Written by Stephanie Everett and Aaron Street. Originally published in GPSOLO Vol. 36, No. 5, Sept/Oct 2019, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission
The age of luddite lawyers is over. Period.
There is no longer a place in the legal profession for proud luddites. You know the ones. The attorney fumbling over the PowerPoint presentation and loosely apologizing for not being tech-savvy—wearing his ignorance as a badge of honor. Thankfully, as an engaged ABA member, you likely already know this.
Today, lawyers not only have an ethical duty to acquire technology competence, it just makes the best business sense.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean that you must learn to code or become an early adopter of every new gadget and tool.
Strategic use of technology in a small law firm should avoid either extreme and should think about technology from a place of practical business management and growth. It pays to be curious about how technology can be used to improve your practice.
For many lawyers, they simply lack the framework and understanding needed when approaching technology. Some get lost in a sea of possibilities and fall back to what they know and never implement anything new. Others fear the process is too overwhelming from the start and therefore never even explore it. We appreciate that the process of incorporating new technology can seem large and unwieldy.
Our research on small firm lawyers from our Small Firm Scorecard™ shows that on average lawyers rate themselves 7 out of 10 on their use of technology in improving their practices and 18% give themselves 10 out of 10. While this means a measurable percentage of small firms have mastered some technology in their firms, there is still great room to improve how you think about tech in your firm.
In this article, we will fill in those blanks and give you the framework you need to determine when to use technology and a process for buying and implementing it into your firm.
Adopting Tech Isn’t What You Might Think
Adopting technology shouldn’t be done for its own sake. Technology can be cool, but that really isn’t a compelling reason to spend business time and resources on it. Too many people are just out to adopt what they think is the latest and greatest technology or to implement what they hear others are doing. We think that is the wrong approach.
Instead, lawyers need to understand that technology is a tool that supports your strategy. You should adopt technology because it makes your life easier, makes you a better lawyer, and improves your business. The purpose of technology in your law firm should be to improve your effectiveness, efficiency, and security, not to chase shiny new toys or apps.
Tech-savvy lawyers don’t obsess over their law practice management software. Instead, when they identify a problem, they look for a tech tool they can use to solve the problem. They up their lawyer game in the process.
For example, a criminal defense attorney in our Lawyerist Lab community has been paperless for many years. When she arrives in court for a motion hearing with a computer and tech-bag in tow, she quickly and effortlessly displays her arguments and evidence for the court electronically. She is polished and professional. While she can’t know for sure, colleagues who have seen her in action have suggested that prosecutors offer her clients better deals after they get a glimpse of what her trial presentation will entail.
We’ve been advocating for paperless law offices for over a decade, so it surprises us that in our Small Firm Scorecard almost 40% of firms still haven’t adopted paperless policies and systems.
At its essence, your business is a series of systems and processes. This includes systems that make your business operate—accounting, payroll, or staffing, and systems for actually completing lawyer work—drafting pleadings, conducting discovery, or preparing a closing package. Your goal should be to create and document these systems so that everyone on your team can consistently execute them.
In our Small Firm Scorecard, over 58% of firms have not documented the systems, procedures, or workflows they use to manage cases and manage their firm’s business. In this context, there is a huge opportunity for small firms to systematize more of their work so they can leverage technology to be more effective and efficient.
For example, every law firm collects, stores and uses data. Traditionally, a team member (lawyer or nonlawyer) collected this data from clients over the phone or during an intake meeting. Later, a team member might enter the data into the firm’s project management software. When you break it down, you realize that these tasks take up valuable time that team members could use on more high-level tasks. Anytime you can turn people’s time away from route tasks and focus them on client-facing valuable work, your business wins.
Instead, automate the process. Software currently exists to help your firm:
- Collect information on a web-based form.
- Plug the information directly into your case management software.
- Insert the data into templated forms and pleadings.
- Send automated emails to clients asking them to review the drafts and updating them on the process.
Your business will not only save valuable human resources, but the technology will likely be more accurate. Both you and your client wins.
To get started, make a list of your most commonly used systems. Then, for each system, map out exactly what happens in the firm including who completes each task and how long it takes. Using the example above, you’d list out that a paralegal has a call with the client and asks the questions on the initial client interview. Then, the paralegal enters the information into the software. Then, the partner assigns the associate to complete the initial pleading. You’d keep going through each step.
Now for the fun part. Step back and look at the process with fresh eyes. Involve any team member who currently touches the process. What can you improve? What can you make faster and easier? As part of the process, ask if technology could make any stage of the process more efficient. Then, get excited about how much easier work will be for you and your team!
Navigating the Technology Market
Now that you’ve identified that technology could help improve your efficiency and workflows, it is time to select the appropriate tools. Before you jump into the tech market, look at your current technology suite to see if an existing tool can solve your problem. Most of the time, you and your team are not using your current tools to their full capabilities.
In fact, in our data, a full 25% of small firms concede that they and their teams aren’t well trained on the existing software tools in their firm, so it might be worth contacting your software vendor directly to understand if your current tools can accomplish your goals.
If not, it might be that a smaller tool will integrate with your current system to achieve your solution. Changing practice management platforms is a big and time-consuming event so don’t jump to something new until you’ve exhausted what you have now.
Once you’ve determined that you need a new tool, it is time to shop. This is where we see most lawyers approach the process the wrong way.
Many attorneys start the technology shopping process based on crowd-sourced precedents of other firms instead of determining the best solution for their firm. We often see lawyers jump on our online community and ask, “I’m considering buying X or Y. Which is better?” We understand that attorneys want to avoid making a bad decision and want to hear if other firms enjoy the product, but they are asking for the wrong information. Hearing that another firm likes the software does not tell you whether the software will work for your firm and solve your problems.
Instead, we recommend—and use—the following four-step approach to making major technology purchasing decisions.
Step # 1: Start with Firm Goals, Not Features
It is tempting to start with the features list of a technology product to see if it hits all the notes you are looking for. This is putting the cart before the horse.
Instead, ask yourself what goals you have for the tool(s). Create a list of all the things you need the product to do and how you expect to use it. This needs analysis will be the beginning list of core features the tool must-have.
Step #2: Future-Proof Your Criteria
For most of us, you’ll want to use the software for at least 3-5 years. As a result, you can’t just think about your current needs. You need to spend time thinking about long-term potential needs as well.
Look at your long-term strategic plan. What are your long-term goals? What types of systems or processes will you need to achieve these goals? Are there additional technology solutions that could come into play in the future? If so, add those to your long-term wish list and ensure that the solution you pick can grow with you.
Step # 3: Narrow Down to a Few Finalists
Now that you know both your current and future needs and goals, you can narrow down the field of potential solutions. Two great resources for evaluating legal technology options include the ABA’s Legal Technology Buyer’s Guide or the product reviews we’ve developed.
In addition to the specific goals you identified on your short-term and long-term needs analysis, there are a few additional features that we think should also be on your radar:
- Security protocols (encryption, standards audits).
- Mobile access (smartphone apps and mobile web interface).
- Design, interface, ease of use so that your team will buy into using the application.
- The vendor’s demonstrated a commitment to on-going development.
- The likelihood of the vendor’s longevity and support.
- Ease of transitioning in or out of the software (importing and exporting data).
- Full initial cost and likely future cost (don’t forget setup, consulting, training, or adding future additional users).
- Ability to add additional features (APIs, third-party integrations, or paid up-sells).
Ideally, you want to narrow your list to at least two, and no more than four, finalists for in-depth evaluations.
Step #4: Ask the Hard Questions and Take a Test Drive
Many attorneys get to this stage and simply go with their gut or their colleague’s recommendations. This can be a costly mistake.
Don’t just go with your gut after seeing the demo. Spend the time you need with the service provider’s representatives to understand how the tool works and whether it will solve your current and future needs. If your solution requires customization, find out what that will entail in terms of time and money now and know how easy it will be to make changes in the future. Find out how updates from the vendor could impact these customizations. The last thing you want is for an update to break one of your custom automations.
Next, sign up for the trial period. Commit to using the tool during the trial as you would if you adopt it. Run a real case or project through it and assess how it feels to use the program. For major decisions like practice management software, it is not unreasonable to run a trial period for your top two selections. Just like driving two sedans can feel very different, actually using the software will help you determine which one is right for you. Sometimes it comes down to personal preference for how the interface and workflows work.
Congratulations! With a clear plan, an understanding of which vendors offer the features you need, and a feeling for which tool you prefer to use, you are ready to buy! You can purchase confidently knowing that the tool will improve your systems and allow you and your business to operate more efficiently.
Focus on Training
Don’t let your new tool sit on the shelf and collect dust or be underutilized by your team. Identify everyone on the team who will use this tool and set up a training schedule to ensure they are competent using it.
We can’t stress this enough: You and your team need to be competent using these tools. The initial training when you launch the program will likely be insufficient. Plan on showing everyone the basics and then schedule additional training a few weeks out so that everyone is familiar with the program and ready to absorb how to use the advanced features.
Rest easy knowing that you are employing the latest tech tools in order to give your clients superior value. One of the attorneys in our Lab community has automated his entire intake process so that clients can engage him with a few clicks on their phone or computer. Now, instead of spending hours setting up engagement letters and new client files, he can spend that time preparing cases for court or mediation—doing the high-level work that only he as the attorney in the office—can do. He is happier with the way he spends his time and his clients feel and see the results in the service they are provided. Everyone wins.
The days of feeling uninterested or overwhelmed with technology are over. Lawyers need to take the time to understand and the tremendous positive impact it can have on your business. For those of you who have stepped into the process (even if you’ve done so a bit reluctantly), “kudos!” The fun thing about technology and business system improvement is that it is always capable of being improved and new learnings and developments will always be on the horizon. Embrace these possibilities and reap the rewards.