GPSolo Technology & Practice Guide - June 2006
Getting the Gear
You’ve been to the technology shows, read the magazine reviews, and have decided you’ve got to have “it”—that super-cool piece of technology or software that you know will make you rich, your clients happy, and your opponents quiver in fear. Whatever “it” is—a new cell phone, an all-in-one office machine, or the newest practice management and billing software system—here are six questions you should answer before spending your hard-earned dollars.
Question One: Will It Help Me Serve My Clients Better?
There is a lot of talk about getting a return on investment (ROI) with technology purchases. I believe that the only ROI that matters when shopping for legal technology is your clients’ return on their investment in you. If you can’t at least make an argument that the technology you want to purchase will improve your clients’ experience, I’d spend the money on something that will.
For example, if you want to know if a cost-recovery device for your photo- copier will generate positive ROI, ask your clients how they are going to like being charged for every copy. Then, evaluate that purchase through their eyes. In fact, instead of asking clients about technology you want to purchase, consider asking them what technology they’d like you to purchase. It is a way to focus your technology spending in a client-positive way while delivering better service.
Annie Attorney Says:
Ask yourself if you really need that cool new gizmo. And what's the best way to buy it.
Also, don’t forget that your staff uses the technology in your office as much as you do. It is crucial to get your staff’s opinion on a new technology purchase before you make it. If you are buying a technology product that your staff uses all the time—a new telephone system, for instance—and your staff hates it, you (and your clients) will never hear the end of it.
Question Two: Will It Make Me More Money?
If you bill by the hour, the only legal technology that will make you more money is one that makes you capture more time. Period. The sad byproduct of the billable hour is that efficiency doesn’t matter, because there are, after all, only 240 discrete six-minute billing increments every day. An 80-year-old lawyer who diligently captures everything he or she does on a yellow legal pad can bill as much time as someone with the newest practice management software on the fastest computer.
In fact, I’d argue that unless you are able to raise your billing rate to account for your new productivity (a dubious proposition as many of our rates are set, in part, by our legal marketplace), serving more clients in the same amount of time actually lowers your income because you have more client calls to return, more fires to squelch, and more bills to send out, but only the same 24 hours each day to do it.
Instead of focusing on technology to improve your billable time, focus on technology to improve your non-billable time. Look to buy technology that increases your staff’s efficiency, makes your clients happier, reduces your stress level, or allows you to work better.
Question Three: Do I Really Need It?
The best technology choices can be the ones you don’t make. Don’t be wowed by the newest cool things out there—you may have exactly what you need in your office right now. Make a list of every piece of technology (software, hardware, office equipment) in your office. Include on this list both what the technology does as well as how you now use it. Make the same list for each new piece of technology you are thinking about buying. Now, compare the two lists. If there is any overlap, you may be set with what you have.
Here’s another exercise: Before you go out and buy a new piece of software, pull out the manual for the program it will update or replace. Look at all of the features of the old program. How many do you use? If you don’t use 90 percent of the features of the software you now own, you probably won’t use a similar percentage of features in the new program.
Question Four: Will I Use It?
One of the biggest problems with law practice is that most of us spend too much time working in our businesses that we never find time to work on them. When you think about your new technology purchase, have you set aside time to learn how to use it? I’d suggest downloading a copy of the manual from the manufacturer’s website for whatever product you want to buy and look at it before you make your purchase. Can you understand the manual? Does the product seem easy to use? Will your staff be able to understand and operate the product without your help?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, one of two things will happen: You either will not use the product to its fullest capacity, or you will need to invest in training for you and your staff to use the product well.
If you know you’ll need training for your new purchase, ask yourself first, “Are we well trained on the software and equipment we currently own?” If not, you may find that the single best investment of your legal technology dollars is on training to better use the products you already have. A great trainer can help you unlock features and benefits in the products you’ve previously paid for.
Even if you decide to buy new and forego training, make sure you set aside time each week (at least an hour) to master the details of your new technology purchase. Delegate this task if you must, but make certain somebody in your office knows the ins and outs of every product or piece of software you use.
If you don’t actively learn to use the software well, you won’t use it well.
Question Five: Can I Afford It?
How much money do you have to save on technology to offset the five hours you spent online or wandering the aisles of a huge warehouse store shopping for it, instead of sitting at your desk doing legal work? How many of us have spent dozens of hours looking for the best deal on something and were delighted by our “success” when we saved a few hundred dollars—all the while oblivious to the fact that we just wasted a thousand dollars or more in billable time?
Once you compile your technology shopping list, delegate the bargain hunting and actual shopping to someone else. Here’s just one way: Recruit a “director of purchasing.” Find an Internet-savvy teen (I know, that’s kind of redundant) and give your shopping list to him or her. Ask the teen to look for online reviews, scour the price comparison sites, check out eBay and craigslist, and research alternatives. Make the teen come to you with recommendations and prices (be sure the reputation ratings of the online merchants are included) and then take the advice of your “director of purchasing.” Reward the teen with a percentage of the money you save versus list price. You’ll get the best deal from a reputable merchant, and you’ll keep doing what you do best—practicing law.
If you’ve got a big technology shopping list (or if you are not quite sure what to buy), go to your local high school’s business or computer teacher. Ask the teacher if his or her class would be interested in helping you modernize your office as a group project. Turn them loose with a wish list, and you might be surprised what they come up with.
Question Six: Where Should I Get It?
There is really no right answer to this question. Do you prefer shopping locally or in a big-box store? Do you have a trusted legal technology vendor or geeky family member to rely upon? Just make sure you can answer the following question about every technology purchase: When this thing breaks, what will I do? The appropriate answer for you depends upon your comfort level with technology, the soundness of your contingency and backup plans, and your desire to get the best price possible.
Remember, as lawyers, we are fundamentally service providers. We regularly encourage our clients to hire us because we can give them the best service—though it may not always be at the lowest price. Keep that in mind when deciding on a technology vendor. With that caveat, here are some of my favorite sites that will help you get the gear you need at a price you can afford.
The “I’d really like a second opinion” sites. Want to make sure you are making a sound technology purchase? If you’d like to know what hundreds (or thousands) of others think about the tech you want to buy, check out mega-review sites Epinions ( www.epinions.com) and CNET ( www.cnet.com). For legal-specific software and hardware reviews, TechnoLawyer ( www.technolawyer.com) and Law Office Computing magazine ( www.lawofficecomputing.com) can’t be beat.
One of the least used yet most valuable sources for technology tips and resources is the blogosphere. To get a sense of what bloggers have to say, search for the name of the product with Google’s new blog search tool ( www.blogsearch.google.com) or with Technorati ( www.technorati.com).
The “how much is this going to really cost me” site. I love PriceGrabber ( www.pricegrabber.com). Type in the product name, add your zip code, and PriceGrabber will return dozens of results from reputable vendors that include the price for taxes and shipping.
The “I really want a bargain” site. You will find everything you could possibly want or need on eBay ( www.ebay.com). In the past few years, several manufacturers have even begun selling their new and refurbished products through the world’s biggest auction site. Remember, though, just because you find something on eBay doesn’t mean you are getting a bargain. Also, don’t forget to check out your community’s craigslist ( www.craigslist.com) for hundreds or thousands of technology classified ads.
The “I really need it right away but don’t want to pay a lot for shipping” site. Amazon ( www.amazon.com) offers a dizzying array of technology products at competitive prices. Most impressive is Amazon’s new membership called “Amazon Prime.” For $79 per year, you’ll get free second-day shipping (and $3.99 per item overnight shipping) on everything you buy from Amazon. Amazon also has a great return policy.
The “I didn’t know I even needed that” site. And finally, what fun is buying technology if you can’t get something cool. For a daily dose of bleeding-edge electronics and gadgets, check out Engadget ( www.engadget.com). If you are like me and enjoy technology for technology’s sake, Engadget will soon become a favorite web surfing destination.
Matthew W. Homann is the president and chief thinking officer of LexThink! Inc., an innovation consultancy and legal unconference company based in St. Louis, Missouri. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.