Roll Your Own Software: Hidden Dangers on the Road Less Traveled
While app fever has sparked a renaissance in homegrown software, tech insiders caution that for law firms, going the do-it-yourself route is often a train wreck waiting to happen.
Even so, Jason Turchin, a sole practitioner whose main office is in Weston, Fla., insists that “rolling your own” often makes the most sense. “When [lawyers develop] their own software in-house, they have more personalized control over the development and the look and feel of the application,” he says.
Developer of the free My Attorney App, which simplifies communications between attorney and client on iPhone and Android, Turchin says that with homegrown he’s not forced to wear the straitjacket of someone else’s perception of how to run a law firm.
Moreover, with a crack in-house development staff, firms also may be able to make tweaks and upgrades to homegrown software more quickly and with pinpoint precision.
In-house solutions are often more easily integrated with existing software and can be much less expensive in the long run. That’s especially the case if a firm is looking for a few core functions and is not interested in all the extras it would be force-fed with off-the-shelf solutions, Turchin says.
Still, insiders caution that once a firm decides to roll its own, it is essentially becoming a software development company. It assumes all the responsibilities for brainstorming, creation, beta testing, security and maintenance.
“Too often law firms that choose to develop their own software fail because they are in the business of practicing law, not developing products,” says Mikki Tomlinson of Oklahoma City, director of strategic consulting at eDJ Group, an e-discovery consulting firm. “It is difficult for any type of company to make a commitment to a line of business that is not related to its core mission.”
Fearless pioneers also sometimes forget that seemingly simple tasks like the pretesting of software can become monumental headaches when you’re doing it yourself. “It will not just be implemented and run right off the bat without a beta version to work out the kinks,” says Stephanie Kimbro, who operates her Web-based law firm, Kimbro Legal Services, out of Wilmington, N.C.
Michael Will, president of Innodata’s DocGenix Division in Hackensack, N.J., which provides software for financial institutions, adds: “One further factor to bear in mind is that any software you develop does not exist in isolation. It will need to communicate with other systems within your firm, and increasingly those belonging to your clients.”
In an era when merry pranksters terrorize the Web, roll-your-own packages can carry heavy security responsibilities.
“Firms with in-house-developed software may be able to handle updates faster, but not as fast as going with a [software as a service] company that has an entire team devoted to watching security risks and coming up with bug fixes and security patches on a daily basis,” says Kimbro, who co-founded and later sold a law firm software company.
Even more potentially dangerous are the homegrown liabilities associated with evidence.
“I would highly recommend against in-house development of software that would touch or affect client data being handled for purposes of discovery,” says Tomlinson. “If you are going to handle evidence, you must be able to back it up with a strong audit trail, chain of custody and testimony when necessary to prove proper handling and defend against spoliation claims.”
Despite the perils, Turchin insists that in certain cases, there can be no substitute for a roll-your-own solution. “If you don’t need the bells and whistles and have custom needs, I would encourage you to get a quote from a developer. You could be surprised that the cost may not be as high as you thought.”
Counters Tomlinson: “In general I see that if you ask for it, [commercial software makers] will develop it. In my experience, software companies want to hear about their clients’ needs so that they can continue to develop their product appropriate to the market.”