Continuing Education

Volume 38 Number 2

By

About the Author

Tom Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics, and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section. He practices law with McGuire, Wood, Bassette, PA in Asheville, NC, where he is managing shareholder.

Do you ever go to an educational event, like ABA TECHSHOW, and come away with a feeling of education exhilaration, dreaming of all of the great things that might be done for the betterment of your firm based on what you’ve learned?

Well, I am what might be described as an ABA TECHSHOW junkie. I think I have been to ABA TECHSHOW for about 10 years in a row. There is much potential application in events like ABA TECHSHOW, but without a good plan of implementation, I have found that much of the learning may be lost. My belief is that those who attend events like ABA TECHSHOW are making a huge investment of not only their own time, but also their firm’s resources. This type of investment demands action. Leadership does not generally send the whole firm, and therefore should have an expectation that others will benefit from the investment in sending one of its members. Given the realities of daily life in a law firm, without an implementation plan, it will be very difficult to turn potential into success.

With the tendency toward skepticism and resistance that is so common amongst lawyers, is there really anything we can do to turn potential application into successful implementation? Or should we simply resolve ourselves to the fact that these obstacles are simply too great to overcome in a law firm setting, and hope that some of our own personal implementation will be seen by those with whom we work, and somehow stick with some of them? Over the years, I have developed some important characteristics of a simple, but successful, educational event implementation plan that you might consider as you attend events like ABA TECHSHOW.

Know your people

Not everyone in your firm is on the same level. Some of what you learn at an event will be relevant and timely for all of your members, but other information will be applicable to a subset (e.g., only staff or only attorneys). Some information may only be relevant to the most technologically savvy and may not be appropriate for anyone but your technology staff or vendor. Knowing your people means that you understand that unless something is absolutely essential to the future success of the firm, you should not try to force change. Knowing your people also means that you recognize when you will not have their support or the support of firm management and leadership. That understood, however, even if you initially determine that forcing change would be futile, perhaps with education you might not have to completely give up on that which has potential.

Educate your people

Given that you should not force change on folks who you know will likely not support it, you might ask yourself the reasons that folks are nonsupportive, and try to address their resistance through education. Perhaps the reason for resistance is a lack of understanding of the benefits of the proposed change and the ease with which change might be adopted. Consider the education you have just experienced, and prioritize. Only highest priority items should be chosen for education. If your firm has staff meetings, or regular meetings of lawyers or partners, propose to firm leadership that some meeting time be spent in education on the highlights of the conference you have attended. Remember, however, that there is much truth in the Biblical saying that a man is a prophet except in his own hometown. As opposed to performing the educational training yourself, in most cities or states you might be able to find an expert to come in and lead the session. For instance, many state bar associations have practice management advisors, and these folks tend to be experts on the types of things that are taught at events like ABA TECHSHOW. In addition, there is a vast array of resources available to members of the ABA through the excellent Legal Technology Resource Center. Many of these training resources are free and online.

Equip your people

Those who desire to use technology to better serve their clients and firm need to be given the resources to do so. It is my belief that some firms go overboard with technology standardization. A logical next step after knowing and educating your people is to identify those folks who will really take advantage of new methods or technologies. These are the people you will want to make sure to equip. I am a believer that a firm should not give into an “easy out” by giving everyone a piece of hardware or software simply because it is useful for only a small minority.

Obviously, there are many types of software (such as, for example, having a consistent and uniform email system), which need to be standardized. However, if a few of the members of the firm will actually use a mobile device for client service, and you buy every partner in the firm that same device simply to avoid confrontation with unhappy dinosaurs, for instance, you will end up expending large sums of firm resources for a few tools and many toys. In short, implementation needs to include a process by which the right tools are put into the right hands. 

Empower your people

Given that firm leadership needs to make sure that each member has the tools uniquely appropriate to his or her practice, successful implementation needs to go the extra step by recognizing that many of your members might actually catch the technology bug. The firm needs to understand this and encourage positive self-development.

One way to empower folks is to give them some authority to make spending decisions, with appropriate oversight. You may find that a small annual budget for each of the attorneys in your firm may make them more knowledgeable on the various options available to them. In these difficult economic times, certainly every purchase pursuant to such a policy needs to be within the firm’s budgetary goals. In addition, this type of empowerment policy should have some strings attached, including a requirement that anyone expending funds must explain to others who might make use of the technology the fact that the purchase is being made and the uses to which the technology will be put. It is true that such a program needs close oversight, since there is a huge risk that without leadership, the firm could end up buying many toys. However, if the right tools are encouraged, and if such an empowerment plan is implemented correctly and properly overseen, it does present a real opportunity for self-education and advancement. 

Reward your people

As folks adopt new tools and technologies, and as this leads to better client service, firm management needs to provide rewards. Obviously, firm compensation systems should include incentives that encourage efficient use of resources. However, just as important, leaders of firm technology should also be looking for nonmonetary ways to reward firm members. These might range from public recognition and participation in the training of others, to offering consistent early adopters the opportunity to experiment with new tools as they become available.  

I believe ABA TECHSHOW is a phenomenal educational opportunity. It presents numerous potential applications of technology to legal practice. I refer to “potential application” because I found that, as with many things in life, my return from the mountaintop of excellent education gave way to the troubles, worries and grind of day-to-day individual practice, firm management and life. Coupled with the skepticism of—and resistance to—change by others, it used to be that I would look back months after an event, and find that the net result was great initial potential, little implementation, and even less positive change that stuck.

If you commit yourself to turning potential into implementation, when you look back next year on ABA TECHSHOW 2012—or any other practice-related educational event you may attend—perhaps you will realize that in addition to your own personal mountaintop experience, those supporting you back home were able to benefit greatly from the view at the top.

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