General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division
Technology & Practice Guide
Taking the Pain Out ofComputer Decisions
BY PATRICIA A. YEVICS
If you are reading this article, you probably don’t need to be convinced about the critical role that technology plays and will continue to play in the practice of law for solo and small firm practitioners.
Whether you are a practitioner who is considering updating your law office technology or one of the 20 percent of practitioners who has yet to computerize, some tips on how to avoid making bad and costly computer decisions might come in handy.
Whether you are just beginning to computerize or upgrading a current system, the important first step is to have a plan. How detailed a plan you need will be determined by your current technology situation, your level of expertise, and the size and type of your practice. Too often, due to lack of time, expertise, information, or interest, solo and small firm practitioners rush through or ignore this step completely. As a result of failing to plan, ill-informed, hasty, and costly decisions are made that will affect the practice long into the future. As the Mad Hatter said to Alice, if you don’t know where you want to go, it doesn’t much matter how you get there.
If you are a solo practitioner you will have the responsibility of the planning. If you are in a small firm, one of the partners or associates should be assigned the responsibility of drafting the plan. This person may then delegate many tasks to others in the firm if appropriate.
Whether you are in a solo practice with just one secretary or in a small firm, it is critical to obtain input from everyone in the firm who will use the technology. An automation or technology plan for a solo or small firm practice isn’t simply a matter of buying equipment. One of the most important parts of the plan is the people who will use the technology.
Define the Process
It is important to know what you expect the technological changes or improvements to accomplish. Computerizing without knowing what the technology will do is like hiring employees without knowing what they will do.
List objectives or reasons for wanting to computerize based upon your firm’s goals and practice needs. Some of the goals might be:
• Improving the billing and collection process.
• Improving and monitoring cash flow.
• Scheduling your calendar.
• Increasing efficiency and speed of document assembly.
• Tracking referral and marketing efforts.
• Simplifying research.
What’s the Budget?
Include resources in your budget for hardware, software, installation, maintenance, consulting, conversion costs, down time, and training. Use vendor proposals to compile information on many of these costs. The budget process is another area where many practitioners often make errors, usually by underestimating the cost of the time involved in many automation projects.
All consultants and experts agree that training is a key element in the success of law firm automation. According to Fran Shellenberger, a law firm consultant, a firm of two to three lawyers should budget an amount equal to one-half of one position, assuming five to eight total users. "Solos and small firms should spread the responsibility for computer operations and training among one to three persons (within the firm) with the rest of the work provided by outside consultants and vendors."
Outside Assistance May Be Necessary
As all solo and small firm practitioners know, time is always a precious commodity. If the planning process is taking too much time or you find the task too complicated for your level of expertise, employ a knowledgeable consultant to help with decisions and selections. Consider the money you spend an investment toward your success.
As well as technical knowledge, the consultant will bring an independent and objective point of view to the process. The consultant will be able to sort out the confusion of competing vendors and products.
When deciding upon a consultant, it is important to seek an independent third party with experience in the legal profession, especially with solo or small firms. Interview the person to make certain that he or she understands your firm and its goals and that you feel comfortable with the person. Ask for references and check them carefully.
You can also contact your state or local bar association or the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center for information about various software products for solo and small firm practitioners, choosing and using a consultant effectively and affordably, installing a network, and many other topics.
Remember, today’s decision will affect tomorrow’s practice. Spend the time in the beginning to make certain that you have all the information necessary to make an informed decision. This will allow you to do what you do best—practice law. n
Patricia A. Yevics is Law Office Management Administrator with the Maryland State Bar Association. She assists solo and small firm practitioners in all areas of law practice management, including technology, personnel, marketing, financial, and office management.