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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Future Proofing: Achieving Successful Strategic Technology Changes Within a Law Firm

Daniel E Pinnington and Reid F Trautz


  • At all levels within a firm there is a tendency to resist change and maintain the status quo. Resisting and avoiding change is just the easier thing to do.
Future Proofing: Achieving Successful Strategic Technology Changes Within a Law Firm Wong

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American author and humorist Mark Twain is believed to have once observed, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

For most of us, this is much easier said than done. This is especially so in law firms because lawyers are busy chasing billable hours and will say they don’t have the time to consider or much less implement changes, even when those changes might appear to be beneficial or even necessary.

At all levels within a firm—from the partnership level to smaller practice groups or operational units to individuals— there is a tendency to resist change and maintain the status quo. Resisting and avoiding change is just the easier thing to do. Regardless of whether this resistance is active and intentional or passive and unintentional, it can get in the way of initiating changes that are positive or even necessary for the firm.

Nowhere is this resistance more visible than when the change involves replacing or otherwise transforming technology. Technological changes and the benefits they bring are usually not understood, and the idea of spending money on an undefined or unknown benefit often stops the changes before they even get out of the starting gate.

To help lawyers and firm managers minimize change resistance and overcome inertia to successfully position their firms for the future, we turn again to our technology experts and ABA TECHSHOW colleagues to build on the comments they made in our previous column.

All of our colleagues had the same observations about the imperative for keeping up with technology changes. Technology continues to evolve because using technology has beneficial impacts on both consumers and businesses of all stripes. To take advantage of the changes in technology, lawyers must recognize the need to evolve the technology in their firms. Most firms do not necessarily need bleeding-edge technology solutions, but the technology needs to be new enough to take advantage of the efficiencies, productivity and ability to connect more effectively with clients or potential clients. Technology also needs to keep ahead of cybercrime and cybercriminals, an ever-growing and more challenging problem. Implementing new cybersecurity protections for client and firm data is perhaps not as sexy as other projects, but it must be tackled. Getting ahead means getting started.

It all begins with setting aside resources to support and implement change, according to Sharon Nelson, president of Sensei Enterprises and chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2006. Set aside money and create a timeline to implement the project. Once funded with both money and time, inertia will give way to progress. Concurrently, spend time learning about the technology. For example, if your firm needs to review and overhaul cybersecurity protections and protocols, start taking CLEs to become more fluent about cyber risks and what can be done to reduce them. You will likely need an expert advisor and will want to ensure the company protecting your data and reputation have the expertise and appropriate cybersecurity certifications.

Jim Calloway, the director of Management Assistance Program at the Oklahoma Bar Association and ABA TECHSHOW 2005 chair, concurs with Sharon about budgeting time and sometimes money to improve technology processes. Jim makes a key point, noting that not every technology project has to be costly. For example, if your firm uses forms for document preparation, investing time to set up these forms as Word templates will pay dividends, particularly where there are choices to be made (e.g., particular words, sentences or paragraphs that are included or excluded from the document depending on the specific client’s circumstances). Beyond selecting appropriate sentences and paragraphs, these choices can be configured to automatically make other changes throughout a document that many firms now do manually (e.g., adding the client’s name everywhere it occurs in a document, inserting the correct pronouns, and inserting costs or other figures and making calculations with those figures). With Word templates, the documents that are currently taking your staff 30 to 60 minutes of manual edits can be created in just a few minutes. Consider the massive time savings for documents that your firm creates tens or hundreds of times in a year. The return on investment here is huge, as a staff person with the required training can create a complex Word template in a matter of a few hours or less.

Jim suggests that another valuable project is to send out e-bills with a link for client payment. If your law firm doesn’t do this yet, it is an approachable project and, once completed, it should improve cash flow for years ahead. The best projects to prioritize are those that both improve the client experience and let the law firm operate more efficiently. Don’t try to change too much at once. Staff needs time to adjust to the changes just as clients may, too.

Well-known legal technology consultant and ABA TECHSHOW 2011 chair Paul Unger recommends that firms take a three-pronged approach to these technology projects: people, process and technology. Again, taking cybersecurity as an example, organizations should immediately develop a standing cybersecurity task force or committee to evaluate the needs and problems of their firm or legal department. In a smaller firm that might only be one or two people. No matter, the key is having one or more people identified as being those who are responsible for cybersecurity at the firm. One of the first things they should do is hire a well-credentialed company to serve on that task force and help them identify where all of their data resides. Next, the task force should work with their outside cybersecurity expert to immediately stop some of the critical bleeding (like addressing nonencrypted devices being used by staff to access firm systems and data). Finally, work with your cybersecurity expert to draft a Written Information Security Program (WISP) to develop a long-term solution and a timeline to become compliant with your own plan. Remember, this is not a “one-and-done” issue. The cybersecurity task force needs to deliver education at least on a quarterly basis, review and modify their WISP annually, and be there year-round to address the evolving needs of their users.

ABA TECHSHOW 2019 co-chair Lincoln Mead is adamant about firms addressing their current cybersecurity systems, as many are inadequate. First, according to Lincoln, assess the types of data that your firm may be sitting on and how they are currently regulated by your local data breach laws. It is a small-scale exercise that can outline what your firm can do to not only help prevent cybersecurity problems, but also to understand potential compliance and data governance issues. Reviewing tools that can provide compliance support, risk management, internal controls and audits for this exercise will provide some signposts that your firm can be looking at as part of the overall strategic planning.

We agree. Take the experts’ advice and just get started, even if it is a small project. One small step can start a longer journey of many steps toward implementing technology changes.

Not sure where to start in your firm? We concur that cybersecurity is an excellent place to start, as hackers are continually upping their game and the systems at many firms aren’t keeping up. This is a significant risk and a danger to law firms of all sizes. And if you want more ideas, make plans now to attend ABA TECHSHOW 2023.