Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, with 460 lawyers in seven offices and a large information technology staff, is the kind of law firm that has long been able to build its own applications to support its various practice areas. But the firm recently made the decision to switch to off-the-shelf applications.
“We’d spend so much time building and maintaining software—and spend so much time being software programmers and support staff—that it just wasn’t worth it,” says Blair Janis, the practice applications manager at Ballard Spahr in Salt Lake City. The firm made the change in all its offices—in Washington, D.C., and in five states. “We’re a law firm—not a software development company.”
Until recently, legal software companies tended to take a one-size-fits-all approach. There was only a handful of document management systems, calendaring programs, back-end financial packages or other legal applications to choose from. But now, more companies offer legal software packages tailored to very specific firm needs. Even the legal research companies LexisNexis and West offer research tools for different practice areas.
But there are still cases in which law firms will find it necessary to build their own software.
Wildman Harrold, a Chicago-based firm with 215 lawyers, typically does not build its own software, but it recently hired a consulting firm to build a database for handling asbestos litigation.
“We researched the tools on the market and didn’t find what we were looking for,” says Steve Walsh, Wildman Harrold’s chief information officer. “We needed something that could handle a large volume of plaintiffs and complaints, and keep track of them all across multiple jurisdictions.”
Law firms will likely always need to create their own software or acquire customized tools to handle document assembly and work flow. A law firm’s business largely revolves around how well it creates forms, documents and processes for clients, so using off-the-shelf or standardized forms will never make sense.
Walsh and Janis both say a law firm needs a rigorous system to find software that fits the firm’s needs. As with any business, a law firm must consider the total cost of ownership—the price of upgrades, the staffing requirements and the ability to upgrade. But a firm should consider something else—whether its lawyers will actually use the software. Almost every application is customizable, but if it does not fit the way lawyers are used to working, a home-built solution might be better.
When choosing whether to buy or build, a firm should look beyond the upfront “sticker price.” For in-house development, a firm should consider whether it has the staff to support an application, whether it will need to hire consultants on an ongoing basis, and whether an application will become obsolete without upgrades. Walsh says the biggest issues he considered when deciding to buy or build were support and upgrades. “You have to think about the maintenance cost,” he says.
Custom applications can allow firms to do things they can’t do—or can’t do easily—with industry-standard software, but many law firms find that custom work can be a dead end. Often, the person who built the program leaves the staff or consulting firm you worked with. Buying off the shelf can be more expensive, but a software company that offers regular upgrades and customer support can defray ongoing support costs.
But law firms should not consider off-the-shelf applications as a shortcut to reducing IT costs. Blair says his decision hasn’t cut the need for a technology staff, but it has made the same staff more effective. “From my observation, we accomplish a lot more with the same people,” he says. “I think it’s more expensive to do it this way, but things get up and running smoother.”