TECHNOLOGY IN PRACTICE
TECHNOLAWYER.COM WITH CAROL L. SCHLEIN
13 Years of Techno-Goofs and Lessons Learned
Sometimes small and midsize firms think they’re saving money when they’re wasting it. Learn from others’ missteps and implement sound practices.
Throughout 13 years of helping law firms to implement and use technology to better serve their clients, I have seen all sorts of silliness. As a legal technology consultant working mostly with solo, small- and medium-size firms, I have witnessed the taking of many counterproductive steps in the name of moving forward. By sharing some of these missteps, I hope I can spare your firm from making the same, often costly, gaffes.
One of my favorite mistakes is when a law firm doubts its hired consultant’s advice based on comments from a client or a brother-in-law who dabbles in computers—or because the firm’s decision maker reads technology magazines that have good guidance. Attention: Some of the advice in InfoWorld does not apply to your firm. What works for a large corporation or a technology columnist may be totally wrong for a small law office.
Here’s a case in point: A law office using an older version of WordPerfect, and having a huge investment in forms or macros, hears from a corporate IT specialist that it should switch to Microsoft Word because "that’s what everyone uses." Never mind that the firm’s staff will pull out their hair and that many documents won’t convert properly. Better advice would be: Stick with Corel WordPerfect because the firm has a significant investment in that platform and because, despite a fallen market share in the aggregate, WordPerfect still holds its own in the legal market.
Another mistake is when a firm receives several proposals from systems vendors and then shops primarily by price, rather than focusing on the vendor’s reputation, knowledge and ability to service the firm in a timely fashion. Compounding this mistake, when presented with the bottom line, firms often lose sight of the reasons they’re upgrading and they start to eliminate features to save a little money. It is, in fact, easier to swallow the bigger hardware bill up-front and remember that, every day thereafter, the added speed or memory will make everyone’s jobs easier.
I’ve noticed a pattern in which firms embark on a cost-saving measure that turns out to be more expensive than the savings they hoped to realize. For example, in networked environments it’s tempting to think that individual workstations don’t need CD-ROM drives because, in theory, most software can be installed from the network. In reality, however, with improved CD-burners, patches and documents are often sent on CDs for loading onto a specific workstation. Asking a consultant who’s being paid on an hourly basis to set up a workaround wastes dollars.
In addition, software vendors increasingly include CD-ROM-based tutorials with their products. Lack of foresight in configuring your firm’s workstations with CD-ROM drives will cost you—and hamper learning opportunities for your staff as they adjust to new products. With a CD-ROM drive on each computer, staff can work with the tutorials during downtime.
Speaking of peripherals, reasons also abound for not skipping sound systems on new computers. A great number of Web sites use sound to relay valuable information. This trend will intensify as broadband access to the Internet increases. Voice recognition software is also a motivation to include a sound system. And adding a CD-ROM drive, or almost any component, to an existing computer is substantially more expensive than including one with a new purchase.
Another common mistake is when a firm buys software without sufficiently determining its suitability for the office—and without knowing whether the firm has the time, personnel and financial resources necessary to implement and maintain the program properly. Products such as Timeslips and Time Matters come to mind. While they are inexpensive, maximizing their full potential requires a substantial time commitment. And implementing these products without a consultant can be another mistake. Firms that go it alone often end up accruing larger consulting bills for cleaning up messes that were avoidable.
Lawyers often get bogged down on formatting or procedural tasks that do not add value to the client relationship. One of my all-time favorites is when lawyers spend time writing cover letters for bills. While letters are necessary on occasion, lawyers who insist on preparing individual cover letters that regurgitate information already on a bill are wasting time. Most clients are bright enough to understand that the document they have received is a bill to be paid.
Another pet peeve is lawyers who focus on the bill’s format rather than on its substance. They get bent out of shape if lines are in the wrong place, but they don’t ensure that the descriptions explain clearly the work performed.
More costly mistakes occur when firms shortchange employees on training. Granted, firms are generally good about arranging for introductory sessions. However, they skimp on follow-up training that supports new users as they work with a product. Most people absorb only a limited amount of information in a given amount of time. In fact, I expect students to recall only about 10 percent of the information I provide in a given time. In many situations, for the convenience of the trainers, students are subjected to full days of training on several consecutive days. This is an unnatural way to master a new software program. Training is more effective when it is provided in shorter sessions, with recess breaks in between to allow new users to work with the product at their own desks.
In addition, training is best accomplished when people aren’t pulled out of sessions for "emergencies," and when they receive supporting materials that illustrate how the new system will be implemented in the firm.
This brings us head-on to personnel issues I often observe among small firm clients. Lawyers (and I include myself) tend to delegate both too little and too much. While we trust our staff with some functions, we reserve for ourselves others that we would be smarter to delegate. Some firms set up their network to limit the time of day staff members can log in, yet also allow anyone in the firm to access the firm’s checkbook to pay vendors. While time-based log-ins sound like a good security measure, they can backfire when a vendor must install and test new applications while the computer user is away. The vendor can’t proceed without contacting the system administrator for the log-in.
Another blunder awaits when a lawyer becomes enamored with technology and begins to spend more time "futzing" with computers than practicing law. Given today’s billable rates, it makes no sense to have a $250-per-hour computer support person.
At the other extreme are lawyers who want nothing to do with implementing their firm’s new technology until after all the basic design work is finished. They then present a laundry list of items they’d like changed. Such lawyers must get involved earlier in the process to ensure their needs are met.
Further inefficiencies result when partners limit the functions that staff members can access within applications or in Windows generally. Some firms prevent staff from accessing their Recycle bins or opening Windows Explorer. This "safeguard" often results in people running around to find someone with authority to make a minor change to a program. It’s better to give staff more access so they can explore and use the system more productively.
Setting complex or confusing policies and procedures will lead to staff dissatisfaction, and possibly turnover. Support staff constantly confide in me about the "stupid" procedures their bosses have enacted. If you’ve hired staff to help run your business and care for your clients, give them the respect they deserve and assume they’re capable. You’ll have higher morale and loyalty.
File management, especially in small firms, seems to be a mess much of the time. For example, until the dot-com bust, many firms experienced exponential growth, and small firms, which typically started with name-based filing systems, switched to number-based systems as their client bases expanded. Unfortunately, some firms that moved to numbered case files wound up with multiple systems for identifying clients and matters because they failed to bring the older files into the new system.
In addition, many networked firms still allow secretaries to have their own folder and file-naming conventions. This can prove disastrous when a secretary becomes ill or leaves the firm. While well-intentioned, a secretary’s approach to file organization is at odds with a lawyer’s. For example, a secretary who works for several lawyers might be inclined to set up separate folders for each lawyer and within each folder organize the documents in subfolders based on document type—all letters together, all pleadings together and so forth.
This system may seem logical and workable— but it’s not. If two lawyers work on the same case, documents end up in different places. The same issue arises when the main folders are based on who typed the document. In this scenario, the lawyer needs to know with whom the document originated. It is better to organize files by client, then case. As a firm grows, it should consider a document management program like Worldox, DOCS OPEN or iManage. These programs literally manage your document creation and access.
But don’t just run out and buy one of these programs. Do your homework. Make sure you’ve selected the right product for your firm. And before spending money on new software, make sure you’re reaping value from your current applications.
I’m always surprised by the number of calls I receive from lawyers who purchase a product and let it sit on a shelf until a crisis arises, such as when a firm buys a billing program but doesn’t implement it until the firm must conduct a fee petition or estate accounting. Implementing complicated systems under deadline is one of the worst things you can do to your already harried staff.
If any of the gaffes I’ve described have left you cringing with the embarrassment of recognition, reflect on how you can improve your firm’s functioning and decision making. It will not only make your firm function better, it will fatten your wallet.
Carol L. Schlein (email@example.com) is a lawyer and President of Law Office Systems, Inc., a Montclair, NJ-based legal technology training and consulting firm. She is a former chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section Computer and Technology Division and is the author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Timeslips, published by the ABA. She can be reached at (973)746-6454.
This article originated in The TechnoLawyer Community, a free online community in which legal professionals share information about business and technology issues, products and services, often developing valuable business relationships in the process. To join The TechnoLawyer Community, visit www.technolawyer.com.