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July/August 2021

Hot Buttons: Retaining the Best of Our COVID Technology-Focused Existence Will Be a Challenge

Daniel J. Siegel

Information technology “consumes a significant amount of capital expenditures and gross revenues. Though recent research has shown that managing IT well can significantly increase a firm’s profits and deliver substantially higher returns on IT investments, its potential is overlooked and even its workaday application is often mismanaged.” This quote from a Wall Street Journal article is spot-on in terms of how firms can mismanage and fail to realize the potential, the utility and the benefits of proper technology implementation.

The article further explains that, “hundreds of billions of dollars are blown every year on IT projects that fail to achieve the desired goal” and that, “The reason for all this is the metaphorical glass wall that separates the IT group from the rest of the business at most companies [and] prevents IT from being part of the discussion at the highest levels of company planning, robbing a firm of its full potential.”

The solution, the authors posit, is tearing down the wall between the IT staff and the rest of the firm. For many law offices, that wall remained until COVID-19.

Here we sit, more than one year since the practice of law and the rest of the world was instantly and dramatically transformed by a pandemic virtually no one expected. The article aptly captures the problems that now confront so many firms as they struggle to adapt in a culture where technology is more important than ever. This situation is not unique to IT, however. As I write, Texas is in the midst of a deep freeze that has robbed much of the state of power because leaders failed to plan for situations that, while uncommon, happen.

Astute readers may have noticed that I intentionally failed to supply more detail about the Wall Street Journal article, including its title and publication date. For good reason. The article, “How to Tap IT’s Hidden Potential,” was published on March 10, 2008, and is now celebrating its proverbial bar mitzvah. Yet the prophetic words of the article’s authors, Amit Basu and Chip Jarnagin, are as relevant now as they were in 2008, the year Android phones were starting to be released and Apple opened the App Store.

Obviously, a lot has changed since 2008; but a lot has not. We have lived through hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, floods and now a pandemic, each one forcing law firms to close their physical offices and to adapt temporarily. Every time, commentators said law firms would recognize the impact of these events and would change how they operate. But in many cases, nothing changed.

Eventually, the pandemic will fade into our memories. Meanwhile, many articles in legal journals are predicting how quarantined life will change the practice of law forever. For some firms, it has. For some courts, it has. For some offices, however, the transformation may be primarily superficial—that is, unless leadership takes the steps necessary to evaluate whether its actions during the pandemic met the needs of its staff. These offices need to evaluate what worked, what did not work and where to take the firms in a post-pandemic technology world.

Although this may seem obvious, many commentators have espoused the technological changes and benefits the pandemic brought without addressing the question, “What will firms do after we return to ‘normal’?” They make these predictions without factoring in the resistors, who do not give interviews but who will employ the same technique they use to persuade other lawyers to convince their firms to return to what they see as the “good old days.”

In fact, it seems that the vast majority of commentators assume that firms will continue to embrace technology even when physical offices are no longer off-limits. To reach that level of acceptance, firms need to assess what has worked, what has failed and where to begin post-pandemic if they want to move forward. Plus, they need to be committed to doing so. Despite the transformation from an in-office, Zoom-free world to one where attorneys and staff prefer home to physical offices, resistors will continue to advocate for a return to the old ways.

Consider one firm, a midsize litigation practice in a large metropolitan area. The firm was started by two lawyers, now in their late 60s, who were raised in a pre-computer, paper world. Before the pandemic, they added a third equity partner, who was younger and has used technology in his practice. The remainder of the firm is associates.

For the most part, the founding partners have used their computers in limited ways, always returning to a paper world. They refuse to enter time and billing records electronically, handwrite their notes and timesheets, and give them to staff to transcribe. When they prepare for trial, everything is handwritten, then handed to staff to put on the computer.

Worse, when it comes to their firm, they have refused to budget for technology. The firm has basic software, such as an older version of Microsoft Office (now called Microsoft 365), an accounting program and a rudimentary time and billing system. From a staff perspective, the two founders challenged requests for additional technology every time they are made, leading to a patchwork system.

Associates were frustrated by the refusal to adopt technology firm-wide and hated having to fight to get any technology, let alone necessities such as litigation software, a firm-wide time billing program and just about anything else. Some associates left the firm, with only a handful admitting to the partners that they wanted to work in offices with better technology. Even when they explained that the lack of technology was a reason for leaving, the partners shrugged and did not change. After all, associates are expendable cogs in the firm’s wheels.

When COVID-19 hit, the firm was forced to change, albeit slowly. Initially, the partners allowed only attorneys to have remote access. But as it became clear that the pandemic would extend for months, they realized that having support staff work offline would not work. They relented and allowed everyone remote access, despite protesting the cost. But it was a battle for their IT staff to even get such a rudimentary need approved.

As the quarantine persisted, the need to allow staff complete access increased, as did the need to provide them with other software, while assuring that remote security was appropriate. They upgraded from Office 2013 to Microsoft 365, which allowed the staff to use Microsoft Teams and benefit from other features of the software suite. The founders still persisted, however, and continued to dictate most of their work and then email it to staff for transcription.

Meanwhile, the third partner in the firm, who wants to embrace technology, has become increasingly frustrated. Because he is a future managing partner and seen as the future of the firm, the founders are struggling with how to balance their reliance on old school systems with the need, and cost, of moving the firm into the 21st century.

This firm is not alone. It is typical of businesses of all types that the WSJ feature discussed. And for there to be widespread continued adoption of technology post-COVID, firms need to devise ways to tear the walls down.

The authors of that article suggested that the key to doing so is a three-step approach: (1) analyze how the wall was built, (2) eliminate the separation between IT and the rest of the firm and (3) break through the wall. This approach is as necessary in law firms as in any other business. Examining each step is crucial and is in many ways a form of IT psychotherapy.

As with most problems, knowing how the wall was built is critical. Typically, the situation arises from one or more causes: (1) resisting and failing to understand the need for change, (2) failing to address differences in perspective between IT, the firm’s partners and other staff, (3) failing to understand the needs and concerns of the different people, and (4) failing to recognize and deal with rapid technological or situational changes.

Dealing with and reducing resistance is critical. In most cases, this phase is the result of frugality or the failure or refusal to acknowledge the importance of technology. In my experience, the ability to break down this barrier often requires the “aha moment”—that instance of sudden realization or comprehension of how technology will make a difference. For some, arriving at that moment is a challenge, but for many it requires understanding where even the least tech-savvy individuals will benefit from a change in their approach. After all, a majority of the most resistant now own smartphones and would not live without them.

Eliminating the separation between IT and the law is the next step. All too often, lawyers who resist change do so because of a language barrier. For example, one attorney with whom I have worked has repeatedly complained, and then fired, IT staff because they were “dumb.” They were dumb, he said, because they did not understand what he was talking about. He meant that when he discussed things such as interrogatories or depositions, the IT staff did not understand what those items were. If they did not understand such simple concepts, he yelled, why would they be able to understand software?

Of course, that same attorney did not understand how the firm’s network operated and did not know (or need to know) the technical aspects of the firm’s IT infrastructure or any of the other aspects of IT that the staff handled.

He could not recognize that he and the IT staff had different skills and different vocabularies. Once we broke through that barrier and determined how we would bridge the language gap, the attorney suddenly was more receptive to recommendations. Often, differing perspectives on the concerns, and about skill levels, are the cause of this barrier.

Another common barrier is that various practice areas have differing technology needs. While certain technology will benefit a litigator, it may be not only irrelevant but an alien language to other attorneys. For example, in some states, estate administration attorneys must complete inheritance tax returns, but the forms available online must be filled out and saved separately. Thus, estate administration attorneys often save significant time by purchasing tax return software that automates the process, combines the various schedules into one document and does all the calculations. A litigator will not understand this software unless he or she is shown the problem.

Finally, the pandemic forced firms to adopt technology, with many failing to assess their needs. The rush to buy can often create more barriers than it resolves. For example, firms flocked to Zoom, Webex and other videoconferencing platforms without assessing whether they already had a solution, such as Microsoft Teams, which is included with their Microsoft 365 subscriptions. Once the initial panic subsided, reluctant or frugal firms that jumped in may have been reluctant to purchase other items, which their offices really needed because they believed they had wasted their money just days before.

Overcoming those initial obstacles is a daunting challenge.

The second phase in tearing down the wall between IT and your firm is to eliminate the separation, regardless of how it arose. Two truths that have never changed, no matter how much technology changes, are the need for technological literacy and commitment from the top. In their WSJ article, the authors explained that, “The impetus for effective IT management must come from the CEO and the board. There has to be a willingness on the part of the CEO and the other executives to know enough about IT to understand its functions and its value to the company, in the same way that they understand accounting, finance and marketing.”

This step applies to law firms. We all have heard the adage that a firm reflects its leaders, and it is a certainty for technology. Firms in which the powers that be do not use or require the use of technology will run into and not through the wall.

Once a firm recognizes what obstacles it faces, the next step is to convene key leaders from all aspects of the firm to discuss their concerns and needs. The key issues will emerge, and the firm can move to a solution.

The pandemic has certainly caused a sea of change for law firms. Physical offices are often empty or staffed at minimum levels, attorneys and support staff have become dependent on remote technology, and courts and other similar entities have transitioned to a Zoom-focused existence. It remains unclear if, or for how long, this embrace of technology will remain. Certainly, one truth is that there is a strong desire by some to return to the good old days. While the good old days are not likely to return in full, how much they come back to life will depend on numerous factors, including many we have not contemplated.

It is reasonable to expect that some courts, some lawyers and others will attempt to eliminate all the changes COVID has wrought. To believe that everything will remain as it was during quarantine is unrealistic. Creating a legal system that combines the best of the pre- and post-COVID worlds will be the challenge. It will not be as easy as some believe.

Daniel J. Siegel


Daniel J. Siegel is an attorney whose practice focuses on appellate law and providing ethical, technoethical and professional guidance to other attorneys. He is also president of Integrated Technology Services, a consulting firm that assists law firms with improving their workflows. [email protected]

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