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Law Practice Case Study

Tips for Technology Planning: Advice for Smaller Firms


In the latest installment of this new Law Practice series, a fictional partner in a small law firm needs advice on revamping his firm's technology strategy. Offering recommendations on the scenario are Wells Anderson, Richard G. Ferguson, Debbie Foster, Joseph L. Kashi and David G. Ries.

In the Law Practice Case Study series, we posit a scenario that many of our readers confront and ask selected experts to discuss solutions. The goal: To provide our readers with practical how-to approaches they can apply in the types of real-world situations that arise in lawyers' lives. The legal technology experts here coauthored their response using the collaborative online tool Google Docs.

THE SCENARIO Steve looked out over the office, seeing the computers on everyone's desks, holding the firm's latest annual income and expense statement in his hand. He shook his head as he glanced at the technology expense amount again. Having grown to an eight-lawyer firm, were they spending too much or too little on technology? Their systems were a few years old now. Tom, the partner who had more or less been looking after technology for the firm, had become very busy with his own practice.

Steve wondered what new technologies they should be looking at and what they needed to emphasize for their hardware and software dollars. He had read something about practice management software, but he also knew that networking and security for the firm's data were important... They weren't big enough to hire someone to look after their technology needs full-time—or were they? His thoughts turned to the other firm members and how he would persuade them to even try any new technologies, assuming the cost could be justified. There were so many things to consider and he wasn't even sure where to start. He thought about who he should turn to...

The Expert's Advice

Engage a consultant to help analyze present assets and potential enhancements. A technology consultant who has experience with law offices can steer a firm around many pitfalls. Good consultants are not inexpensive, but their fees are small compared to the lost billable hours and missed opportunities that result from failed technology projects. In selecting a consultant, talk with other firms of similar size who have faced the same kinds of challenges and issues that your firm does. Find out what lessons they learned in their selection—what went well and what might have been done to avoid those things that did not go as well. Colleagues in bar groups can be good sources of information, too.

Identify several prospective consultants, do some due diligence and check references before making your choice. If necessary, confer with more than one consultant—and be willing to pay for the expertise. Many consultants will consult only for a fee (and not sell the firm hardware, software or services) to provide the most unbiased recommendations. You might also consider engaging a separate consultant on a long-term basis to review and comment on the work of various vendors and consultants in specialized areas such as practice management and security.

Create the case for change within the firm. If you can show every group in the firm how a new technology will directly benefit them, the project can succeed. Too often firms seize on a visible problem in one area and find one product to address it, but such a narrow focus can lead to a shortsighted, inflexible system. Today's technologies offer many methods of integration, some very good, some entirely inadequate. And the shortcomings may not be apparent until long after implementation, when the firm needs to tackle an additional set of needs and make the system work with other software to address different concerns. By offering users at all levels the opportunity to provide input at the outset, you greatly enhance the likelihood of receiving the buy-in necessary to implement a new technology and, at the same time, get the most bang for your buck going forward. It is important to evaluate each issue and each opportunity for improvement in relation to other issues and opportunities that affect different people in the firm.

In addition, you might actively recruit those in the firm who have embraced past technology developments and used them successfully. Ask them to become directly involved in the technology planning and implementation process. Mine their ideas for how they would like to better use technology to do their jobs more effectively.

You also need to be prepared to identify the people problems that no hardware or software can resolve. Often a firm's inefficiency is actually a result of individuals continuing the status quo. Constantly remember—and be prepared to tell others—that just because you've always done something a certain way, it does not mean you must always do it that way.

Let's say that Steve, in our case study, decided to implement a special stand-alone test-bed network where he, the IT staff and other technically savvy lawyers in the firm could experiment and work out the technical and human-factor bugs before deciding whether to purchase the particular system and implement it throughout the firm. By bringing other technically savvy firm members on board the test-bed system, he would find a way to create buy-in by technology influencers in the office and generate some positive anticipation even as he was avoiding start-up bugs that might otherwise be used as an excuse to maintain the status quo even longer. A wise consultant once said that adding technology to an inefficient process results in a very low net gain. Bottom line: Question everything.

Don't cut corners on network hardware and expert installers. A lot can be said about where to spend your technology dollars wisely, or foolishly, but networking is a very fundamental issue. A law firm would not order a cut-rate foundation for a new office building, but computer hardware and network engineers can be viewed as commodities. That is a bad way of looking at networking. Insist on leading, brand-name network hardware and make sure it is installed by a company that has good references. You should also consider storage and performance needs at least three years down the road because constantly upgrading network hardware is not only expensive but disruptive—particularly since firms will be transitioning over the next few years to document imaging and extensive use of photographic and video evidence, both of which place much heavier demands on a network.

Make sure that essential information about the network and server is well documented and available but secured onsite as well as offsite. Good networking companies maintain good records but should not be viewed as infallible. A firm wants to be in a strong position to switch providers if that becomes necessary, and having the necessary administrator login names, passwords and list of network resources can spare the firm a good deal of potential trauma.

Investigate legal-specific solutions—and provide proper training in them. Choosing among practice management and case management software alternatives requires careful thought and professional help. No program is perfect for everyone, and you cannot select a package based on features and price alone. It is so important to consider the firm's culture, how ready your people will be about the change, and the technical aptitude of the firm's users. Practice and case management packages can bring hundreds of features to the table, but you must realize that, although the goal will be to implement most of them, it is an evolutionary process and not a revolutionary one. It requires an investment of time and effort, but the fact remains that practice management software is much more successful at keeping track of and organizing documents, client information and billable events than MS Outlook alone.

Many products now offer combined front-office and back-office solutions, and while there are many benefits to that, there can also be drawbacks. The critical factor is seamless integration when you are using two different applications (e.g., you have to make sure it is easy to create time entries and get them to your billing program). The convergence of ownership of case management and accounting software developers naturally leads to closer integration.

And, of course, no rant about practice management software—or, for that matter, other law office software—would be complete without the obligatory, "Training, training, training—you can never have too much training!" Part of any successful technology implementation is ongoing training of all personnel who will be expected to use the new solutions.

Put an emphasis on systems security. Another area where you absolutely can't cut corners is having the hardware and software structures to protect the personal and confidential information that is provided to the firm. This means having things like firewalls, antivirus and anti-malware software, and information retention and destruction practices. Inherent in such policies are practices requiring the use of secure passwords or biometrically secured access solutions to protect sensitive data, as well as secure backup solutions to ensure that such data is accessible only to firm members who require access to it in the event of a disaster.

Additional measures like current software patches, strong authentication, e-mail usage policies, physical security and segmentation of data are also important. Encryption to protect data on portable devices such as laptops and PDAs is becoming a security standard as well. Finally, the firm must consider the impact of new electronic evidence and e-discovery rules and how to comply with these emerging mandates while still avoiding inadvertent disclosure of privileged information. The firm must also consider its policy on exchanging materials with clients and opposing counsel electronically and how to avoid the pitfalls of metadata disclosure.

Get real about maintenance and support. Chances are that in a small firm, like Steve's, having an in-house IT expert may not be financially feasible, especially for the level of training and expertise needed to monitor and solve the problems that today's firms face. Given the availability of secure remote-access technologies, it is possible for off-site IT personnel to diagnose and solve many of the technology issues from a remote location. Again, talk with others who have made similar decisions to learn what they have found works best, and ask your technology consultant about remote maintenance and support solutions. There may be advantages to outsourcing technology support and maintenance functions, or at least some part of them, particularly if there is no real "in-house" personnel with the knowledge necessary to address the problems that will inevitably be encountered in changing the technologies deployed by the firm.

There is a tendency to have a partner like Steve do the ad hoc troubleshooting in a small firm—however, does the firm want one of its income generators working at zero return, as opposed to gaining the benefit of his or her billable rate and having the consistency and availability of someone who isn't away from the office on business with clients, etc., handling emergent issues with technology? If you want someone on the payroll to do basic troubleshooting, consider taking an employee with the knack for technology, giving that person some additional training, and letting him or her do that task part-time and his or her other job part-time.

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