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5 tips for an effective technology committee

Posted Jul 1, 2010 1:40 AM CDT
By Dennis Kennedy

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Illustration by Jim Frazier

Technology committees have become as commonplace in law firms as hiring committees. And like hiring committees, they enjoy a mixed reputation. Some lawyers think of them as “technology prevention” committees.

Without a clear mission, technology committees can turn ineffectual at best and wrongheaded and obstructive at worst. However, with proper direction they can help firms make solid decisions about the increasingly important role of legal technology.

This topic is not just for big firms. Small firms, even solos, tend to make decisions about technology collaboratively. In a small firm there will definitely be a group, even if it’s not called a committee—but it will be informal, unstructured and ad hoc. And in many larger firms, “informal, unstructured and ad hoc” aptly describes the dynamics of a tech committee. The same principles, however, apply across all firms.

There are five major roles a tech committee can play for a firm:

1) Monitor the IT department. Both lawyers and information technology people use jargon-intensive language very precisely. Unfortunately, their uses of language often do not mesh. A tech committee is often used to help facilitate the conversation, but it also monitors, guides and even supervises IT departments.

2) Evaluate and make choices. From formal requests for proposals to informal information-gathering about software choices, a tech committee will play a key role in all aspects of making decisions about technology.

3) Set strategy and execute priorities. Although strategy is often the primary stated goal of tech committees, it often gets pushed aside as the other roles require more attention.

4) Respond to issues. Many tech committees become the tech complaints department. Significant time must be devoted to dealing with real and imagined issues and needs. In many cases, good responses to these issues can provide excellent value to a firm. In recent years, tech committees that listened to lawyers and came up with good remote-access solutions have earned a lot of good will.

5) Manage projects. Some tech committees get involved in large tech projects on an oversight or management basis. Sometimes this is part of the IT monitoring function. Other times the tech committee will actually take a hands-on role, especially in smaller firms. You want to assess and evaluate how well your committee does in each of these roles.

POWER IS WELCOME

All tech committees can be improved on a regular basis. the best improvements come from getting and keeping the right people involved. Simply put, if the actual decision-maker is not on the committee or the committee chair does not have real access to the decision-maker, the odds of it being successful diminish greatly.

Here are five practical tips for improving your tech committee:

1) Diversify membership. Look to include representative users or even add a member or two voted in by the firm.

2) Enhance IT relationships. The key to successful technology in a firm is good, healthy communi cation between IT and lawyers. Involving IT in the tech committee in meaningful ways is key. You might also consider regular presentations from IT to the committee on educational topics. Also, look for ways, like attending tech con ferences, that IT and lawyers can learn about technology and get to know each other.

3) Set a simple strategy. Setting a simple guiding strategy annually will help keep things on track. For example, you might emphasize easier interaction with clients or improved remote computing.

4) Monitor return on investment. You must monitor the success of tech projects, whether they met budget and whether you achieved the economic return you expected. A key here is killing bad projects.

5) Consider outside help. At many firms, tech committee members will admit they don’t know enough to make good decisions. I like involving an outside expert to help. One idea is to add a tech consultant who is paid to be part of the committee but is not allowed to perform work for the firm to ensure you get objective advice. In states with practice management adviser programs, regular contact with your state PMA can be of enormous benefit in helping you with technology decisions.

A tech committee has become a necessary part of law firm management. These five simple steps can help you get your tech committee on the right track.

Dennis Kennedy is a St. Louis-based computer lawyer and legal technology writer. His website, DennisKennedy.com, is the home of his blog.

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