GPSolo Magazine - December 2003

The Planning Phase

Planning for new technology implementation can be many things: scary, frustrating, exciting, expensive, time consuming, difficult, and demanding. The one thing that it generally will not be is easy. However, jumping into a technology upgrade without advance planning undoubtedly would be even more expensive, frustrating, and time consuming.

This article gives you the fundamental understanding—the basic foundation—you need to successfully plan for adding tools that can enhance your practice in terms of quality and/or productivity.

At many midsize and most large firms, it is common practice to develop strategic technology plans. With significant upgrade dollars at stake, it makes sense to evaluate needs and plan for implementation over time. But it is a misconception that the strategic planning process is unnecessary at the small or solo firm. Unless you want to pay for software you never use or use once and abandon, or invest in hardware that becomes a really neat electronic doorstop, it’s important to do some work before you put your money on the line.

Many lawyers who work so logically and efficiently with clients rarely have or take the time to properly plan things when it comes to their own practices. They rely on the evolutionary method to turn out documents or work out deals—do a draft or proposal, then revise repeatedly until it’s done. Unfortunately, this can be a very costly path to follow in terms of both misspent dollars and unrealized revenues from lost billable hours.

What Do I Need?

The first step in developing a technology plan is to gather information by conducting an internal automation needs survey. (For a sample automation survey, e-mail Ellen Freedman a request at lawpractice@pabar.org.) If you are a solo, you should be asking yourself, your secretary, and your key clients certain questions. (If you share offices with others, query everyone.)

The overriding question is, what do you want to do better? What role do you want technology to play in your practice? How do you want to be seen by clients and prospects—as a technophobe? Luddite? Someone on the leading edge? Buck Rogers? The next question is what do you not do now that you could do with some new technology. Sometimes this area trips up lawyers because it’s a Catch-22: If you don’t know what the technology can do, how do you know you want to do it? This is where vendors come in. Don’t be afraid of not knowing the answers—or the questions. Vendors who are reliable and successful in gaining your trust and your hard-earned dollars should be happy to teach you what their technology can do, how it can enhance your practice, and how it can improve client service. You can locate vendors by searching the Internet or by reviewing legal technology publications. But the best source for local vendors is asking other lawyers who have used them. Always ask for references—and always follow up and talk with these references. Don’t let vendors “blow smoke” or establish a level of superiority by speaking technobabble. Insist on plain English explanations. Insist on practical information about how things can be implemented so all the pieces of your technology puzzle come together.

What’s the Competition Using?

Be clear about your expectations in terms of productivity, savings or increased revenues, and client communication and service. If you can, find out what the competition is doing and decide whether you want to offer something similar or different. Take your time. Information gathering is a fundamental part of the planning process and should not be rushed.

Enhancing your productivity and profitability should drive your technology budgeting and planning. And client expectations and service should be right behind. Don’t assume you know what clients want or don’t want—this is the most frequent mistake lawyers make. Clients often will not tell you they want more or better tools to serve them unless they are specifically asked. On the other hand, many significant clients are upset when a firm implements new technology without even inquiring what might enhance the firm’s services. One example from the client’s perspective might be case management software and an extranet that allows them to access their case information on a 24/7 basis.

What Kind of Plan?

Once you complete the survey process and know what you want your new hardware and/or software to do, it’s time to develop an implementation plan. Obviously, limits exist. Many practitioners simply can’t buy everything at once—and some of these definitely shouldn’t, because the time spent training and traveling the learning curve of each new hardware/software application can be considerable.

Be sure to include adequate time and dollars for training, training, and more training. Once upon a time, simple word processing, internal e-mail, and a smattering of communications capabilities were all we asked from our programs. We expect a lot more today: network faxing, Internet e-mail and browsing, document management, case management, litigation support, database capability, and remote access can be found on nearly every RFP (Request for Proposal) being issued today. This means more administration and more training for all users—which means time diverted from getting the product out the door for staff, or from tending to client needs for attorneys. In fact, a greater limit likely exists with “available time” than with “available dollar” resources. For this reason, it is important to develop a game plan for achieving your automation goals over time—progress is a process, not an event.

In addition, your short-term and long-term plans should include a commitment of dollars for advanced training a few months after the initial training. Training in general requires as high or higher a budget as the actual hardware and software. This is a result of falling prices for hardware and software and increased complexity and functionality of the applications themselves, particularly when they are set up to integrate or network with other software applications.

Proper planning, particularly when setting up a new office, should include a review of both physical and electrical needs. Environmental needs include things like power, power backup, type and placement of wall outlets; network wiring; physical space requirements; special heating, cooling, or shelving needs; security; ergonomics; and so forth. Certain mechanical devices you may already have in the office, such as paper shredders, may require a dedicated circuit to minimize interference with the computers. The servers require a secure, climate-controlled space. Put these items into your implementation timeline and budget.

Making It Work

Once you know what you want to achieve and which tools are necessary to get there, go over your game plan with the vendors. Include vendors you already deal with and those slated to come aboard in the future. Many will alert and educate you regarding key decision points you must make or avoid so you can easily implement later technology. Rework your budget and implementation schedule accordingly.

Make sure you also know and have the hardware requirements and software upgrades that must be implemented before you can use the new applications. Don’t give vendors unrealistic requirements and expect them to make it work. Find out what you’ll really need. Even if a vendor does “make it work” over the short term, the long-term degradation to the network will not be worth whatever you save.

Stay focused on what you want to accomplish, not what application you should buy. The lines have blurred to the point where you can do spreadsheet graphs in database applications, database management in spreadsheets, time and billing in case management, faxing from a word processing package, and so forth. Go to the Internet sites of potential vendors. At a minimum, there should be descriptions of features and screen shots of the program. Many software products have a free trial period or a money-back guarantee so that you can “test drive” the package before being absolutely committed.

Pick what works and makes sense to you—one brand of software may seem really confusing to you, while another may feel intuitive. A natural extension of your current procedures is the Shangri-la of software. This is why it’s important that you check it out yourself rather than pick something another attorney likes—it may not work as well for you.

After you’ve performed the final negotiations with selected vendors, take a little time to fine-tune your timeline and budget, as needed. This sounds like a lot of work. Realistically, depending on what you set out to accomplish, it can be. But there is just no substitution for due diligence and solid planning where technology is concerned.

Jim Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s management assistance program in Oklahoma City; he can be reached at jimc@okbar.org. Ellen Freedman is the law practice management coordinator for the Pennsylvania Bar Association in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; she can be reached at lawpractice@pabar.org.

 

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