NEW COLUN FOR MANAGING PARTNERS In Taking the Lead, Law Practice Editorial Board members Ed Flitton and Karen MacKay tackle the ins and outs of running a law firm, providing expert guidance that every managing partner can use.
There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t try to manage those who are performing tasks you haven’t done yourself. Most of the time, that’s no problem for a managing partner. You have practiced law yourself, come up through the management ranks and learned tons about how law firms work. You are feeling pretty good about your capabilities—until, that is, the director of technology comes in with next year’s technology budget requests.
Let’s see, $1 million for a co-location facility, with $500,000 for new servers and software with unpronounceable names. The eyes glaze over. How are you supposed to analyze these requests? The quick answer is that you can’t expect to do a thorough job of it. There are no courses that you have time to take that will make you an expert, and most technical literature on the subject will be incomprehensible. Still, you should develop a basic grounding in the subject. Reading articles on legal technology and attending events like ABA TECHSHOW® will be invaluable in understanding IT needs. But no matter how much you read, it will not be enough for you to oversee this function by yourself. Here are a few steps to consider.
Bring in an outside expert. A legal technology consultant can be extremely useful for long-term planning for technology, helping you to map out a game plan for the next three years. Just be sure the consultant can balance his passion for the newest and best with control over costs. If he doesn’t have that capability, you will have a new lobbyist for your technology director.
Budgetary requests should be consistent with this game plan. But bringing in the consultant every time there is a budget (or emergency request) for new equipment is too expensive.
Pull in your best people. It is highly likely that you have younger partners who are quite knowledgeable about technology issues. Take the best of these to form a technology committee. Use associates as well if they understand the importance of the bottom line. Charge them with not only analyzing budgetary requests, but with keeping up with developments that will help your lawyers have the strongest technology skills in your market. Lawyers in your firm with technological expertise are in the best position to determine which applications and tools will be most useful for the firm.
Get to know the people who work in the technology department. Spend enough time with them to determine who the really proficient ones are. Then drop by and chat with them from time to time. If you can establish a trust level with them, you will know when things are going off the rails in the department. This is a delicate task because you don’t want the director to think you are spying. Don’t be secretive, just be friendly. It may be easiest to have the younger members of the technology committee do this. That may seem subversive, but believe me, there is more opportunity for waste in this area than any other one in the firm. Technology directors can be gadget freaks and can easily let perfection get in the way of good enough.
Through this combination of steps, you should be able to develop a decent grasp of the field. Most important, you will be receiving differing points of view that will enable you to intelligently analyze each issue.
Edward H. Flitton is former Managing Partner and now Of Counsel to Holland & Hart LLP. He is 2008-2009 President of the College of Law Practice Management, and a member of Law Practice’s Editorial Board and the ABA Law Practice Management Section Council.