Law Office Management
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Everything Old is New Again:
Looking at Your Office Technology
by Pat Yevics

I just received my January/February issue of the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s Law Practice (www.abanet.org/lpm/magazine/home.shtml), and the issue is devoted to “what’s next for law practice technology” and promotion of the ABA Techshow (www.techshow.com), which is being held March 25-27, 2004 in Chicago. Now in its 18th year, the ABA Techshow is the premier legal technology show in the country. Since 1994, I have attended many Techshows and have always been overwhelmed by the new technologies: Windows, the Internet, PDAs, case management software, document assembly, the paperless office and so on.

What struck me about this issue of the magazine and the offerings at Techshow is how little new there is when it comes to technology. That does mean, however, that lawyers and law firms are at the top of their game when using technology to be more effective. In fact, some practitioners are way behind the curve. Most use word processing and some other products, but there is much more that can be done to utilize the technology that is available.

But a dearth of hot new technologies does not mean that there is nothing worth learning or considering. There are two advantages to this “reheated” technology. The first is that the techies and geeks, who have to be on the bleeding edge of technology, have worked out many of the bugs and now the rest of us can find practical and useful ways to use the technology in the real world. The second is that it gives practitioners the opportunity to take a deep breath and re-evaluate the technology they currently use and what if anything needs to be changed, added, eliminated or upgraded.

Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail

There are technologies that need to be considered or, in some cases, reconsidered. This article is going to address the issue of how solos and small firm practitioners can begin the process or looking at what they have and determine what if anything needs to done and how to do it. Planning is for all firms whether you are considering new software or upgrading your current system. How detailed a plan you will need will be determined by your current technology situation, your level of expertise and the size and type of your practice. Due to lack of time, expertise, information or interest, solo and small firm practitioners too often rush through or ignore this step completely. As a result of failing to plan, ill-informed, hasty and costly decisions are made which affect the practice long into the future.

Assigning Responsibility

If you are a solo practitioner, you will have the responsibility of the planning. If you are in a small firm, one of the partners (or an associate) should be assigned the responsibility of drafting the plan. This person may then delegate many tasks to others in the firm if appropriate.

You may also want to assign your secretary or legal assistant the responsibility for assembling information about vendors, software products and reviews about the products. The advantage to having your secretary assembling this information is that it will allow you to practice law and it will give him/her the opportunity to be part of the decision-making process.

Whether you are a sole practitioner with one secretary or in a small firm, it is critical to obtain input from everyone in the firm who will use the technology. An automation or technology plan for a solo/small firm practice isn’t simply a matter of buying equipment. One of the most important parts of the plan is the people who use it.

Getting input from the people in the office is especially important when you are either considering new software or upgrading your current software. If you are changing software, ask them what they currently like about what they are using and what they would like to see improved in new software. If you are getting new software, such as case management or calendar, ask what features the users might want to see.

Defining the Process

It is important to know what you expect the technological changes or improvements to accomplish. Computerizing without knowing what it will do is like hiring employees without knowing what they will do. What do you want to be able to do with the new software/hardware/technology that you cannot currently do?

As you list your reasons, bear in mind two considerations that are too often easily dismissed. One reason is that it is simply time to change the technology you are now using because, while it certainly gets you through the day, it is no longer advanced enough to keep you competitive. It would be like a carpenter using a hand saw instead of a power saw when building a new house – though it can certainly cut the wood, it won’t allow you to do it as effectively and efficiently as you would need to have it done.

Another reason to consider is “because everyone else is using it,” quite simply because if you’re not using it you will be less effective in dealing with your client’s matters, thereby making you less competitive. Use of the Internet is a good example. There are many good reasons for using the Internet, but the fact that everyone is using it makes it even more critical for you to not be left behind.

List objectives or reasons for wanting to computerize based upon your firm’s goals and practice needs. Some of the goals might be managing your cases and information, improving the billing and collection process, improving and monitoring cash flow, scheduling your calendar, increasing efficiency and speed of document assembly, tracking referral and marketing efforts or simplifying research.

When You Should Upgrade

(This is information taken from a presentation/materials at the 1997 ABA Techshow. The presentation was given by Phil J. Shuey, Esq., of Shuey Robinson in Colorado.)

Reasons to Upgrade Software:
 
  • To obtain features that your firm or your clients need to deliver the service
  • To maintain or achieve compatibility or integration
  • To make certain you will be able to get the data out of your old system
  • You can no longer find employees who know the software/technology you use
  • You can no longer get support/training for the software
When to Upgrade Hardware:
 
  • When it cannot run the software you need
  • When it’s broken
  • When it’s too slow
  • When it crashes regularly

Creating a Wish List
(Warning: Do Not Skip This Step)

Before beginning the process of getting information about software or hardware, you and your staff need to make a wish list. This will help you when you create your budget and ultimately make your decision. Obviously, the longer and more complicated your wish list, the higher the cost in both time and dollars. As you go through the exercise and discuss it with others, some of the functions and items will move from one list to another. This will also happen when the cost of some of the list items are revealed.

The Wish List should have three columns or categories. The first column is the “Must Have” list. These are items or functions that your firm must have. Your success depends on them, and cost is no object.

The next column will be “Would Like to Have But Need to Consider Cost”. These are mid-level bells and whistles. In today’s world of software development, many of these functions will be available for minimum additional cost. You need to consider some of these functions and determine if you need to budget for them.

The last column is “If Money Were No Object and We Were All Geeks.” These functions are the pie-in-the-sky type options. Deciding to go with them will usually involve budget decisions and ease of use.

Once this process is completed, take some time as a group (this is easy in a small firm) to review each person’s list. This could be done at a lunch meeting. There is no right or wrong answer. Make a “Firm Wish List” from the individual lists. Once you have the firm list, you are ready to match your needs and desires to what is available. (It should not be the other way around!)

Create a Budget

Be realistic when creating your budget. If you are on a tight budget, then you need to know that up front so that your expectations are realistic. Keep in mind that it is not always necessary to implement the entire plan or project all at once unless your day-to-day activities depend upon it.

While you should make every effort to keep your costs reasonable, do not be penny-wise and pound-foolish. There is often a good reason one particular product or service is considerably less than another. You must take into consideration future needs. In the ever-changing technology era, products do not have the longevity that we would hope. Your budget needs to reflect the constant need to upgrade software and hardware.

Include in your budget hardware and software, installation and maintenance, consulting, conversion costs, downtime and training. Use vendor proposals to compile information on many of these costs. This budget process is another area where many practitioners often make errors usually by underestimating the cost of the time involved with many automation projects.

All consultants and experts agree that training is a key element in the success of law firm automation. This must be included in the budget.

Seeking Additional Assistance

As all solo and small practitioners know, time is always a precious commodity. If the planning process takes too much time or if you find the task too complicated for your level of expertise, employ a knowledgeable consultant to help with decisions and selections. Consider the money you spend an investment towards your success.

As well as technical knowledge, the consultant will bring an independent and objective point of view to the process. The consultant will be able to sort out the confusion of competing vendors and products. According to Doug Caddell in the January 2001 issue of Law Technology News, there are three keys to successful technology projects: 1) managing expectations, 2) careful preparation and 3) nurturing relationships.

When deciding upon a consultant it is important to seek an independent third party with experience in the legal profession, especially with solo or small firms. Interview the person to make certain that he/she understands your firm and its goals and that you feel comfortable with the person. Ask for references and check them carefully.

Remember that the decision you make now will affect your practice for some time. The more time you spend in the beginning making certain that you have all the information necessary to make an informed decision will allow you to do what you do best – practice law.

You can also contact our office at the Maryland State Bar Association for:

  • information and reviews of various software products for solo and small firm practitioners information on choosing and using a consultant effectively and affordably
  • a list of technology consultants that have worked with solo and small firm practitioners

Please contact Pat Yevics at (410) 685-7878 or (800) 492-1964, ext. 3039, or e-mail payevics@charm.net. A list of the many information packets we offer can be found on the MSBA website at http://www.msba.org/departments/loma/infopacks.htm.

In addition, MSBA members can receive a $100 discount on the regular registration fee for the 18th Annual TechShow, March 25-27, 2004, in Chicago (to take advantage of the MSBA discount, use the code PP7). Registering before February 26, 2004, will earn you an additional $100 early-registration discount, bringing the total discount for Therefore, MSBA members who register before February 26 to $200 off the regular registration fee of $795. While this is still expensive, it is a great place to learn a lot in a short amount of time.


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