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May/June 2020

Tech From the Trenches

Ignore the Shiny New Object—Focus on What’s in Front of You

Barron K. Henley

There’s always a lot of discussion about the future of legal technology, innovation and what will be the next big thing. I read a constant stream of articles and posts about artificial intelligence, chatbots, blockchain, cloud migration, marketing and client intake automation, data analytics, document assembly and the like. I recently read an excellent article by Zach Warren from Legaltech News titled “A Future Focus: The Success of Legal Tech Depends on Transformation, Not Automation.” The title alone sounds scary, particularly if you’re still struggling with automation, much less transformation. If you’re paying attention to all the predictions about what’s coming and what you should already be doing, it can be pretty stressful. If you already have enough stress in your life, then I suggest shifting your focus to a bigger problem over which you have more control. While failure to adapt, invest in one’s practice or innovate are certainly big problems facing practitioners, I believe a more significant issue is the underutilization of technology already owned.

Examples of the Issue

To illustrate, here are a few quotes from lawyers I’ve talked to about this in the last year. “We have a case management program, but I know we’re only using about 5 percent of it.” “I know Excel would probably be helpful to us, but no one here knows how to use it.” “We bought document assembly software but never used it because my paralegal couldn’t figure it out.” “Microsoft Word is maddening—I feel like it works against me on complex documents, and I sure wish it had reveal codes like WordPerfect!” “We have copiers that scan and a bunch of desktop scanners, but our office still looks like someone detonated a paper bomb.” “Wait! We already have Acrobat Pro. You mean I can redact PDF files directly without printing them, using redaction tape and scanning them again?” “I’m not from the computer generation so I mostly just stumble around with this techie stuff and try not to break anything.” If any of that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. The good thing about this problem is that there are many ways to start alleviating it. Training is obviously key, but here are some ideas to consider.

Core Production Tools

Most law offices barely scratch the surface of what their core production tools—word processor, spreadsheet, email and PDF programs—could be doing for them. For example, Microsoft Word is generally the most powerful and yet underutilized program in legal. To the extent your office is using it like a glorified typewriter, that just means it’s taking longer than it should to generate documents. Using your word processor like a blunt instrument increases your costs, reduces your profitability or both. I routinely review legal documents whose authors evidence no understanding of how to use Word’s features for automatic paragraph numbering or auto-updating cross-references. Tables of contents and authorities are often manually typed even though Word has features for automatically generating and updating them in seconds. This means that complex documents could be generated in fractionally less time if the tools used were better understood.

If you want to learn more about your core production tools, ask your CLE providers to offer classes. Thirty-eight states have adopted the ABA Model Rule changes that require technical competency, so they should be offering competency classes on core production tools like Word, Outlook, Excel and Acrobat, among others. Of course, there are also online courses from LinkedIn Learning (formerly known as and other vendors. The annual ABA TECHSHOW always has classes on core production tools, and a quick web search for terms like “legal Microsoft Office training” will reveal plenty of other options.

Manuals on Outlook and Excel are generally helpful because legal users do not tend to use those applications in a much different way than everyone else. On the other hand, most of the after-market manuals for Word don’t cover in sufficient depth (or at all) the features required to format complex legal documents. And legal tends to use PDF programs differently than other users, so legal-specific help is important. If you’re an Acrobat user, there are excellent legal-specific resources like The Ultimate Guide to Adobe Acrobat DC by Daniel J. Siegel and Pamela A. Myers, and the blog Acrobat for Legal Professionals. If you’re using an alternative PDF program like Kofax Power PDF, Foxit PhantomPDF, pdfDocs or Nitro, you’ll have to rely on the instructional material provided by the vendors themselves, as I’ve been unable to find any third-party resources to help legal users. However, even if you’re relegated to the help menu within the programs in question, it’s still worth reading it.

Refresh Training

When new applications are implemented in a law office (such as accounting, matter management or document/email management systems), training is typically provided for all users. Five years later, it’s not uncommon for a significant percentage of the users to be new employees who started after the original training was provided. Unfortunately, the people who started after the original implementation are rarely provided formal training, and in my experience, they’re often left to figure it out on their own. Of course, this causes underutilization and simmering dissatisfaction with the application. For those reasons, it’s a good idea to offer training on existing systems annually or every couple of years. Even users who were present for the original training will pick up things that will make them better users of the software.

Mining Existing Applications for More Functionality

Did you know all good matter management systems can transfer the client information they hold directly into new Word documents? In some cases, the native document assembly functionality is quite impressive and not only fills in blanks but also handles conditional logic. If you have such a program, then document assembly is probably an easy expansion of how you’re using it. As another example, consider Office 365 (O365). Law offices typically subscribe to O365 to get the desktop versions of Word, Outlook and Excel. However, the O365 business plans also include a host of other useful apps and services that law offices could put to immediate use, such as Bookings, Forms, OneDrive, SharePoint, Teams and To Do. Bookings alone saves me at least an hour a week scheduling meetings and phone calls with clients. Further, if you subscribe to the E3 or E5 O365 plans, you also get Message Encryption (among other things), which is an easy-to-use email encryption service.

Engage In Self-Help

It’s common for lawyers to ask support staff for information that was already available to them on internal systems. Since only 2.5 percent of people are capable of rapid task-switching and multitasking without a significant degradation in performance, these types of interruptions are often costly in terms of support staff productivity. If you have access to internal systems that provide information you normally ask others for, it’s a good idea to learn to use them so you can engage in self-help and stop interrupting others unnecessarily.

Although widely accepted, I would argue that it is not OK to know you’re barely using your current technology and resign to do nothing about it. Instead of focusing on the next thing you should buy, think about how you could get more out of what you already have. You may be shocked at the gains achievable for little or no additional money.

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Barron K. Henley


Barron K. Henley is a lawyer and founding partner of Affinity Consulting Group, a legal technology consulting firm focused on automating and streamlining law firms and legal departments. He heads Affinity’s document assembly/automation and software training departments, and he teaches CLE classes throughout the U.S. and Canada covering a wide variety of topics related to law practice management, technology and ethics.