Features

Smooth Operators


Like many in his field, Alan Ciochon, director of in­formation technology with Whyte Hirsch­boeck Du­dek in Milwaukee, has had to handle several technology rollouts over the past few years for the firm, which has three of­fices across Wisconsin. And one thing he’s learned, Ciochon says, is that technology doesn’t work just because the technology is good.

Implementations demand that law firm culture mesh with the goals of the information technology department. “It’s a culture issue as much as anything to make a software implementation work,” Ciochon says. “The human factor is a lot more important than most people realize.”

Like the rest of the American business world, law firms started buying technology in a big way in the late 1990s. That buying binge does not seem to have slowed much: According to the ABA Legal Technology Survey, law firms have been buying new software at a healthy clip. For example, just three years ago, only 65 percent of law firms reported using any kind of time-and-billing software.

Ac­cord­ing to the 2003 survey, which is the most current, 78 percent now report having a time-and-billing system installed. However, just because they’re buying software doesn’t mean law firms are getting their money’s worth. According to the same survey, only 45 percent of law firms report actually using those same time-and-billing systems, which means a lot of expensive software is going to waste.

Along with this boom, there have been growing pains and failures. No one wants to admit to it, but some firms have given up on new software projects after wasting money on stuff that “didn’t work.” The IT department, software vendors or systems integrators–people paid to make different software systems work together–are often quick to blame lawyers for not “getting” technology or what the IT crew is trying to do.

“You do have a generation gap within a law firm,” says Ciochon. “There are always different levels of technical knowledge. Some embrace it, but others don’t.” While the techies may see the “human factor” as getting in the way, it is the lawyers and paralegals within a firm who must make the systems work. Law firms hoping to fix inefficiencies or improve productivity can’t just force their workers to use new technology. They need to understand how people work within a firm and make the technology serve their staff.

For lawyers, technology is a tool, not their work, and learning new systems takes time away from their real work–the law. Firms cannot buy technology without planning how to integrate it into the office environment.

“Lawyers just want to be lawyers. They shouldn’t have to worry about technology, too,” says Sandy Adams, a Mi­ami-based legal technology consultant. “The leadership needs to communicate why they are making a change, or no one will follow.”

“Many law firms think that they can fix practice problems and inefficiencies by throwing technology at it, and they’ll become a super-productive legal machine,” says Ross Kodner, a lawyer and president of the legal technology consulting firm MicroLaw in Glendale, Wis. “But really what you have to do is take a step back and look at your workflow to see how technology makes sense within your practice.”

Self-Analysis

One common reason why technology fails is that law firms often fail to analyze themselves from a business point of view. Firms understand the legal reasons for the way they work, but they don’t always stop to consider if they can do things more efficiently from a strictly business sense.

“Instead of buying new things,” Kodner says, “firms need to take a look at the extra steps they could eliminate and are only there because a partner wrote a procedure sheet in 1954 based on something he learned from another partner in 1911.”

Often, financial and structural issues within a firm doom a technology project before it has a chance to be fully implemented. Law firms are not structured hierarchically, like a corporation. That means there are a lot of people with input into a technology decision, but no one has ultimate authority over how a project will be run.

“The way law firms are structured as privately held entities means there are a lot of interested parties with a lot of different opinions,” says Jim Dziak, president of Milwaukee-based Microtek Systems. “It’s the partners’ consensus that decides what gets funded. At a publicly held company you still have to keep the major shareholders happy, but it’s much more clear where the buck stops.”

And unfortunately, legal technology buys are often done on an ad hoc basis. “Law firms by and large don’t formally budget for technology,” says Stephen Collins, president of legal financial software firm Juris, based in Brentwood, Tenn. “There’s not always a process in place or a strong con­troller or financial officer or managing partner who can take ownership of the process.”

To avoid problems, law firms need to be especially careful in analyzing a situation before making any purchase, making sure they have the capital resources, people and commitment to see a major technology purchase though. If firms take proper stock of the situation and understand what’s going on, there shouldn’t be ugly confrontations down the road with systems integrators or outside contractors.

“The challenge for lawyers, particularly when they’re not tech savvy, is to understand the value proposition and to know when to take the jump and buy a new system,” says Howard Berlin, a founding partner and managing director of Kluger, Peretz, Kaplan & Berlin in Miami.

Berlin says that before a firm like his spends millions of dollars on a new system, lawyers need to know that it will not only work but also not interfere with the critical systems they have in place. “I wish you could start with a sim­ple system and gradually build up to the full package,” Berlin says. “I would write a check for $50,000 now if some­one could just give me a baseline system to start.”

To make an implementation go smoothly, law firms need to make sure they have allocated enough resources. Other­wise, once a system fails to live up to its hype, some firms might wind up feeling cheated and simply dump it rather than throw more money after a problem.

“A lot of people think if they just buy the software and throw it up, it’ll fix all of their problems,” Kodner says. “Then when it doesn’t work as advertised, they blame the software as inadequate and give up.”

Unfortunately, many software vendors fail to tell firms how much it will cost to implement a major new software system. Systems integrators say it will typically cost at least two to five times the sticker price of most software to install, troubleshoot and get a system up and running properly.

“It would be hard for legal software vendors to tell law firms that it will cost two or three times the cost of the software to implement it,” Kodner says. “Nobody would buy it.”

Breaking Old Habits

Of course, a software system should not interfere with a lawyer’s ability to get work done. But lawyers need to be willing to use alternate means to get the same tasks done in a more efficient way. “Law firms are still sharing information the way they always have: exchanging e-mail attachments and fixed documents,” Dziak says. “They need to get into collaboration.”

The advantage to collaborative systems, like customer relationship management, document management, or knowledge management systems, is that information can be stored in central locations so that anyone can access it. A worker doesn’t have to hunt down an individual to get a piece of information. But once a law firm decides to buy a centralized system, the firm will have to be willing to break lawyers of ingrained habits. “The biggest requirement once you’ve got a new system is that everyone needs to be willing to share information,” Ciochon says. “If a system is not intuitive, people just won’t use it.”

Lawyers can be territorial or reluctant to share information. But more than anything, software vendors need to make sure that using their system is not too time-con­su­m­ing or difficult for lawyers. “We had to drag lawyers by the nose just to get them to take the two minutes to enter their time,” Berlin says. “We need to reduce the clerical areas of law, not add to it.”

To make implementations work within his own firm, Ciochon insists on training for all of the people using the systems. He creates CD-ROMs to walk them through the new systems. And part of training is not just explaining the way a system works, but why it can be of use to the attorneys. “You need to get them to see what you see, and to see what technology can do for the firm as a whole,” he says.

Explaining the usefulness of a system doesn’t just relate to making work easier, though. Software vendors and con­sultants have to be able to explain how a piece of software adds to the bottom line. “Unless the vendors show me how to make more money, it’s going to be hard to get the lawyers interested,” Berlin says.

And making disparate systems communicate with a centralized system means that law firms need to be willing to invest the time and resources to tear apart and rebuild ex­isting systems. “The systems in most firms are fragmented and disparate–every system has a different data­base,” Dziak says. “It’s not a small thing to change that.”

Power Up

Perhaps the most important thing a law firm can do to make an integration effort work is to give someone within the firm the power and authority to make sure an implementation doesn’t lose momentum. “The person has to be a logical choice, not just a junior IT person but a respected decision-maker and mediator,” Collins says. “It should be a lawyer who understands what the project it about and who can take ownership of the pro­cess.”

Putting a senior lawyer with technology experience in charge of a technology project doesn’t guarantee success, but it helps make sure there is one person to mediate disputes. It sounds odd to describe a technology rollout with­in one firm in these terms, but there really are two sides that need to be handled. It is the legal staff facing off against the IT staff.

Unfortunately, these two sides tend to speak different languages and perceive work issues from different points of view. And that’s not even mentioning the systems integrators and the software vendors often have different views on how best to implement a system. A person in charge needs to take input from everyone involved, particularly the law firm staff, to find out how they work and how to meld their established ways of doing things with the new system.

For example, if lawyers are used to com­municating through memos, don’t force them to use a communications system created by a software ven­dor. Instead, allow them to disseminate the same types of memos through the new software.

At the same time, there will be people who will resist using a new system for reasons that will be hard for the IT staff to understand. The IT staff needs to explain why it is a good idea to disseminate memos through a new setup. “You can’t just change the culture overnight,” Dziak says.

And before a system is up and running, one important question firms need to ask is how well those systems can survive a disaster. Some small firms might be able to survive if the system goes down for a day or two, while large law firms would be in big trouble with a technology break­down. The people in charge of a new software system have to consider how many problems the firm can endure with the new system and build in backup protection accordingly.

But the biggest problem with many systems is that they are too difficult to use. Most document management or knowledge management systems still require some sort of manual input by the staff to properly handle documents. But if most lawyers can find a shortcut or ways to avoid entering codes, IT staffers say, they will.

The IT staff needs to be able to make the codes or information they need from the staff as easy to input as possible. For example, most systems can be integrated with word processing software so that whenever legal professionals save a document–something they have to do anyway–they will automatically be prompted to enter the proper identification codes for a document management or similar system.

It’s The Law

But these steps aren’t important just to avoid losing millions of dollars on software. More and more law firms are buying software designed to keep track of documents and run their business so they will be able to comply with federal regulations regarding document retention. Publicly held companies tend to have compliance officers and auditors whose job it is to keep an eye on such things, but they are rare within even the largest law firms. “Lawyers serve two masters. We have an ethical respon­sibility that’s often counter to business interests,” Ber­lin says. “But we’re also a business with millions of dollars of revenue, and banking relationships and vendor relationships. Somehow, you have to be good at both.”

Many corporate clients now insist that any law firms they work with comply with regulations like those of Gramm-­Leach-Bliley or the Health Insurance Portability and Ac­counta­bil­i­ty Act. “Clients at publicly traded companies are mandated to have continuation plans, yet their legal representation often has no plan,” Dziak says. “More and more, you’re going to find that corporate clients won’t stand for that.” Software systems fail for a lot of reasons, but law firms shouldn’t be afraid to invest in a system that could give them a competitive advantage or earn them more money. Firms just need to be willing to make sure that systems can work with their existing ways of doing things.

“In my experience there’s no medio­cre implementation–either it works out great or becomes a financial sinkhole,” Kodner says. “It’s true a poorly chosen implementation will eat you alive, but there are significant [productivity] gains that you lose if you do noth­ing.”


Jason Krause is a legal affairs writer for the ABA Journal.


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