Tech Pro Se: The Business Cost of DIY Legal Technology
From a very interesting discussion on the ABA’s Solosez listserve . . . The question came up about how to configure and customize case management software to best streamline a practice. One poster who said his office couldn’t afford professional consulting services was wondering about DIY approaches, sharing area of practice “templates” from others (in this case, they were specifically referring to Time Matters software).
Here were my thoughts on this and why the most expensive decision a firm can make—of any practice focus and any size—is not to professionally deploy key practice tools like case managers.
Those of you who have seen my live CLE sessions may have heard my presentation on how to profit from the use of technology. One of the basic lessons I have tried to deliver for more than two decades is something so utterly fundamental it still amazes me when it comes across as shocking. That is:
Lawyers should avoid representing themselves pro se on their tech and practice management issues. It’s so simple. And while there a few exceptions, think of what it means when tech savvy lawyers like Andy Simpson (who practices in the U.S.Virgin Islands), Indianapolis-area solo Steve Terrell, and others on Solosez are smart enough to know where their abilities reach their limits and when it makes sense to call in a professional.
Every hour a lawyer spends working on tech issues, trying to “save money” by not hiring a professional, costs whatever you bill by the hour. And the odds of that lawyer solving the technology or practice management problem as quickly as a professional are very, very low. Further, the odds of getting something more complex right, varying of course from person to person depending on expertise with the application or situation, are relatively low in most situations.
Let’s put numbers to it to illustrate this (and trust me, I’ve seen this played out hundreds of times in field). Scenario: you have an uncustomized out-of-the-box Time Matters or Amicus Attorney practice management system installation. You decide you want to customize your system for the four primary practice areas you work in: estate planning, family law, bankruptcy, and personal injury. You bill for hourly work at $200 per hour (and your flat fee work averages about $250/hour if all goes the way as planned)
You have never worked with any consultants on your case management project: you essentially just clicked “Install,” hoped for the best, and found it better than Outlook, but it has never really fit any of your practice areas.
You, like many firms, have an inadequate data backup system—incremental backups only, Travan tapes, and nonexistent test restorations (a recipe for The Perfect Digital Storm). You begin without having any backup of your current case management system, nor all the contact and client info you’ve entered and worked with for nine months. You don’t realize this, however. You’re full of enthusiasm for the customization project, because it seems like it would be “fun.”
You spend two full days—initially just the evenings after work, but then it seems like if you spend just a little more time, you’ll finally figure it all out. So now you decide to “invest in your practice” and spend two otherwise billable work days on your customization efforts. So you’re about 16 otherwise billable hours into this ($3,200 to $4,000 time value at your rates).
And now you come to a critical realization: you’ve trashed your system. You can’t even access the existing data because you’ve changed data fields in function, form, and order. You have a scrambled mess. You try to restore from your backup from four days earlier. Because it was an incremental backup, there’s no way to restore the entire case management database. You slump down on the floor and mutter “Holy $&^#, what have I done?”
It’s all too common. It really is. I’ve seen this mortifying picture over and over and over and over again, because I’ve been called in to rescue situations like this. It’s been a large part of my career. So let’s look at comparative costs: the pro se approach above versus a professional approach with assistance:
Pro Se Approach:
Cost in lost billables during working hours: $3,200–$4,000
Time that still has to be spent attempting to unravel the mess (lawyer spending more of his or her otherwise billable time on the software vendor’s tech support time)—another full day (if he or she’s lucky): $1,600–$2,000.
Time spent after the vendor phone support option fails having to pay a consultant just to get them back where they were before this “money saving” attempt: another $2,000 gone, never to be billed.
Total cost to lawyer: $6,800 to $8,000.
And please, let’s all agree that time not billed has the precise same effect on one’s P&L as writing a check. Money not coming in decreases your top line, while a check written increases expenses. Either way, the net effect on profit is the same: it reduces it. So you absolutely don’t have to write a check to “spend” money. It’s $6,800 to $8,000 out of the “pro se technologist” lawyer’s pocket.
End result: hopefully, no data will be permanently lost, and the lawyer will get back to where he or she started from. In other words, no net positive result.
Professionally Assisted Approach:
Lawyer seeks out and retains an experienced certifed consultant to help with the project. Consultant learns about the lawyer’s practice and the various success roadblocks, not only in technology use but in the overall workflow in the lawyer’s practice. In other words, the consultant and lawyer work together to find out what problems could be resolved by using a case management system in the first place.
Time is spent reviewing the data that need to be tracked in each of the four areas of practice previously described. Same with the kind of info the lawyer should be tracking about all his or her contacts, prospects, colleagues, experts, etc.
Time spent upfront with the consultant to learn about the practice, the issues, the technology situation: $500–$3,000ish.Consultant then uses several existing area of practice templates he or she has developed for other clients, tweaks and tunes them to fit to the lawyer’s practice needs, builds several key macros, triggers, clipboards, template documents for assembly, etc. Time spent = $4,000.
Consultant installs templates and trains lawyer and his or her assistant on the use of the “new” case management processes and area of practice templates. Time spent = $1,500–$2,000ish.
A couple of Fujitsu ScanSnap S510 desktop USB PDF scanners added to complete the Paper LESS Office element of the project as well: cost = $800 after rebates.
Total cost = $6,800–$8,300
The end result is a true practice management system that finally reveals the effectiveness of the software being used. A workflow process that makes sense and focuses on electronic case files. All the benefits that a case manager, if well-selected and well-implemented, should bring. The lawyer and his assistant are each billing 15–30 minutes more per day because they are not wasting otherwise billable time looking for paper files. The lawyer is also capturing 15 more minutes per day through automatically triggered time entries every time he enters a case note or phone notes in the system.
At $200/hour, and 30 measurable additional billed minutes each day, the lawyer is billing $24,000 more per year. The staffer, who bills about one-third of her time as a legal assistant at $50 per hour, adds about $2,500 more per year. So in the first year, subtracting the costs of the project (including about 10 nonbillable lawyer and staff hours = $2,500 additional economic cost in working with the consultant and not doing billable legal work), we have $26,500 additional revenue less $6,800 to $8,300 project cash out plus $2,500 in nonbillables = $15,800 to $17,200 in the first year and $26,500 each year after that.
Versus nothing in the pro se approach: just a waste of about $7,000 of time and lots of angst.
So tell me, why is this lesson not learned by otherwise very intelligent people? It’s a most interesting question. Especially when as lawyers, we innately understand how pro se representation usually blows up in our client’s faces.
Ross Kodner is the most-awarded legal technologist in history with an unprecedented five Technolawyer awards to his credit, including a lifetime achievement award. He also is an active GP|Solo Division volunteer, founding and co-chairing the National Solo and Small Firm Conference. A “recovering lawyer,” Ross is the founder of Milwaukee’s MicroLaw, Inc., a 23-year-old international legal technology and law practice management consultancy. He has delivered more than 1,400 CLE programs on practice management topics over the years and has held numerous leadership positions in local, state, and national bar associations. He is also the developer of the widely known Paper LESS Office(TM) process, which has been successfully deployed at law practices worldwide.