Nov/Dec 2001

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[Contact Management]
By Nancy Manzo

How do you get beyond the hype and figure out which contact or relationship management system is RIGHT for you?


Contact management systems in law firms range from business cards bound in rubber bands to enterprise-wide systems that serve up data to cell phones, intranets and Web portals. Suffice it to say that law firms with rubber band systems are not making effective use of today’s technology. But just what tech tools should your firm be using to manage its contacts?

Theoretically, contact management software and client relationship management (CRM) systems help lawyers measure the results of their efforts so they can focus on the right kinds of clients and marketing activities. However, these systems are only valuable if there is ongoing usage and support for sharing information across the firm. Lawyers today recognize a need for technology to help them understand "who knows whom" within their firms. Yet they are frustrated with the cost and complexity of many of these systems.

"All the CRM vendors talk about how user-friendly their products are. In fact, I have not seen one that is intuitive enough that a secretary or lawyer will be comfortable using it repeatedly without extensive training," says Heather Gray-Grant, director of marketing and business development for the Vancouver, British Columbia, office of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin.

Most of these products do similar things: manage contacts in a central database with several layers of security, record activities related to contacts, allow users to query data and generate reports, integrate with other systems, and provide modifiable templates and interfaces. ( The chart on page 38 overviews the leading CRM products for the legal industry.) They are powerful tools for maintaining your client relationships and leveraging those of your partners to uncover new business opportunities. But what lawyer has the time, or patience, to learn how to use all the bells and whistles?

The key to success is matching the right contact system with your firm, based on what users are willing and able to do.

Where to Start? Think Process, Then Technology

According to business guru James Champy, "Most lawyers think about using technology mostly for research, but it can have a much broader impact." In his new book, e-Engineering the Corporation: Reinvent Your Business for the Digital Age, Champy advises taking a step back and evaluating how your firm really works. "Law firms are a collection of processes (the client acquisition process, the deposition-taking process, etc.). Law firms typically have not considered their processes in a disciplined way, so they remain very inefficient," he says. "I believe that they consider their success to be a function of their own lawyering skills. Skill is important, but it is only one element of success. The design of the process itself can have a dramatic impact on the success of a firm."

The rule of thumb, Champy says, is, "Think process, and then think technology."

Now apply this theory to the decision to invest in and deploy a contact management system or a more robust CRM system. Many law firms, in a rush to own the latest technology, are jumping on the CRM bandwagon and purchasing enormously expensive systems based on the most convincing vendor’s sales pitch. All too often, technology drives the strategy. How do you determine what should drive your technology purchase?

• Conduct an assessment of your firm’s needs and business development objectives.

• Write out the requirements of the system and be prepared to whittle them down.

• Develop detailed user profiles.

• Then consider the firm’s current, and future, technology platform—what do you already have that can be leveraged or integrated with a CRM system?

Is Bigger Better? Know Your Practice Needs

"When I was in high school, people used to argue whether it was better to have a components stereo system or an all-in-one model," says estate planning partner Bill Pargaman of Austin’s Brown McCarroll. His 130-lawyer firm uses GroupWise for e-mail, a contact manager for Rolodex-type information, CarpeDiem for time entry and Timeslips for accounting—and the firm has designed a process that captures the information for all these systems.

"We’re a big firm. Secretaries set up client-matter files and somehow the information goes to all the systems it needs to," says Pargaman. "My group has success with Abicus because it is specific to our practice. We wanted groupware to keep calendars, maintain Rolodex info, link up client info with appointments, keep records of calls that occurred and so on. We needed a group version since all of us work on cases together and need access. The bottom line here is that our lawyers use it because it’s useful to their practice."

With 22-lawyers spread among three East Coast offices, Manko Gold relies on good processes and off-the-shelf software. The firm has a large mailing list maintained by an IS staff person, but lawyers manage their own contacts in Microsoft Outlook. "When we open up a file, we put name, phone, fax, mobile and so on into the contact manager in Outlook," says managing partner Joe Manko. "In addition, our new business memo tracks how the client was referred to us. After routing to accounting, where we use Juris software, the form then goes to a secretary for input into the lawyer’s contact list. Then it goes to our IS staff person for the firm’s mailing list in Access, which is accessible to everyone. But they can’t edit it," he adds.

This type of system can be highly effective, but it may not provide enough for some firms. "The problem is that Outlook is not a client database program for shared knowledge," says Milton Stewart, partner in the Portland office of Davis Wright Tremaine. "My contact list is incredibly valuable to me but it doesn’t leverage the knowledge of the firm." He adds, "I would like to know every investment banker we know, what their appetite is and what kind of deals they do." And with more than 400 lawyers and hundreds of thousands of legal documents, Davis Wright does not want to reinvent the wheel.

"We’re trying but you still see e-mails flying around the firm asking, ‘Has anyone ever done a leveraged redemption for a corporation using junk bonds?’" Stewart says. "A lot of us practice law with our heads down. Others of us are in management and have a broader perspective on the competitive landscape and see how these systems will make us stay competitive." His firm is now planning a full-scale CRM deployment.

On the other hand, for 22-lawyer insurance defense firm Forry, Ullman, Ullman & Forry in Reading, Pennsylvania, there’s no need for a large CRM system. Managing partner Lee Ullman says the firm effectively uses a combination of Outlook for e-mail, Time Matters for case management, Timeslips for time entry and Peachtree for accounting. The new case intake form for the firm is online and captures all the necessary data for the various systems. "We have one point secretary and she assigns file numbers and gets things entered. Potential client information is done the same way. We can use the contact feature in Time Matters to record information on new business leads," says Ullman. "We couldn’t function without it."

How to Get Lawyers to Behave

The central point is that you need to find a system that is centralized, adequately user-friendly and effective so that users are more likely to participate. Lawyers and marketers agree that the biggest cultural issue is getting people to share information.

"I think behavior has to be encouraged and technology can become the tool for it," says Allen Seckel, marketing partner in the Vancouver office of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin. "Years ago, when I was the technology partner for the firm, I believed the technology could change behavior. Technology can create a flurry of excitement but, on its own, it doesn’t change people’s habits." The answer is applying a multi-pronged approach with ongoing return on investment analysis and communication back to the partners about how the system is being used, what it’s measuring and how it’s helping improve the bottom line. And, as marketing director Gray-Grant adds, "The practice of law is all about management of intellectual capital. Marketing departments need to be knowledge centers. A huge part of the job is building efficiencies and capturing information."

Another significant issue is record control. "Someone comes back from lunch, has a new business card, and may not understand that when they go into the system and add or change information, it may not be accurate," notes Seckel. "In the past, this resulted in a somewhat bureaucratic system to check off changes. That becomes cumbersome, yet you need some type of control." This issue should clearly be addressed during your planning process before you buy and deploy the technology.

And once you’ve selected your technology, another considerable challenge is maintaining lawyers’ steam. Partners may pay attention when decisions are made to buy a six-figure CRM system, but after the flurry of excitement is over, the real work begins.

Train Your Eyes on the Delta

"The best way to roll it out is to persuade people to commit time and effort to it so you get ROI. It only comes if everyone plays their part in building it," says Stewart. As a member of David Wright Tremaine’s executive committee, Stewart has been through the introduction of a number of new technologies. "The bane of all law firms’ existence is training," he finds. "Lawyers serve clients. Clients have unpredictable schedules so lawyers don’t make scheduled trainings. We drive trainers nuts."

However, training, especially for more complex systems, is critical. "CRM systems are a significant investment," says James Steward, president of Crumens Consulting. "Firms are not seeing a return because the systems are perceived as too difficult." Users suffer as a result when they cannot extract the information they need because the systems are often too complicated to use without thorough training and an understanding of their capabilities.

"One of the problems with CRM systems is that law firms can be easily enamored with the promises made by the vendors about what the system can actually do to improve the bottom line. The goal should be to plan for the delta—the point between what firm management desires of its users and what its general users are ready, willing and able to do," Steward adds.

But with careful preparation, implementation of a contact management or CRM system can bring many levels of benefits. "One of the biggest things I notice now, as marketing partner, is that the power of the system isn’t because of the accuracy of data but rather the wealth of information on contacts and activities," says Allen Seckel. "Lawyers often think they’re doing more than they really are in marketing. The system makes you realize what you need to do."

Step-by-Step: Plan for a Successful Rollout

Following a well-designed process that is based on user research and then staging a controlled, phased rollout will improve your chances of getting a high return on your investment in a contact management or CRM system. Take it step by step.

• Plan. Develop a comprehensive plan, describing exactly what you aim to accomplish initially and over the next two or three years. Aim for a workable, nimble plan. Keep revisiting it and modify it based on experience.

• Involve. Pull together a "power triumvirate" that includes management, marketing and IT. Choose well-respected, powerful leaders with one (ideally, the managing partner or CEO) who will act as spokesperson to communicate the firm’s plan and its commitment to seeing a return on the investment. Involve others to identify training needs for each of your user groups and gather input from the troops. Front-line personnel interact most frequently with clients, so their input is vital.

• Research and educate. Be sure that everyone fully understands the work flow and processes that will be automated. Will client matter forms need to change? What is the current data flow to get client and contact information into the various systems the firm uses? (Make use of data flow models here.) What is the state of your current data and how will you handle the conversion?

• Listen to your users. It is essential to develop user profiles for each of the main user groups—for example, lawyers, administrative staff, non-legal staff and research staff. You must understand your users and include them in building the system. Find out how they do things currently, and what would make their lives easier. Make use of surveys, questionnaires and usability studies. This will be especially critical with the lawyer user group. Involve them early so that getting them to share their client and contact data later, during conversion, won’t be a big headache. Map out the main user groups’ typical information needs and design an interface that works for them.

• Develop a requirements list and testable goals. It’s hard to know if you’re getting closer to meeting your users’ needs if you don’t have goals to shoot for. You can test your rollout plan with one practice group or perhaps the marketing department. Did the test reveal any user requirements that are still unmet? Learn from this experience and modify your plan accordingly.

• Evaluate vendor demos. Once you have a requirements list and understand your users’ needs, put together a small group consisting of representatives from each key user group. Ask them to test drive the products the firm is considering.

• Select software and design your rollout plan. Select a vendor only after you have taken all the preceding steps. It’s easy to be seduced by the shiny, cool technologies, but don’t buy without going through this process. Involve the vendor in your plan and get a project manager committed to seeing your project through for a minimum of six months. Software companies and consultants can provide project managers to assist with rollout plans and implementation.

• Measure and follow up. After you have rolled out a solution that you think will work, test and re-test it. Does it really meet your users’ needs? Establish an ongoing evaluation process. It is important to communicate regularly regarding successes, examples of collaboration and expert relationship management.

Put the System—and Firm Knowledge—to Work for You

For many lawyers, contact management is not an activity that is integrated into their practice. It is an extracted "administrative" task that takes valuable time away from their billables. But in today’s competitive legal services market, you need to put all your knowledge about clients to work for you.

Regardless of your firm’s size, a shared contact management or CRM system can help you enhance your client relationships and leverage firmwide knowledge to promote new business. Be it simple tools coupled with well-designed procedures or complex CRM technology, an effective system that meets users’ needs is a truly powerful weapon in any firm’s campaign to get—and keep—clients. And a happy side benefit is that it will prevent your clients from getting 25 holiday cards from your firm next year!

  • View the Client Relations Management chart in Adobe Acrobat PDF format

Nancy Manzo ( is President of Manzo Marketing, Inc., a legal marketing consulting firm that helps lawyers use technology to get a handle on "who knows whom" and "who knows what" in their firms. Contact her at (206) 633-3624.