Diving Into Platforms

Volume 38 Number 5

By

About the Author

Erik Mazzone is the director of Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association.

Law Practice Magazine | September/October 2012 | The Recruitment and Retention Issue
What springs to mind when you hear the word platform? If you live in a big city, maybe you think of a subway platform. If you follow politics closely, perhaps a party platform is the first thing that pops into your head. Or if you are a fan of the summer Olympics, your thoughts might run to diving platforms. Another use of the term, though—and one that probably did not spring to mind unless you have a background in IT—is a computing platform. A computing platform has more in common with those other types of platforms than you might expect at first blush. It is, in essence, a jumping-off point, a place from which you make other things happen.

It used to be that we looked at the software we use as single-use appliances, like blenders or microwaves. Web 2.0, or cloud-based, software is no exception. Just as we expect our word processors to process words, email programs to send and receive email, and calculators to calculate, so too we expect our browsers to browse, and so on. As cloud-computing software matures, though, the best offerings are moving away from the single-use model and turning into platforms.

What this means for lawyers is that our Web browsers can and will do much more than browse the Web. They have become the locus for where much of our productivity and other important software lives. This happens organically. Anybody who uses Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome or, increasingly, Apple Safari—which together account for about 79 percent of browser usage—knows that the add-ons, extensions and apps can dramatically transform the way the browsers function. Along the way, the browser itself turns from just a window onto the Web to something much more.

This transformation—and it is not just of browsers—means shortly we will no longer judge our software entirely on its own merits as a stand-alone entity. Instead, we will judge its vibrancy as a platform. We will investigate what else it integrates with, which of our other trusted services hook into it, and how we might use it in our day.

There is keen competition among software companies to try to become the platform of choice. Google Apps, customer relations management software such as Salesforce, storage and sharing software, including Evernote and Dropbox, along with the aforementioned Web browsers, are red in tooth and claw as they vie to be the most popular platform. For lawyers, the choice involves at least one additional category of cloud-based software that wants to become the center of your digital productivity world: Practice management software vendors such as Clio and RocketMatter have also recently staked their claim on Mount Platform.

While this bonanza of choice might seem a windfall to lawyers looking to choose a cloud-based productivity platform, for many the reality is quite the opposite. The presence of so many worthy competitors can be anxiety-provoking and paralyzing. (For a thorough and fascinating read of why, check out The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz.) Compounding the anxiety is the fact that platforms, due to their many hooks into other services, are likely to prove incredibly sticky for users. In other words, once you choose your platform, it will be considerably harder to change than it was to get into it in the first place. (Cue “Hotel California.”) On the other hand, platforms represent so much possible synchronicity (cue The Police) that it is a shame not to avail oneself of them and all of the productivity and efficiency enhancements they can bring with them.

To make the best possible choice for your practice platform, spend some time noodling with these questions:

Where is your headquarters? Most lawyers have a productivity headquarters—a nerve center for their practices. For a lot of us, it is a software program, maybe Outlook or Google Apps, practice management, document management software or something else altogether. One of the first and worst mistakes lawyers make when choosing software is to deny how they actually work. For example, if you have been practicing law for 15 years and during that time you have worked all day every day in Microsoft Outlook, dramatically shifting away from that working style may prove challenging.

A similar challenge is presented when your firm’s nerve center is in paper files. Client files, calendars, conflict checking—there are still plenty of law firms across the country that use paper as their central technology. If this sounds like your firm, the best advice when moving to a cloud-based platform is to go slow. When you change a big variable—such as going from paper to digital—you inevitably change dozens of smaller variables. Give yourself and your firm the time to sort through the big change of going digital before locking yourself into a given platform.

What are your must-haves? I’ve never met a piece of software that left me so thoroughly entranced that I walked away thinking it was perfect in every way. Like cars, houses and employees, choosing software involves a set of compromises. Nothing will be perfect.

To put yourself in the best position to choose a platform wisely, spend some time (by yourself or with your firm technology committee) differentiating your nice-to-haves from your must-haves. Whether it is buy-in from a key stakeholder, reaching a certain price point or interactivity with another particular software program, once you have identified your must-haves, the world of platform choices begins to shrink to a more manageable level.

What do you use on the go? When we buy new cars, nearly all of us will go on at least one (and maybe many more) test drives. Typically, these test drives involve short loops that the salesperson has picked out to showcase the car’s best advantages and hide its shortcomings. Savvy shoppers realize that they are literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat and can make the test drive work for them. If your home is up a rutted gravel road, the test drive should hit those conditions.

Similarly, if you are picking a platform and you only test it from your office chair, you are not getting the whole picture.

Most lawyers work from home, on the road, at the courthouse and many more places outside their offices. Our software platforms have to serve us from all these places, too. Before you jump into a platform with both feet, make sure you have vetted it on your mobile device and home computer, and anywhere else that it is likely to be pressed into service.

What do you like? Last, and not to be undersold, is to decide what you like to use. It’s great if your chosen platform seems to check all the right boxes, has all of your must-haves and is terrific when you’re on the go, but if you don’t like using it, you should still toss it. This may seem like a fluffy and subjective criterion—and it is—but it is an inescapable fact that if using software is about as pleasant as running a cheese grater repeatedly across your forehead, then most lawyers will not use the software. It does not matter how many thousands of dollars you spend, how thoroughly you research or how carefully you train—if you do not like the visceral experience of operating the software, you’re simply never going to use it enough to get the needed bang for your buck.

So the platform race is on. If you choose the right one for your firm, it will open opportunities, create synergies and enhance efficiencies. Take your time, set your priorities and by all means, look before you leap.

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