able to view total exposure for any client through integrated work-in-process and accounts receivable reports; produce detailed and summary work-in-process reports by work code and employee subtotal; monitor partner productivity summarizing reports for work in process, accounts receivable and billings; generate productivity and profitability reports for all staff and clients; and produce accounts-receivable trial balances, payment histories and statements. In addition, an Export to Working Papers feature enables the export of invoice, cash receipts, credit note, and approved time and expense journal entries automatically to your CaseWare Working Papers general ledger.

The most recent version, CaseWare Time 2006, brought tighter integration with CaseWare Working Papers' engagement file; added the ability to send batch e-mails to clients; enabled direct import from Excel; and added support for Outlook messaging items.

CaseWare Time offers a compelling blend of high-end practice management features with an economical price. Powerful yet easy to navigate, it should be a top candidate for firms exploring ways to make more effective use of their client and firm data.

IMAGINETIME

ImagineTime is a time management tool that stretches into the realm of practice management through advanced features that include an integrated appointment calendar and contact management system, a due date monitoring system for task and project management, and PDA/Palm Pilot integration features.

Its strength is and has always been its simple and sturdy feature set. It offers the ability to panel key screens such as the calendar, time entry, billing dashboard and contact manager, so that these screens restore their last positions when opened. More recently, the software has expanded with four customized interfaces to meet the differing needs of users - an administrator menu, staff and supervisor side bar menus, the "power user" icon-based menu, and a due date monitor sidebar.

ImagineTime clearly faces strong challenges from competitive packages and the need to grow rapidly following its split from Both Worlds Software in 2005. Just as clearly, the development team recognizes the challenges and is responding with new features and capabilities. In the past year, interactive tutorials have been made easier to access from the main menu; the engagement budgeting and reporting system has been upgraded; an e-mail blaster utility has been added for the calendar/contact management system; a final bill procedure now allows a series of in-progress bills to be cleared against time and then summarized on the final bill; and the final billing information can be exported to QuickBooks for more advanced accounting functionality.

Well-positioned as a value-based practice management solution for the small to midsized firm, ImagineTime also delivers some useful management capabilities through its add-on packages, including synchronization with Microsoft Outlook, workflow management through due date monitoring, and the ability to remotely enter time and billing data. It offers a practical and utilitarian alternative for firms that have no need for more expansive - and expensive - management solutions.

PRACTICE CS

Practice CS, the practice management solution from Creative Solutions' family of deeply integrated products, continues to advance the state of accounting software with each new generation. In the third generation of the CS line of products, Practice CS is a powerful, flexible product designed to streamline both workflow and profitability for the accounting firm.

Built on the Microsoft .Net platform, Practice CS offers exceptional integration with Outlook, making good use of that program's ease of navigation, communications, workflow, tasking and note-taking capabilities. It also integrates tightly with FileCabinet CS, providing access to archived documents and workpapers-in-progress.

The program is centered around browser-like digital dashboards - customized views of staff, clients and firm activities that can give anyone in the firm both a snapshot of the current status and a rich set of tools to manage engagements, workflow, timekeeping, billing and accounting.

To customize the program to exactly the way each firm operates, Practice CS allows user preferences to specify how data entry fields are handled; customer terminology to match accounting terms as used within the firm; custom fields for report groupings; custom filters for data selection; and the ability to track an unlimited number of contacts for staff, clients and business partners.

An add-on module for project management enables the identification of tasks and timing for each project, the tracking of due dates, monitoring of staff performance, and other critical firm workflow control systems. Equally important, Practice CS has nearly 30 standard reports, which have many grouping and filtering options, giving a user complete access to all information about operations within the firm.

Practice CS is of obvious value to firms that make use of the full family of Creative Solutions software products. But it should be a strong candidate even as a stand-alone product for any growing firm. Already replete with strong features and flexibility, Practice CS is a product at the top of its form, and it is still getting better with each generation.

PROSYSTEM FX PRACTICE MANAGEMENT

CCH's ProSystem fx Practice Management is a robust time, billing and management application built on the Microsoft .Net platform. Acquired last year from Sage Software, it is offered in tandem with other CCH practice management solutions and offers integration with both Sage and ProSystem fx applications.

ProSystem fx Practice Management provides for time and billing; marketing and communication support; referral and prospect tracking; continuing professional education tracking; strategic decision support; and integration with not only Microsoft Outlook and ProSystem fx Tax, but also the Sage MAS 90/200, Sage MAS 500 and Sage Abra applications.

ProSystem fx Practice Management is scalable to any size accounting firm, with an Enterprise Edition with SQL Server support, an Office Edition for the MSDE platform, and a Basic Edition offering strong time and billing capabilities.

An additional time-and-expense entry module enables on-screen, daily use as a timesheet by employees. Employees are able to analyze timesheet entries - including sick, vacation, marketing, billable and non-billable - in summary view and with drill-down capability. Another module for contact management and marketing has features that track clients, contacts, business affiliates, prospects and leads.

A billing and invoicing module provides for flexible invoices without the use of a third-party word processor. A key indicators module provides business intelligence to identify and assess client and staff information without running full reports. Other modules provide for project management, accounts receivable, a reporting system with more than 70 standard reports, and remote timekeeping over the Internet.

Though of obvious benefit to larger firms using Sage enterprise accounting solutions, ProSystem fx Practice Management also offers a powerful management solution for mid-range and growing firms. With its tight integration with Microsoft Outlook and ProSystem fx Tax, its features and capabilities place it among the top practice management solutions for accounting firms.

TIME MATTERS/BILLING MATTERS 8.0

LexisNexis Time Matters provides real-time, office-wide calendars, task management and work delegation, client/customer relations management, project/matter management, research/knowledge management, instant messaging, communications control (e-mail, telephone, fax and wireless), and more.

To round out the practice management features, Billing Matters handles basic to advanced billing that can use split, flat, consolidated and allocated fees, plus trust accounting, budgeting and productivity reporting. The associated set of accounting features provides a complete accounts payable and receivable, a flexible general ledger, world-class check writing, and bank reconciliation.

The two are bundled in an accounting suite that is among the most powerful and flexible in the industry. In addition to its own intuitive interface and functionality, the programs offer deep integration with such popular programs as QuickBooks for accounting and Microsoft Outlook for e-mail management. And the suite offers an excellent migration path to more advanced management functions that include document management and enhanced group communications.

The Professional-level suite is recommended for small and midsized accounting firms, while firms large enough to require advanced database capabilities for their "matters" can upgrade to an enterprise solution build for SQL.

Time Matters 8.0 represents a substantial upgrade in the capabilities of the suite, including PDA and smartphone integration, a toolbar for the Firefox and Acrobat applications, improved Outlook integration, the ability to send e-mails in PDF format, and enhanced security. Billing Matters 8.0 is a less substantial upgrade, but does include simplified recurring payables, automated e-mailing of invoices, new billing reports and views, and new bill design options. A newly released Service Release 1A for both packages provides support for the new Windows Vista operating system and Microsoft Office 2007.

Sleek, scalable and packed with management features, LexisNexis Time Matters/Billing Matters 8.0 ranks among the best of the practice management packages in use by accounting firms today. Focused tightly on client and group communications, the suite also produces strongly in the areas of workflow, document management and in-firm accounting to present a balanced set of features and capabilities.

TIMESLIPS BY SAGE 2007

Long a standard for small and midsized businesses that track their time, Timeslips is another strong time and billing package whose expanding list of features provides basic practice management functionality.

The core product handles set-up for an accounting office, the collection of time and expense information, and the creation of billing invoices and reports - including a number of flexible formats for hourly, contingency, flat fee, percentage of completion, interim billing and work-in-progress billing.

A text import utility allows for the importation of data from accounting or other applications (in text-delimited format). And a newly redesigned user interface provides improved navigation and access to key features.

Initial steps toward workflow management are provided by Timeslips' new slip approval system, which enables the firm's partners to designate that all slips of specified timekeepers require approval. This system also provides for simple notes to be attached to slips for better intra-office communication and management.

For communication and sharing of project and time information, Timeslips integrates easily with both Microsoft Outlook and QuickBooks. Timeslips also provides several remote options for time and expense capturing, including solutions for laptops, Web portal entry, BlackBerries, Treos, Palms and Windows Mobile. And improvements to the Timeslips Today screen - a dashboard of management information at a glance - and Navigator screen provide better workflow and at-a-glance reporting for key business information.

Other notable features include the ability to customize clients, timekeepers and tasks with up to 30 fields of user-defined data; a selection of over 100 pre-defined reports with the ability to generate custom reports as needed; automated back-up of data; PDF printing and e-mailing of bills; and the ability to export data to Microsoft Excel for enhanced data manipulation.

Timeslips by Sage 2007 has exceptionally strong time and billing characteristics that are enhanced by a bevy of recent upgrades and improvements. Though its practice management features are still in the early stages of development, Sage is clearly beefing up the application to fit a critical niche for accounting firms large enough to need these features, but still small enough that high-end practice management solutions would create more headaches than profits.

Dave McClure is the president of Kent Associates, in Alexandria, Va., an independent testing laboratory and evaluation service.

Vendor Information

Caseware Time

CaseWare International Inc.

2425B Channing Way, Ste. 590

Berkeley, Calif. 94704

(800) 267-1317

www.caseware.com

Pricing: Single timekeeper license - $499; up to five timekeepers - $999; additional timekeepers over five - $175 per timekeeper. Renewal - 50 percent of license value.

ImagineTime

ImagineTime Inc.

P.O. Box 159

Bostic, N.C. 28018

(877) 520-1525

www.imaginetime.com

Pricing: Single user - $295; Network Starter Version - $495.

Practice CS

Thomson Creative Solutions

7322 Newman Blvd.

Dexter, Mich. 48130

(800) 968-8900

http://creativesolutions.thomson.com

Pricing: Five timekeepers - $1,200; additional packs of five - $400 each. Modules - project management, $500; network module, $600; client/server module, $900. Perpetual pricing available.

ProSystem fx Practice Management

CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business

21250 Hawthorne Blvd.

Torrance, Calif. 90503

http://cchgroup.com

(800) 739-9998

Pricing: $2,595.

Time Matters/Billing Matters 8.0

LexisNexis

215 Commonwealth Court

Cary, N.C. 27511

(800) 328-2898

www.timematters.com

Pricing: Professional version - $600 for the first user, $350 per additional user. Enterprise version (SQL) - $1,200 for the first user, $700 per additional user.

Timeslips by Sage 2007

Sage Software

1715 North Brown Rd.

Lawrenceville, Ga. 30043

(800) 285-0999

www.timeslips.com

Pricing: Starts at $499.99. Network version value pack with five seats - $799.99; 10 seats - $1,449.99.

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