February 04, 2020

People: The Overlooked Ingredient in Successful Technology Changes

Andrew Elowitt

TECHSHOW will take place in Chicago on February 26–29, 2020. As they do each year, attendees from all over North America and overseas will come to see and demonstrate some of the newest advances in law practice technology. TECHSHOW is more than a marketplace for the latest and greatest. It is also an opportunity to learn, network, and discover how to get the best out of legal technology—both what you may want to acquire and what you may already have. In some cases, you might be surprised to learn that your firm’s tech problem is actually more of a people problem. An experience from last year’s show is illustrative.

Top of mind for Glen, an attendee at last year’s show, was to find better time-tracking and billing software for his firm. Two years prior, his partners had purchased a new system that promised easier and more accurate time entry with complete integration with their billing system, but the purchase was a dud according to Glen, and he was looking to replace it with something that worked better.

After spending most of the morning talking to vendors on the show’s expansive EXPO floor, he took a break and attended a talk I was co-presenting entitled The Human Side of Technology Implementation. Glen approached me after the talk and asked if I knew which time-tracking and billing systems were easier to implement than others. I was curious. What were the problems his firm had encountered with their last purchase? What had been difficult?

As Glen answered my questions, it quickly became clear that the problem his firm was having with its new system wasn’t a matter of picking poor, broken, or outdated technology. The features and functionality of the new system were more than adequate for his firm’s needs. Contrary to what he initially thought, their old vendor had not over-promised and under-delivered. The difficulties his firm was experiencing instead came from how the software had been selected and adopted, and how his firm members had been trained to use it.

Two of his firm’s partners had been tasked with interviewing vendors, sampling the software, and making recommendations for acquisition to the firm’s partners. They had done a thorough job of surveying the market and negotiating a competitive deal, but they never asked the firm members who would be the most active users of the software what they thought was important. As we talked, Glen began to see how the announcement of the change to a new time-entry and tracking system came across as a top-down edict from management. He recalled hearing second-hand that some attorneys and staff felt that management didn’t value their opinions and insights.

Significant changes in law firms can cause ripples and turbulence, and changes in technology are no exception. I explained to Glen that firm members felt no ownership of this change and consequently little investment in its successful implementation. Glen hoped their resistance to this change would have been overcome when firm members were trained and saw how useful the new system could be. Unfortunately, adoption of the new system was slow and uneven. A few attorneys simply refused to use it for the first few months, time entry was more error prone than before, and it was taking longer to get bills out to clients.

Glen asked if more training would help. I said it might if he approached things differently. His first inclination was to go to the original vendor’s booth and renegotiate the deal to include more training. I suggested rather than doing that, he should first go back to his firm and ask what kind of training his staff and attorneys thought would be most useful. I told him to pay particular attention to those firm members who were most hands-on in the time-entry process.

I received an e-mail from Glen five months later describing the new training program his firm members had designed with a third-party vendor. Rather than a long, one-day program, they spread multiple training sessions over three months with practice assignments due in between. Training was broken into modules so individual firm members could focus on only those that were most relevant to their jobs. Staff members also volunteered to become go-to persons for helping others with their problems. Glen concluded by saying that “late is better than never” and that his firm’s new system was finally beginning to pay off now that they were paying attention to the people side of introducing new technology.

Andrew Elowitt is a professional certified coach and practice-management consultant who specializes in leadership, talent, and career development for lawyers, executives, and in-house counsel. He is co-author of Lawyers as Managers: How to Be a Champion for Your Firm and Employees (ABA 2017) and author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Professional Coaching: Leadership Mentoring and Effectiveness (ABA 2012).