General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

 
Volume 17, Number 4
June 2000

"YOU CAN'T MAKE ME!"

BY Nancy Byerly Jones

A preacher went to his church office on Monday morning and discovered a dead mule in the churchyard. He called the police.

There didn't appear to have been any foul play, so the police referred the preacher to the health department. The health department said that because there was no health threat, he should call the sanitation department.

The sanitation manager said he could not pick up the mule without authorization from the mayor.

Now the preacher knew the mayor, and was not eager to call him. The mayor had a bad temper and was generally hard to deal with. But the preacher called him anyway.

The mayor did not disappoint. He immediately began to rant and rave at the preacher and finally said, "Why did you call me anyway? Isn't it your job to bury the dead?"

The preacher paused for a brief prayer and asked the Lord to direct his response. He was led to say, "Yes, Mayor, it is my job to bury the dead, but I always like to notify the next of kin first!"

-Author unknown.

Passing the Buck Doesn't Work with Technology Know-How!

No one wanted to take responsibility for the dead mule found in the churchyard, including the town's elected leader. Likewise, when it comes to learning new technology, far too many of us would prefer to pass the buck and let someone else do it. And when it's the leaders of our offices who are refusing to embrace the advantages of modern-day technology, they're not only passing the buck but also demonstrating a clear lack of interest in the firm's long-term success.

How many of you have heard comments like these in your office?

  • "I've been doing things this way for 20-plus years and I sure don't need to change now!"
  • "Let my staff worry about learning the new stuff."
  • "If it ain't broke, why fix it?"
  • "I don't have any spare time as it is, much less time for learning new technology!
  • "You can't make me!"

Most every office has one or two technology holdouts, if not more-those folks whose stubborn streak when it comes to learning and using computer "stuff" is incredibly and dangerously thick. These same people, however, can't deny the impact that computers and other technological changes have had on our personal and professional lives. No doubt some of the changes occurring due to the technology revolution are not so wonderful (e.g., easy web access to sites inappropriate for children). However, the die-hard technology holdouts must recognize that:

  • Their offices cannot survive for the long haul without technology know-how and the right technological "tools."
  • Their refusal to get on board the technology bandwagon will not keep things from changing.
  • Their childlike "You can't make me" approach ultimately will backfire on them and their offices.

The bottom line is that technology is here to stay. Stubborn resisters within our offices are not. By refusing to do their part when it comes to learning new technology, resisters are making themselves easily replaceable, regardless of their skills, education, or seniority. And if the holdouts are leaders with unlimited and unchallenged authority, then they are directing their offices slowly but surely into oblivion.

Some of the Reasons We Resist Change

There are many reasons for dragging our feet or turning our heads when it comes to learning new technology and systems. A few of them include:

  • We are just downright busy people who feel we don't have the time to learn anything new. We are too busy just trying to survive the present. And yet, we continue to cram more and more onto our plates of "to do's," complaining all along that we're stressed out and chronically exhausted. Part of the reason for this madness is that we are "no" impaired. We can't seem to say that simple, two-letter word-"No!" In fact, it's one of the hardest words for us to verbalize, no matter how vast or impressive our vocabularies may be.
  • We are procrastinators of all types and styles. We will go to great lengths to avoid or delay learning new systems and procedures that new technology brings into our lives. Perhaps we procrastinate because we're perfectionists-we avoid tackling the challenges of technology because of our profound fear of appearing imperfect. Perhaps we procrastinate because we live in a state of permanent denial of what is happening around us, clinging desperately to "the way it used to be." Or maybe some of us are dreamers who think that if we wait long enough, our knight (or damsel) in shining armor will come to save us from having to learn the new technology.
  • Some of us are just plain arrogant, or we sport other equally dangerous attitudes. We like to think we can succeed whether we embrace technology or not. We can do it ourselves, by gosh, and we don't need a computer to help keep us organized or up to date. Many lawyers who have been found to have a conflict of interest have had this same type of arrogant attitude. They didn't think they needed fancy databases or conflicts-checking software programs to help them avoid conflicts; their memories were enough, they thought. Ask them, however, how they feel after battling an ethical grievance or malpractice claim for a conflict of interest. Few, if any, would want to be humbled in that manner again.
  • Some staff members resist learning new technology because they don't feel properly appreciated or respected by management. Regardless of whether this perception is accurate, management's disrespectful or unappreciative actions can allow attitudes of indifference and cynicism among employees to fester (e.g., "Why bother trying to improve my skills when no one appreciates what I do anyway!?").
  • Older partners who are in partnership with others in name only (e.g., alliances of convenience versus true firm partnerships) often have no genuine interest in their firm's legacy or long-term survival after their retirement or departure. They would rather just practice law as they always have without learning the new technology "stuff." It's a "what's in-it-for-me" game played by some lawyers-each out for number one-with bottom line profits as their polar star. What is in the firm's best interest is not of interest to them. Likewise, what happens to those left behind is not of significant concern to them.
  • Some folks are willing learners but are not offered the right training or enough training. Others have training provided that is out of sync with their learning styles (e.g., a person who needs hands-on demonstrations and training is instead given a software manual and told to read it).
  • An Increasing Number of War Stories

About three years ago, we started hearing the war stories about offices that had failed to take advantage of readily available and fairly simple technology tools. A few of those include:

  • The highly successful firm that dissolved after losing its number-one corporate client for failing to use e-mail as the client had been requesting for three years.
  • Lawyers who have been suspended or disbarred for repeatedly missing statue of limitation deadlines or for having failed to spot an actual or potential conflict of interest.
  • The loss of key employees or prospective employees to offices with more up-to-date equipment and systems.
  • The loss of clients to state-of-the-art law firms.
Converting the "You Can't Make Me" Folks

We all know that we can't change people's personalities (and what a shame that is in some cases!), nor can we change other people's attitudes. We can, however, take our own heads out of the sand, work on changing our attitudes, and recognize the potentially fatal harm to our firms caused by the "You can't make me" crowd in today's technology-driven world. By acknowledging these internal time bombs (and the clock is indeed ticking!), we are taking the first critical step toward eliminating them and toward increasing our chances of long-term survival.

Before attempting to convert the non-technology die-hards into technology fans, we must recognize the uniqueness of a law firm as distinguished from the people working within it. There must be a plan, a mission, and goals for the firm that all employees understand and are willing to support. Leadership must make decisions as to what kinds of equipment and technology and what type of "crew" will enable the ship (i.e., the law firm) to stay on its charted course so that it can reach its goals and fulfill its mission.

If a crew member doesn't care about what's best for the ship and repeatedly refuses to adapt to needed changes, then he or she becomes a burden and a potential liability to the entire mission. It is up to a firm's leadership to keep a watchful eye on the firm's course and its progress in achieving its goals. And it is up to leadership to make and carry through with tough decisions if stubborn employees or partners do not improve after reasonable steps have been taken to help them change their ways and/or update their skills.

Don't Be a Technology Avoider

We can take better charge of our "to do" lists by learning to say "no" more often. The more "nos" we utter, the more we increase the value of our "yes's" when we do say "yes"! By knowing what our priorities and goals are, we are less apt to overfill our task lists or be excessive with our "yes's."

We must learn and 'fess up to why we procrastinate. One of the greatest books I've read on this subject is both thought-provoking and educational in a common-sense, easy-to-understand (and apply) way. The book is It's About Time! The 6 Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them by Dr. Linda Sapadin with Jack Maguire. By better understanding the "whys" behind our procrastination skills, we increase the odds of getting over our technology hurdles and around the roadblocks to success.

We must drop the "I know it all" attitudes, which are usually rooted in insecurity. The fast pace of technological change alone should be enough to keep us humble. We shouldn't have as our motto, "People who think they know everything bother those of us who know we do." Instead, we must be willing to step enthusiastically out of our comfortable, traditional worlds and look at technology not as an enemy to be fought, but as a best friend to be made.

We must do a better job at thanking our employees for jobs well done, and we must ensure that we are treating them with the same respect that we want from others. Likewise, we must make sure they understand what the firm stands for-its mission, its goals, and how their position is an important part of the big picture. By doing so, we reduce the poisons of cynicism and low employee morale-both of which are highly contagious and fast-spreading office diseases.

Refuse to be a firm of many separate solo practices or an alliance of convenience only. If you have partners, be a true firm. Know what the firm stands for. Work as a true team for the benefit of the whole instead of allowing a perpetual inside competition to rage. With a group mindset rather than individual ones, team members want to do what's best for the whole, including learning new technology and leaving behind older and less efficient systems and procedures.

Offer adequate training and a variety of training tools and options to firm employees. Different people have different learning styles, just as there are a wide variety of work types and different styles of procrastination. It is a waste of hard-earned dollars and precious time to invest in the right hardware and software without recognizing the need for sufficient and carefully designed training options. Not even the best of the best software or computer equipment can make up for a lack of proper training.

In Closing…

Do you really want to pass the buck on technology, considering the potentially fatal consequences to your office? Avoid being one of the war stories, a law firm leader who gets a "next of kin" call about the death of your firm-an avoidable death that was caused by the mule-like stubbornness and highly contagious infection spread by the "You can't make me" technology resisters.

We all occasionally sport a "You can't make me" attitude. After all, we're only human. However, too much of this attitude, when it comes to embracing technology in today's law office, can be dangerous. And worse, it almost always guarantees a "next of kin" call one day.

If you're a leader, set a good example by being a good technology student and user. If you're a technology avoider, admit it and do whatever you need to do to become a recovering technology resister. The learning-curve pain is only temporary, but the long-term gains will be yours and your firm's to enjoy for years to come.

Nancy Byerly Jones lives with her husband in the North Carolina mountains, where they hold conferences, mediations, and retreats for law firms and other organizations. They head up NBJ & Associates, Inc., which also provides on-site management and leadership consulting services. Jones can be contacted at 828/898-4910 or by e-mail at nbj@nbjconsulting.com.

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