Firms should spend their time wisely when evaluating technology tools and not be blinded by the sea of options, but focus on key applications that will enhance their operations.
At a recent solo lawyer conference, a respected local attorney was giving a talk outlining various low-cost, but essential, technology products. He provided a few strategies for evaluating them and gave out a great handout, which was five pages long and included hundreds of website links to various technology product sites across a half-dozen categories, including practice management software, scanners, dictation software, online document storage, and so forth. Similar “endless’” lists have been compiled from bar associations and consultants across the country.
Although these efforts are well-meaning, do they really help?
With technology tools for solos and small firms, there are four main problems: (1) with hundreds of solutions, it’s time consuming and difficult to evaluate them all; (2) most of the tools don’t talk to each other; (3) many solutions are not intuitive or easy to use; and (4) without good subject-matter training, even the best tools are not very useful.
Too Many Tools, Too Little Time
It takes many hours to scour countless product websites, additional effort and time commitment to install and learn how to use specific programs, and then, when the firm determines a solution isn’t a good fit, more hours and headaches to remove them. The time and opportunity costs are usually far more than the costs to purchase the products themselves. It’s maybe one step better than searching Google, but still not great.
Why are these recommended practice tool lists so long, and how can firms make sense of all of their options? One answer that is gaining in popularity is for firms to take a more strategic, business-focused approach to evaluating and using technology. Instead of having 20 tools that may automate 20 low-level functions deemed important, why not spend more time looking for fewer tools that can do more, and most importantly positively impact firm business?
Consider an alternative approach. Where does technology have the most impact in the firm? How can this be categorized to help organize the process? Based on recent legal industry research and user feedback, practice technology solutions can be divided into four main areas: getting clients, managing clients, doing the work, and getting paid. There are certainly other categories, but these are the core areas where technology can become the biggest “game changer” for a practice.
Evaluating Impactful Technologies
As a general rule of thumb, solos and small firms should spend 80 percent of their time evaluating 20 percent of the tools that will deliver the most impact to their practice. A new practice should spend a lot of time looking for solutions and tools to help get more clients. If it’s a new practice area for the firm, time could be spent looking for CLE resources and efficiency tools. New litigators ought to spend more time looking at litigation guides and calendaring tools. Practitioners overwhelmed with paper management might consider purchasing a high-powered scanner. What are the key goals to becoming more efficient? Firms should work with their practice management advisors, trusted colleagues, and consultants to identify these opportunities and pain points and, ideally, save time on this process and end up with a short list of strategic technology tools.
Why Don’t My Tools Know Who My Clients Are?
Communication is critical to effective management, and this also holds true as it relates to your technology tools (although in technology lingo we call it integration). Even when law practices have a stable set of technology tools, more often than not the tools don’t do a good job in sharing data with each other, streamlining daily workflow, or helping to provide information to make the practice better. Just within the “getting clients” category, it’s nearly impossible today to truly evaluate the ROI of most attorney advertising and marketing investments as there are no standard ways to measure advertising performance data across media types (print vs. direct mail vs. Internet vs. referrals). Once a prospective client comes into the firm, there are also no real consistent methods or formats small firms can use to get and manage the client’s information or link those marketing efforts to “good clients” vs. “not-so-good clients.” Most customer relationship management (CRM) systems are expensive and not built for small firms (many are not even designed for law firms) and, thus, are overkill and a lot more trouble than they are worth. So without standardization and sharing of client data, firms resort to manual double (or triple or quadruple) entry into spreadsheets, email folders, billing systems, bookkeeping systems, and so forth.
With this is mind, it is important for solos and small firm practitioners to ask their consultants, practice management advisors, and vendors what their tools can do to integrate or share information with the other solutions that might already be in use across the firm. A good litmus test includes a “dry run” walk-through of the selected software solutions to determine what it would take to use the tool with actual clients, from beginning to end.
The “All or Nothing” Approach to Practice Management Software
A popular answer to the integration question has traditionally meant installing a “robust, scalable, feature-rich” (add other buzz words here) software system. Although these solutions might have many of the bells and whistles, these predominantly client/server based systems are expensive and require extensive planning, installation, and training time (months or sometimes years). These practice “massive” software tools are not designed to help small firms run their practice like a business, and based on the complexity involved with installation and training, rarely live up to the associated hype or potential. By the time all is said and done, it’s too late, and firms figure they need to squeeze a return out of the investment and are locked in to the vendor or consultant to make it all work. The switching costs become enormous. The firm usually can’t unplug one component and plug in another from another vendor or provider.
Solos should consider practice management tools that are web-based and designed to integrate well with other solutions and that organically can grow with their practice. Firms don’t have to use everything to get value, so they can choose tools that allow to mix and match with other tech tools.
Do the Tools Make It Easier to Get Things Done?
Some software applications and online tools for solos still look like they were designed in 1998. Although they may look familiar to many legal administrators and attorneys who use them, many of the technology vendors behind them haven’t spent enough time on making the experience using their products positive. On the contrary, easy and newer web browser capabilities are making the experience better. And it’s not about looking pretty: it’s about being incredibly easy to learn, use, and get value from the products.
When trying or testing products, firms should make note of how easy they are for staff to use. Can staff find things easily? Does it take many clicks or steps to complete top tasks? Will the tools truly save the firm time and make things easier?
Google AdWords Alone Does Not Make Firms Rainmakers
Although tools can be extremely helpful in any practice, many of them are only as good as the people using them. Just as the law profession involves many years of training and experience, it takes knowledge and skills for solos and small firm staff to become good rainmakers/marketers (or good business people, good accountants, etc.). So before investing in tools in any of the four categories (getting clients, managing clients, doing the work, and getting paid), solos and firms should make sure they understand the basics. They may seek CLE and training from trusted sources. When doing so, firms should start broad. Before selecting someone to dive in and learn AdWords, the firm might start with a good introductory online marketing seminar/webinar.
Innovation Is Coming
It is encouraging to see some energy and upstart companies working to solve these challenges with technology tools for solos and small firms. There many good tools, and more and more companies are making their solutions more effective in helping firms realize the potential of their practices.
- Solos and small firms should allocate 80 percent of the time taken to evaluate technology tools to the 20 percent of key tools that will have the most impact based on the type of practice areas in the firm and the stage that the firm is in.
- Real-world “litmus test” dry runs help solos to evaluate how well new tools will work together with other tools, how they function in use with real clients and matters, and how easy they are to use.
- Firms should consult practice management advisors, colleagues, and trusted consultants to help them focus their technology strategy in order to get a better “short list” of tools to evaluate.
- Vendors appreciate feedback and often use suggestions to make their tools better. Firms should provide suggestions to vendors and ask questions about how they can better use technology tools and services.
Brad Cooper is a senior vice president and general manager at RealPractice, Inc. Based in Santa Ana, California, Brad is an Internet technology pioneer and business management veteran with nearly 20 years of experience at companies including Apple, Xerox, and Adobe/Macromedia. Brad and his teams have managed thousands of attorney marketing programs, and his company, RealPractice, has provided legal technology solutions and services for more than 10 years to thousands of solos as well as the largest law firms in the country. Brad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-357-2310, and you may visit RealPractice to learn about their solutions for solos and small firms at http://www.RealPractice.com.
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