General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division The Compleat Lawyer
Winter 1997, Volume 14, No. 1 copyright American Bar Association. All rights reserved.
J. Michael Jimmerson is a technology consultant and founder of Legal Counsel & Computing. He is the co-author of A Survival Guide for Road Warriors, a best-selling book on mobile computing for lawyers, published by the American Bar Association. His next book is Windows for Lawyers, to be released in Fall 1997. He can be reached by phone (773/506-9870), e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or the Web (www.legalcounsel.com).
Winding my way through the friendly skies, I kill some time leafing through the airline magazine. After all, I am strictly forbidden from using my notebook during takeoff and landing (a completely spurious rule but that is fodder for another column). The number of articles about technology and the latest bells and whistles is striking.
These days, no matter where you look, technology assails us. Windows 95, the Internet, the Web, Microsoft, Netscape, notebook computers--you name it. Topics that were obscure just two years ago are now commonplace. And everyone these days is an expert. Bad enough strangers ask for legal advice at cocktail parties. Nowadays, all I seem to do is stand around comparing computer systems with the nouveau cognoscenti.
All this newfound knowledge can actually impede informed decisions. Consider the following scenario: the managing partner just read an article in FlyAway Magazine on the latest whiz bang software from BeAllEndAll Corp. If the firm has a MIS director or technology committee, the managing editor issues an edict: When are we going to get this latest manna from heaven?
Caught in a crossfire of buzzwords, and without a clue of what he is talking about, the managing partner thinks he has the technology equivalent of sliced bread. Well, this is a disaster in the making. Never mind the fate of early adopters, those fools who rush out to buy the new version as soon as it hits the shelves. This is just not the way to make an informed decision. Instead, this is strategic planning by airline magazine.
Small firms and solos are subject to the same problem. In small firms, newly minted technology pros are likely to try to steer the other partners toward their vision of the ultimate technology setup. Several different scenarios can result. Tremendous energy and time can be wasted running down a dead end street. Or the firm could be split into warring factions over the issue, resulting in no decision but lots of bad blood. Worse, the firm can implement a solution that is inadequate for the needs of the firm, but only after spending a bundle of money.
More than ever, law firms must make strategic decisions carefully. Would you hire the first law student that came in the door for a summer associate position? Of course not! At the least, you would check his or her bona fides. Did you buy the phone system or copy machine based upon an ad in the newspaper? Whatever happened to that sage advice: Don't believe everything you read? This advice is critical when it comes to choosing computers or software. Inflated claims and glowing reviews are commonplace and are simply not to be trusted. Buying computer equipment or software on the basis of a glowing article or advertisement is like renting office space because you like the carpet--only to find that the roof leaks.
Ah, you might say, I got great advice from a consultant. Did you ask for and check appropriate references for the consultant? Have you done any independent research to confirm his or her recommendations? Does the consultant have any conflicts of interest or biases in favor of certain vendors. Blind faith in the advice of another is risky at best. People who make this mistake often end up needing the services of a lawyer (or asking for advice at the next cocktail party!). Be smart and use your common sense before you open your checkbook.
Choosing technology is like any other capital decision. The first step is to create a strategic plan. First, consider your goals and needs. What is the principal work product of the firm and what technology would further the creation of that work product? Determine all the alternatives. The worst mistake you can make is wearing blinders during the decision-making process.
An essential step is to create a budget. Decide how much money you have to spend and what parameters you must operate within. Then, stick to the budget. Finally, compare the viable options. Make certain when you compare products that you are making direct comparisons. Unless you are comparing apples to apples, your research is incomplete.
Purchases should only be made after you have done your homework. This does not necessarily require tremendous effort. However, for every hour or dollar you expend now, I can assure you that you will save twice that amount in the long run. Whether you are a solo or managing partner of a multinational firm, spend your money wisely and only after due diligence.