As a business consultant to solo and small firm lawyers for the past decade, Jared Correia has helped lawyers deal with many law practice … issues. In his column, “Law Practice Confidential,” he will be answering real questions from real lawyers. To send Jared an anonymous question, use the form at the bottom of this post.
Q: Nobody ever listens to me. At work, at home. Doesn’t matter. It’s like I’m talking to a wall. But, the worst is when I have to onboard any new technology at work. I mean, I think I employ adults, but this is like trying to tell my kids to do something: They look at me for a second, and then run off and do whatever the hell they want, like we didn’t just have a very specific conversation about expectations. Invariably, I will tell everyone in the office that we need to be using a new piece of software, and three months later, no one has even logged in. I give up. Am I going to have to manage my law firm in amber, using the same technology that I’m using now twenty years on?
A: Most lawyers are control freaks. And, that’s not always a criticism. In this case, however, it is. Yes, most attorneys take your view, which can be teased out from your comments as follows: I tell people what to do; and, when they don’t do it, I…pout? Frankly, that’s the size of it when it comes to many attorneys. They’re roaring lions until they step on a splinter and then they plaintively wail for the mouse to come on and remove it already. Far better to have the mouse on board earlier, clearing the splinters from your path instead.
Let me be far less abstract: The way to help yourself here is to let others help you. The reason your staff isn’t buying into your technology change process is that they’re not at all involved in it. This is a general problem for law firms, which can be bad at onboarding generally, but, in this case, it’s fatal to your efforts to upgrade your firm’s efficiency.
Think about it, alpha lawyer: What if someone said to you, basically: ‘Look, just shut up and do it.’ What is the percentage chance that you’re going to to go ahead and do that thing?
So now let me help you to implement an alternative approach.
When a managing attorney introduces something new into a law firm (often it’s a new technology program, but it doesn’t have to be), there are four stages at which staff should be involved: (1) vetting; (2) selection; (3) implementation; (4) maintenance. You likely involve your staff in zero of those stages currently. Let’s address these items one-by-one.
Vetting. Vetting is an essential component of software management. Both regarding the fit for a specific practice, but also about the mounting obligations placed upon law firms for securing client data. Your review of any technology application should specifically focus on whether it’s a secure enough solution for your law firm. Your staff can help in both respects. For your law firm to run at peak efficiency, your staff (including associates) are going to have to be power users of your main software tools. If they’re not, you’re going to be using a small percentage of that software’s capability (if you use it at all), which means you’ll be flushing money down the toilet, while simultaneously becoming far less productive than you could have been.
Your staff also have to be the ones who judge the fit for software. One or more of your staff should also be appointed an ‘all-star’ user. That’s the one who’s really invested in a particular program, who can customize it the way you want, and can be there to answer questions from the rest of the staff. Having an on-staff support person will save you time and money versus purchasing a robust support plan from your new vendor, who will be more than happy to sell you one otherwise.
With respect to data management, every state now has a data protection statute on its books, and certain of those require the creation of a data protection program for your business, as well as the appointment of someone to manage it. Often, this role is assigned to a staff person, not a lawyer. If you have someone on your staff who holds that role, it makes sense to include that person in the decisionmaking process for acquiring new software, so that they can vet the product for security.
More broadly speaking, all staff should be included in the vetting procedure. The chief problem with adopting new software within a law firm environment is that staff are invested in the old software, mainly due to familiarity. But, there is also often an unshakeable belief attached to that familiarity: “Because I know how to use this software, my job is safe is long as we use this software.” This feeling is often more deeply embedded in older employees than the younger ones.
The upshot, then, is that, if you want to move your staff off of what they’re currently using, you have to build excitement, and also project the notion that, for your job to be safe now, you need to onboard for the direction we’re going to be traveling in. You may generate excitement by involving everyone in the investigation process. Select (or, better yet: let your staff select, or pare down) three to five options. Let everyone do a private demo. Then, do a group demo, and encourage everyone to ask questions. Have an office meeting following the investigation, and let everyone air their grievances, in addition to telling you what it is that they liked about each product reviewed. Conduct a straw poll to see where everyone stands at the conclusion of the meeting, the effect of which may be to reduce the number of contenders, or to solicit a unanimous vote.
Selection. Of course, when you allow others to become involved in the decision-making process, it’s more likely that they will become invested in the selection process. If a straw poll doesn’t elicit a unanimous choice, take an anonymous survey and elicit responses that way. If a majority decision results, announce that, allow folks to talk about their votes, and why they went in that direction. There may be some smoothing over to do at that juncture; but, you’re a steamroller, and you can manage that. If you reviewed a specific type of product, the talking point could be that many of the features are the same and that preference exists on the margins—in other words: everyone wins, including the minority, because, no matter the choice, it placed the entire law firm on stronger footing.
Now, if you find that your staff wants to go in a different direction than you do, you can either abide by their decision or overrule them. If you decide to overrule your staff, you better have a damn good reason for doing so. If you make a habit of involving your staff in decision-making, this will be easier for them to swallow—sometimes you agree with their decision, sometimes (as the business owner) you make the hard decision to go the other way.
Of course, your staff also knows that you’re the ultimate arbiter in this case, and they understand that they work for you at your pleasure. Not that you lord that over them, but you do need to exert your authority when you feel you must. In this event, of course, defending your choice will require you to take a deep dive into the technology you prefer, and your increased knowledge of that product will be a win for the firm in the long-term.
Implementation. After you’ve made a difficult decision, the next step is implementing your new software. Depending on how much data you need to connect or convert to the new system, either directly from the old system or other repositories, this can be a challenge in itself.
Asking a demotivated staff to help you to transition reams of data to a new location, and to review the reliability of that transition, is a nullification procedure waiting to happen. This is where your staff can upend everything you’ve managed to that point, either by active or inactive methods. On the other hand, if your staff has been involved in the process from the outset, they will be more likely to become excited and invested in the transition—or, at least a willing participant to the maneuver. Additionally, the transition and implementation process allows an engaged staff another opportunity to understand the new system more fully, and, in some cases, to suggest improvements.
Maintenance. If your staff is consistently involved in making choices about software from the earliest possible point, you’re selling them something they’ve already bought, instead of foisting upon them something they never knew was coming. No one really likes surprises. It’s why we have an innate need to search out presents, especially as little kids. The party line is that it’s not better to know; but, actually, it kind of is.
So, if your staff has become invested in a software product over the course of months, having had a hand in choosing and implementing it, maintenance should be a relatively simple sell: “Hey, folks this is what we all picked. Now, let’s make it work.” Some staff will be more engaged than others, so take advantage of those all-stars. As part of your general staff meetings, you can implement discussions related to the law firm’s technology platform and its continued relevance. If your staff has been led to know, by actual practice, that they have a say in those sorts of things, they will be far more likely to become invested in making sure that what you have still works for what you need.
This is just one aspect of law firm management, of course. But, if you can figure out a method for involving your staff in the technology choices that you make, that can serve as a mold for inviting participation into a number of aspects of your business. And, at that point, you can truly function as the charismatic leader of a real team, rather than a captain standing alone against a sea, a million knives at your back.