General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology & Practice Guide

Computer Consultants

How to Choose ’Em, How to Use ’Em

BY JOHN L. MELLITZ

Anyone can call him or herself a consultant. Thousands of successful people have amassed their fortunes by giving valuable advice to others. But how can you tell which of these people merit your business and your trust? And once you have identified them, how can you benefit from their advice?

A Collaborative Effort

Teacher versus consultant. A teacher imparts knowledge and teaches skills that will enable you to do repeatedly in the future, without assistance, something that you do not now know how to do. A consultant, such as a psychologist or a career planner, is a temporary partner with whom you discuss ideas during a decision-making process, such as whether to switch professions. The consultant exercises (as opposed to imparts) his or her knowledge to assist you in making a decision.

Contractor versus consultant. Let’s say you decide to add a wing to your home for a family room. You hire a contractor to do the job. The process undertaken by the contractor has a result that (hopefully) was what you envisioned when you hired the contractor.

How did you know what to tell the contractor to do? You retained an architectural firm, sat down with architects and designers, and told them what you had in mind. After getting to know you, they suggested things you never would have thought of on your own, such as products and materials you didn’t know existed. The result: An entirely new and more exciting vision of your new family room.

Salesperson versus consultant. Your Wang wordprocessor just broke, and document production is at a standstill. Your secretary says, "We had WordPerfect at my last job. If you get me WordPerfect I can get your motion out within an hour." You don’t need a consultant. You need a new wordprocessor. You go to your local computer superstore, talk to a salesperson for an hour, plunk down $3,500 and walk out with a new Compaq computer, a Hewlett-Packard laser printer, and a copy of WordPefect (all high margin products). For an extra $150, the store sends an installer to your office to hook it up, load WordPerfect, and show you where the power switch is to turn the sucker on. You push the button, your secretary starts working on your motion, and you begin dictating again. Life is good.

No consultant needed. Congratulations. You’re keeping up with the rest of the profession. With the right advice, you might have done it less expensively, but not better. And the cost of the advice may have eaten up the difference.

Let’s look at these three situations. The first involved your career. No big deal—just your entire future. You had a choice to make, and it was an important one. You collaborated with an expert to make sure you had the best chance of making the right choice.

The second involved your living quarters. The family room, to be exact. No big deal. Just $40,000 for the place where your family will spend 50 to 75 percent of its leisure time. Again, you had a choice. You could have continued to use the living room as it was. But you wanted something better.

The third involved your wordprocessor. You did not have a choice, at least with regard to the fundamental question of needing a new wordprocessor. Any decisions to make (i.e., which manufacturer, which model, which wordprocessing program) were effectively made for you by the salesperson and your secretary. All you cared about was getting your documents out.

Avoiding Expensive Mistakes

Your friend Harry works in the Dissolution Section of the Domestic Relations Department of the local office of Big, Cumbersome, and Unresponsive, PC, the famous law firm headquartered in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He told you about this fabulous computer program that permits him to work just 3.5 hours a day, submit "value bills" to clients that would represent 14-hour days in your practice, and own a BMW X-3 (the "adorable" little car your spouse was looking at just the other day).

On Harry’s recommendation, you buy it for "just" $10,000, (not including installation, configuration, training, and technical support). Uh oh. You need a bigger hard drive, more RAM, and a color printer (laser recommended) in order for the program to work properly. You get them (not the color laser, just the ink jet model).

OK. You’re all set. Loading the program was a snap. Just type "D:setup." A box appears that says "Enter User ID." (You ask, "What on earth is a ‘User ID?’") You make a guess and type in "Barney." Now it says "Enter Password." You press "Enter" because you don’t have or need a password. The box now says, "You MUST enter a password." It goes downhill from there.

Does this saga make you want to laugh (or cry)? The point is that by relying on the experience of others, you made an expensive mistake.

Choosing a Consultant

Let’s assume that you are convinced you will be more productive, and your practice will be more profitable, if you purchase the right technology and use it effectively (your vision). You are willing to make a reasonable investment of your resources (money, time, and people) in order to realize your personal vision. You acknowledge that your chances of realizing your vision would be greatly enhanced if you were to retain a consultant. And you have the capacity to trust a professional in another discipline. What should you consider when choosing a consultant?

Avoid conflicts of interest. Any consultant you consider should be free of any conflict of interest or else inform you of any circumstances that could affect his or her recommendations. Sometimes a conflict is unavoidable. In such cases, the consultant should disclose the conflict, and advise the client to seek another opinion if there is any question in the client’s mind about the efficacy of his or her recommendations.

If all other aspects of the consultant/client relationship have proceeded without friction or stress, and trust and confidence are unshaken, then the client can assume that the recommendations are close to optimal. If there is any question in the client’s mind, he or she should seek out an expert in a competing product, and compare sales pitches before making a decision. However, if it comes to this, the relationship probably will have broken down for lack of trust.

Find an experienced consultant. The consultant should have experience assisting other law firms of a similar size and/or type of practice. There are four key variables that govern a consultant’s recommendations:

• The size of the firm.

• The degree of specialization.

• The volume, or caseload, handled by the firm.

• The resources, (money, time, and people) of the firm.

A firm should seek the best fit when choosing a consultant. While there may never be a perfect fit, a little investigation can narrow the field to those consultants who would operate comfortably when working with your firm.

Obtain references. You should obtain references from other law firms with similar needs. Quality, not quantity, of references is important. Remember Harry? He provided a great reference. If Harry had been your direct competitor, occupying a similar size office on a different floor in your building, and catering to similar types of domestic relations clients, then his recommendation might have been more appropriate.

This is also the stage at which you can identify and weed out the "technicians." You may end up retaining a technician on a consultant’s recommendation. But remember, no matter what the label, he or she is a technician, and may not speak your language. For example, if you asked about the "style" of a case, this person might think "Gucci." If you mentioned "litigation support," he or she might conjure up images of "bridge trusses."

Get to know your prospective consultant. Invite the prospect to meet with your partners and staff. (It is very important that your staff be involved in the process, since they will be the most affected by any changes.) Ask the consultant to present his or her credentials and some ideas. What you really want to find out is:

• How accessible and responsive is the consultant?

• Do you, or the people with whom the consultant will be working, get any "bad vibes?" In other words, is a personality conflict going to interfere with the project?

• Is the consultant interested in creating a technical work of art, or is he or she interested in the success of the project from your point of view?

Ask for a draft proposal. Optionally engage the consultant to provide you with a draft of specifications and recommendations. You should expect to pay for such a document, for it will represent a substantial amount of work by the consultant on your behalf. You will obtain valuable information, if not a fairly definitive "blueprint." It will make you aware of some of the possibilities, and provide you with something against which you can compare other submissions.

The thoroughness and clarity of such a document, as well as its presentation and appearance, will tell you a lot about the candidate’s sense of professionalism.

Every situation is unique. There are many other things you can do to insure a wise choice of consultant. You may want to consider a written agreement. However, if you go through these steps, the realization of your vision will be within your reach.

As with any personal relationship, a breakdown in communications almost always precedes the breakup between a firm and a consultant. With this in mind, you should know what you can expect of the consultant, and what your responsibilities will be to keep the relationship productive and mutually rewarding.

The Consultant’s Role

A legal technology consultant’s expertise is grounded in his or her knowledge of what types of software are available for lawyers, which of those types can benefit a given client, which programs are appropriate for a given practice, and what equipment is needed to run the software. This knowledge is supplemented by the consultant’s experience in the field.

The independent consultant can exercise this expertise on your behalf in three ways:

• Preparation of "Specifications and Recommendations."

• Preparation of a "Request For Proposal," and evaluation of the responses and respondents.

• Implementation or project management.

You should retain a single consultant for these functions. You should not split the functions among multiple consultants.

Specifications and recommendations. The preparation of a "Specifications and Recommendations" document is by far the most important and valuable service the consultant can provide. This should be an interactive process, meaning that you should be involved in the process. Typically, this phase of the automation project consists of:

• A needs analysis, during which the consultant interviews members of the firm and staff to learn as much as possible about your practice, the capabilities of your staff, and the priorities to be assigned to the different technologies that might be implemented.

• Preparation of a working draft of the "Specifications and Recommendations," to be discussed with the client and then refined.

• Education of the client regarding any aspects of the technologies with which the client is not familiar.

• Discussions with the client, during which the client can make informed decisions regarding any issues that are raised.

• Refinement of the document into a final, presentation copy that is submitted to the client.

If the consultant can implement recommendations, he or she may offer a discount for a "turnkey" job. In order to protect yourself against the obvious conflict of interest in such a case, insist that the estimated cost of the individual components be detailed, and that any charges for implementation be stated separately. You can then compare the "turnkey" cost against the "a la carte" cost of having the recommendations executed by a third party of your choosing.

Request for proposal. The preparation of a "Request for Proposal" is called for only if you don’t know who will be implementing the consultant’s recommendations, and the job is of a sufficient scale that a formal step is warranted.

The actual preparation of such a document should not be a very expensive proposition, since it is often no more than a rewording and reformatting of the original "Specifications and Recommendations."

The value of the consultant’s services lies in his or her ability to evaluate the bids that come in, and his or her knowledge of the players in the area. The consultant also will know when you should spend extra for highly specialized skills, and when you should settle for a less expensive but competent contractor.

Project management. Finally, you can retain the consultant either to implement the recommendations using his own staff or team, or act as a project manager in overseeing the implementation of the recommendations.

The latter choice is especially advisable if you don’t know the contractor who is going to implement the consultant’s recommendations, or if the consultant can’t give you reasonable assurances that a recommended contractor knows what to do. Of course, if you select the consultant to implement the plan, you will have taken the necessary precautions to guard against the obvious conflict of interest.

If you decide to retain the consultant in either capacity, you should provide your consultant with both a lawyer contact and an administrative contact. The lawyer contact should be responsible for, and have authority to make, strategic decisions. The administrative contact should be responsible for, and have authority to make, tactical decisions. Furthermore, the consultant should not have to contend with others for this person’s attention.

The Client’s Role

Remember, you are dealing with another professional. Treat him or her as you would expect to be treated. The practice of law and computer consulting have in common a heavy reliance on logic—often very complex logic—that cannot be handled in a piecemeal fashion.

The consultant’s demands on your employees’ time should be scheduled in a businesslike manner. Your employees should not have to deal with constant, ad hoc demands.

Be as specific as possible about the scope and nature of the assignment. It is important to establish objectives and a schedule for completion of the project. In doing so, there must be an element of flexibility. You should be able to agree with your consultant regarding the overall objectives of the project, and the consultant should be able to make reasonable estimates regarding the time required to meet those objectives.

Request a monthly, detailed bill for all consulting fees and costs so you can review the consultant’s activities. You should expect the same businesslike approach from your consultant as your clients expect from you.

Even if the consultant is working under a fixed-fee arrangement, a detailed account of the consultant’s time lets you know whether your project has been put on the back burner. It is important that your consultant keep you informed regarding the progress he or she is making toward completion of the project.

Immediately inform the consultant of any concerns you have regarding the project and its progress. This is merely a restatement of the need for open communications between your firm and your consultant. One of the surest ways to torpedo your project is to wait until "the straw that broke the camel’s back" before confronting the consultant with your growing dissatisfaction or unhappiness with his or her work. By this time, the consultant may have expended considerable effort in the wrong direction without an inkling that there is anything wrong.

At the same time, you may have drawn adverse conclusions about the consultant’s abilities that are not justified, merely because of a lack of communication. n

John L. "Tim" Mellitz practiced law for 16 years before founding Mellitz & Associates, a legal technology consulting firm, in 1986. He assists law firms, legal departments, and courts in the design of microcomputer systems.

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