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Q: Bill, my staff complains about the law office software that we use, but we've made such an investment in installation and training that I'm reluctant to start over with something new, even if it may be better. Any advice on figuring out if we really should switch?
A: You are not alone. When asked why they continue to use the same software, most lawyers and law firm managers cite the same reasons that you've given. Often, nobody in the office likes what they are using, but they are accustomed to it and don't want to invest the time and money needed to make a change. Lawyers also mention the difficulty of converting from one program to another, especially if the firm has thousands of clients entered into its system. I am not going to tell you that making a change will be painless, but I will guarantee (well, maybe not exactly guarantee) that if you do your homework, spend a little money and get some help, a year from now you and your staff will be happier.
Have questions about your career, your practice, your computer or anything else? Send them to Bill Gibson at firstname.lastname@example.org. If Bill doesn't have the answer, he'll find the experts who do.
Most law offices center their activities on a few basic functions: word processing, time and billing, calendaring and case management. Other functions include e-mail, accounting, document management, trial preparation and trial presentations. Your firm may be one that focuses more on time and billing and less on calendaring and case management, or you may be a firm like mine that is less concerned with keeping time than with processing cases, collecting and sharing information about your cases, and getting ready for arbitration or trial.
It's important to know where your priorities are and which programs deliver the biggest return for your particular needs. Even though practically all vendors would have you believe that their software will solve all your problems, the truth is that all programs have strengths and weaknesses, and some are better at one thing while others are better at other things.
So how do you find out what you need? Step number one: Research. The good news is that you don't have to do all the research yourself. This is a perfect project to delegate to someone else in your firm, perhaps to a law clerk or research assistant.
The first, and least expensive, place to begin the research is with your bar association. As I've pointed out in this column before, many bar associations have practice management advisors, or PMAs, whose job it is to help lawyers become more productive. They offer seminars, review software and, in many cases, will come to your office and give you private consulting, often for free. In Oregon, where I practice, those services are offered by our malpractice carrier, which is connected with the state bar. PMAs live with problems like yours every day and are up to date on the latest software and other practice tools.
Next, spend a few hours on the Web. I recommend the Web site of the Legal Technology Institute of the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida. The institute's director, Andrew Adkins, has written a book on computerized case management and the institute's site has a great deal of information, including a PowerPoint presentation titled "Practice Management: From Idea to Implementation." The site also contains a listing of just about every case management product available. Some of the products have free demo versions that you can order or download online.
Next, go to the Law Practice Management Section's Web site and the ABA TECHSHOW® site to see what everyone is talking about in the world of law office technology. And if you have the chance to attend ABA TECHSHOW in person, you absolutely should. It takes place on April 20-22 this year in Chicago. (See www.techshow.com for a full schedule and registration information.)
You can also find a host of valuable information and links to resources through the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. In addition, you can order helpful technology publications, including LPM Section books, at the ABA Web Store.
Finally, consider hiring a private consultant in your area. Be sure that the consultant is independent and isn't tied to one or two specific products or vendors. Consultants often specialize in firms of a particular size or practice area. Make sure that the person has worked with firms like yours before.
Once you've found a few products that seem promising, I suggest you take a weekend and install the demo software to see how it works. If a product looks good, talk with other law offices that use it to see how they like it. Be wary if they tell you the software cost a few hundred bucks, but the consultant charged a few thousand to get it running!
The bottom line here is that law office systems and software are the backbone of your practice and you owe it to yourself, your staff and your clients to be as productive as you can be. Just because you've used something for years doesn't mean you have to go on using it. As the song says, "A change will do you good."