Over the past six years, we have witnessed a shift in the way law firm IT is managed. And it all started, innocently enough, with a phone, on January 9, 2007.
In the beginning, the iPhone looked harmless enough. Just a fancy iPod with a phone glued on. Many stalwart cognoscenti of the technology world quickly (and, in retrospect, embarrassingly) pronounced the iPhone a mistake that Apple would come to rue. Early reports of the iPhone’s irrelevance, as we now know, were greatly exaggerated.
iPhone market share rose rapidly over the next three years, largely at the expense of BlackBerry and Windows Mobile. Law firms continued to issue BlackBerrys to their lawyers during those years, but the lawyers themselves often toted an iPhone as a personal device. The BlackBerry was the firm’s choice. The iPhone was the individual’s choice.
This standoff continued until 2010, when Apple released the iPad—a Trojan Horse to the law firm IT department if ever there was one. Almost overnight, Apple built (many would clarify, rebuilt) the market for tablet devices. iPad sales were on fire. Everybody wanted one, and lawyers were no exception.
It was a repeat of the iPhone release, with one significant exception. No meaningful product competed with the iPad. Law firm IT departments gamely tried to assert that Windows XP tablets were strong enterprise-class substitutes for the iPad, but lawyers weren’t buying.
The lack of a meaningful competitor to the iPad in the early years led to fast adoption of the iPad at both the individual and enterprise levels. That acceptance has, along with other key economic and market forces, created three major changes for law firm management committees to consider when charting their futures.
CHANGE #1: CONSUMERIZATION
A lot of law firm IT employees—dyed-in-the-wool Microsofties, with the certifications to prove it—were, and remain, resistant to the influx of Apple devices. They’ll give you a variety of reasons for that resistance, such as security concerns.
A less stated but equally real reason for their opposition is the accurate assessment that the iPhone represented a loss of power and control for the IT department. This was the first time lawyers made demands and held expectations about their technology. Before that, the firm-issued BlackBerry and laptop were issued like the Model T a century before: you could have any color you wanted so long as it was black.
Lawyers have crossed the Rubicon of technology opinions and preference. We look to the technology available to us in our private lives and ask ourselves—and our managing partners—why our firm’s software solutions are so much more expensive and so much less user-friendly. Sometimes there are good answers to that question, but that misses the point. The consumerization of technology is not going away. Managing partners and technology committees will work in an atmosphere of increased scrutiny, sophistication and expectation on the part of their constituent lawyers.
CHANGE #2: BYOD
The consumerization of technology leads us to the second big change, embracing “bring your own device” (BYOD) IT management.
The downside for managing partners of technologically sophisticated lawyers is that those lawyers have opinions that will need to be listened to and addressed. It was hard enough getting a group of lawyers to agree on compensation and overhead. Now you can add the details of technology to the list of things in dispute at partner meetings.
There is an upside, though. With increased sophistication comes increased responsibility. Managing partners will be able to lean on their attorneys to take ownership of their tools by selecting and maintaining their own. Much the way many firms manage attorney business development and CLE, BYOD firms will give their attorneys a budget for the purchase and maintenance of their own technology.
If that sounds like hopeless naiveté, ask yourself this: Why is it that we can expect lawyers to provide their own transportation to and from work but not their own computer and phone? The frequent answer is because the attorney’s transportation doesn’t put the rest of the firm at risk but an insecure technology might. This is a bit of a red herring, though. Each day firms trust their attorneys to represent clients as they deem necessary. The risk from professional liability is at least as great as that from technology, but most firms manage the former loosely and the latter tightly.
CHANGE #3: LAW FIRM AS PLATFORM
Once you accept change #1 (that lawyers will be increasingly sophisticated about their technology tools) and change #2 (that increased sophistication allows off-loading some of the responsibility for technology back to the lawyer), the core of the firm starts to change.
After all, law firms aren’t about technology any more than custom cabinetmakers are about hammers and saws. The work of a law firm, to borrow from Peter Drucker, is to find and represent a client. Anything apart from this dualistic mission of business development and practicing law is somewhere between a distraction and a necessary evil.
The technological changes of the past few years have opened a lot of possibilities to rethink law firm IT. Let’s start planning the next six years now.