Volume 19, Number 8
Measure Twice, Cut Once
By Mary Ann R. Baker-Randall
Software is supposed to make our lives simpler, more productive, and efficient, purportedly enabling us to get our work done faster so we have more playtime. As solo or small firm attorneys, we can use all the help we can get. Since cloning ourselves is not (yet) a viable option, we turn to technology.
If you're contemplating opening your own practice or joining a small firm after law school, remember the tried and true carpenter's rule "measure twice, cut once" when buying software. I admit to owning several software packages that looked great in concept but won't work on my current network. Don't just consider the price of the software. That "miracle program" for only $199 is the beginning-not the end-of the budget considerations. From personal experience, I pass on the following tips:
-System requirements. Find out in advance what platform the software requires. Always work from the "recommended"-not the "minimum"-system requirements. For example, I want to buy the Adobe Acrobat software that lets me scan closed client files, burn CDs, and create searchable pdf files. The current Adobe version needs to run on Windows 2000, but I'm using Windows 98. That means I not only have to buy the Adobe software (approximately $400) but also have to replace the operating system on all five PCs and the server-a much greater cost.
When I set up a peer-to-peer network two years ago, I relied on my computer "experts" and bought Microsoft Office 2000 Professional. Unfortunately, I needed different software to set up the officewide calendar system I wanted, which would be accessible to everyone and would allow my Palm to hotsync. It will cost another $1,300 or so to get the correct basic software, before adding things like ProLaw or TimeMatters.
-Annual tech support contracts. Suck it up and buy the annual tech support contract. You may not think you'll encounter nightmare glitches that you can't fix yourself, but trust me-you will. Find out the hourly rate for phone assistance and the average time per call. Chances are that one call will cost more than the yearly contract.
-Training. Granted, some attorneys can decipher and immediately use software out of the box. I am not one of them. Find out what training is available and how much it costs per user. In-house training is the best but usually most expensive method. Offsite classroom training in which each person has a computer is next best, but the sessions often are preset by the trainer, which isn't helpful for immediate application. Ask whether the trainer offers multistudent discounts. Build into the cost the reality that your staff people will be out of the office for a day or more and you may need to hire temporary help. Take the training yourself if you are a very small office-you may need to jump in and use the program if your staff person quits, goes on vacation, or becomes ill.
-Upgrades. Staple software such as WordPerfect, TimeSlips, and QuickBooks seems to spawn "latest and greatest" versions on an annual basis. You don't have to buy every upgrade. In fact, I use the same version of WordPerfect and TimeSlips for years at a time. The only annual update I buy is the tax aspects of QuickBooks to ensure proper payroll deductions.
-Beware of modules. Some companies offer "basic packages" allegedly designed for solo and small firms. Talk with a knowledgeable sales rep before you buy and explain exactly what you need the program to do. After I tried a new client billing program, I wanted to know how much money was actually collected for each timekeeper's billed hours and found the "basic program" couldn't provide this report. I would have had to buy the "deluxe module" that generated a ton of useless reports just to get the one report I needed. I chose to dump the whole program.
- Don't be a guinea pig. If new software looks intriguing, ask the vendor for the names and telephone numbers of other attorneys in your area who already use the program. Call these folks and ask what kind of problems they've experienced, how good was initial training, how quickly and meaningfully did tech support fix problems, and whether they would buy the software again. I bought software and later found out I was the first firm in my state to use it. I will never be a guinea pig again.
-Accept it. There's no escape. Incorporating more technology into your practice is inevitable. Have a plan, and don't just just jump into it blind.