Most law offices have a client/matter database system to track files and deadlines. The system may even have some document assembly technology, but should it do more?
Understanding what a fully implemented client/matter system can do and taking the time to automate all mundane client and administrative matter can save a practice thousands of dollars every year.
If designed correctly, automation gives a significant return on investment. Something as simple as merging and e-mailing out yearly retainer agreements can save on both time and postage fees. Automating repetitive, routine tasks will free you up to do billable work and grow your practice.
Law offices are more likely to hire an additional administrative employee than automate. Beefing up staff appears to fix the need of additional productivity faster than utilizing the abundance of technology solutions available to achieve the same goal. But before you log onto Indeed.com, LinkUp.com, or SimplyHired.com to find another employee for 2017, here are some questions to answer honestly:
- Do you have a robust client/matter database? If you do, is it customized to all areas of law you practice and does it automate the processes? I remember an office that was quite proud of the patent it had pending on its proprietary system. When I saw a demo of the system, it was mediocre at best, and the user interface was about as attractive as a men’s locker room. The office still tracked real estate files on spreadsheets and had weekly meetings to discuss the spreadsheets. Don’t let pride get in the way of an honest analysis of what you already have in place.
- Do you have automatic assembly for .docx, .pdf, .xlsx files?
- .docx. Some practices are reusing other client documents by reformatting the document to meet their needs. This allows the possibility for confidential information to accidentally remain on the document. A client/matter database should be able to merge word-processing documents to avoid typing in the same data, such as property address, over and over again.
- .pdf. Many areas of law have government-created, fillable PDF forms that must be used. With a fully automated database system, the PDF can be populated automatically, saved to the client folder, and left fillable for any additional, custom editing.
- .xlsx. Offices that use spreadsheets to crunch numbers or analyze a case are often typing in the same data over and over again. Spreadsheet automation is so often overlooked because it rarely produces a document that goes to print. However, automating the static data entered into the analysis spreadsheets can greatly increase productivity in the office.
- Are you sending routine e-mails automatically? Routine e-mail communication requesting client documentation can be integrated within a database system. E-mail automation designed properly can automatically update your clients at every stage of the matter you are working on for them with the click of a button. It creates a recurrent communication chain between attorney and client. This has been shown to cut down on phone calls from clients inquiring about the status of their file because you simply beat them to it.
- Do your systems get along? The client/matter database should integrate with the document assembly as well as other areas of your practice such as the accounting software. Putting all your technology under one user interface umbrella is like getting that universal remote for all the pieces of your entertainment system. Employees will spend less time launching individual applications and entering client data into each separate system.
- Do you accept online payments for services rendered? Many law firms are still old-school when it comes to billing. Manually printing a paper invoice, slapping a “Forever” stamp on the envelope, and slipping it into the mailbox just slows down the process. You may even see payment before the Cubs win their next World Series. It makes more sense to e-mail that invoice and know that there are ABA-compliant vendors out there that can allow your clients to pay online through your website. You do not have a website, you say? Uh-oh, you may be in more technical trouble than you thought.
- Are you only using the basics of a technology? If an office has bar code technology, is it being used to the full potential? If bar codes are a way to track files, is the bar code on every document that is produced in the office? I had a nonprofit organization ask me to design a database system to automate its processes. It turned out that the organization had one already in place that could do all the functions that the nonprofit wished to hire me for. Make sure everyone is trained on each technology tool you have in your office.
- Do you have a document management solution? Does a search for your client’s electronic folder resemble an Easter egg hunt? Many practices had network folders before a client/matter database was implemented. Attorneys continue to click through the Windows Explorer user interface to find a client’s electronic file. Does this UNC look familiar?: \serverpublicclientPTAutomatedSolutions2016contract. It may be that your office uses a mix of services to manage, share, and archive files. Wasting time by repeatedly searching for the files you need is costly and inconvenient. It also makes it difficult to collaborate on reports, spreadsheets, and other small projects. If you don’t have a document management solution, you need one!
If you answered “no” to one or more of these questions, it is time to make a change. However, many attorneys would rather clean out the office refrigerator than kick-start a technology project. The reasons vary—anywhere from lack of time to a past breakup with a vendor whose salesmen sold them the Taj Mahal but delivered a Boy Scout tent. Excuses aside, the cost-return on moving forward with fully automating your practice can’t be beat. The following are some tips to help get started:
- Have your processes in place. This is the number-one most important tip, as it is often overlooked. Trying to automate an office without processes is like constructing a skyscraper without architectural blueprints. If you are trying to automate your estate-planning area of law, do you have a checklist and timeline of the entire process from start to finish? Don’t leave it to the programmers to fill in the blanks on your scrawny processes. Weak or missing processes can cost you more money in implementation expenses than experienced by offices that have sound processes in place.
- Assign a strong project lead. Find an internal employee willing to think outside the box. Perhaps an associate/paralegal who is tech savvy would be the best person to manage the project. Perhaps you don’t have a tech-savvy employee, or the closest candidate still has an active MySpace profile. Nonetheless, pick someone who knows the office processes and won’t say “But we have always done it this way.” Make sure 15 percent of that person’s time can be devoted to the project, and make meeting project deadlines part of his or her goals for that quarter/year.
- Automation/time is money. The hardest thing can be finding the extra time it takes to design the system. Take the time and commit to it weekly until the job is done. Weekly status meetings can help keep a project moving as there is accountability to complete the week’s tasks even if they are completed just minutes before the meeting. Understand that the return on this time investment will be seen in the first year of implementation.
- Find a consultant, not a salesman. A software sales representative can certainly be helpful with basic knowledge of the technology you may be interested in, but make sure that you can communicate with the people who are actually customizing the system for you. Meet the whole team before entering into any relationship with a vendor. If they speak nothing but C# programming language, find another consultant team.
- Pick a platform you need, not what all the cool attorneys are using. Pick at least three vendors that use various platforms to house your data. Do your research of pros and cons for each platform. For example, does your 5 gigabyte database really need an Oracle Platform, or would SQL Server Express do the job with no licensing cost? Make sure you don’t overpay for a platform simply because it is trending.
- Communicate internally that change is worth it. It is important to market any technology change to your staff and have as many employees as possible on board before the project begins—and throw in some kickoff doughnuts. Sharing knowledge and making everyone into a team eliminates the perception of a technology “coup” and can make the implementation a positive experience rather than a hostile takeover.
Hopefully, this article inspires you to take the time and look at your current technical environment. Is it doing what you need it to do? Could it be better? Used properly, technology won’t take the human element out of lawyering—only the mundane processes.
Just remember: Automation doesn’t have to completely change your business style, but it could be a game changer in the way you run your practice.
Law Office Automation: Look How Far We’ve Come
Automation originated in the 1970s with the electric typewriter—although not strictly automation, it laid the groundwork for the second generation.
In the early 1980s the personal computer was available to law offices, and WordStar was the dominant word processor. However, it proved difficult to add new features to the WordStar platform. This allowed for WordPerfect to take the mainstream market by the mid-1980s. It had automatic line numbering that was important to the area of law and the ability to add footnotes/endnotes. Staff could save repetitive information such as a legal description in a word-processing document and use the electric typewriter as a printer on closing documents. Dedicated secretarial pools were quickly becoming obsolete.
Automation Makes It Possible
Then, in the late 1980s early 1990s, computer software applications utilizing database management systems (DBMS) brought law firms to the next level of automation. Programs such as Symantec Q&A and FoxPro were common at that time as they provided a way to digitally create, collect, store, and manipulate data. Symantec Q&A was a DBMS that allowed for both form and datasheet views of data and the ability to use a natural language technology called DAVE (Do Anything Very Easily). Anyone still working with DAVE today might disagree with that acronym!
Symantec Q&A and FoxPro allowed small offices to customize database fields to the specialty of the practice. The late 1980s and early 1990s automation solutions allowed for querying of data such as hearing dates and time-saving mail merges. Symantec Q&A and FoxPro have since vanished like the dinosaurs.
In 1992 Microsoft Access was released and, actually, is still in law offices today. Microsoft Access is a database management system that may be used as the “front end” of a program/application, allowing for data input, while other products are utilized for the “back-end” storage for the data. Access can connect to back-end platforms such as Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Azure, and non-Microsoft products such as Oracle and Sybase.
Change Is Good
Today, law firms are more connected to data than ever. Cloud solutions can be implemented to allow data to be available from multiple devices anywhere. Gone are the days of bringing back a pile of paper to an employee to open a new client matter. The present-day attorney is able to electronically open a file while interviewing a new client in real time.
Mundane and repetitive research today can be automated by subscribing to cloud-based artificial intelligence legal databases. The use of electronic filing is becoming a key priority for the government, and virtual courtrooms will eventually become part of the day-to-day work of the courts.
The past 30 years have been fascinating to watch and have allowed law offices to save time and money by automating the law practice with the use of technology. What is next? Fasten your virtual seat belt and enjoy the ride!