Buying technology without a plan is a recipe for failure.
lawyer’s practice depends on technology. Furthermore, technology is increasingly being used within law practices to streamline legal processes. However, identifying technologies and implementation requires strategy and possibly significant investment on the part of the firm. If left to progress in their own time without some plan or strategy, the implementation of these technologies and the resulting benefits to the firm and clients may be undermined. Thus, the purchase and use of technology within firms must be thoughtfully planned and actively managed in order to be successful. For this reason, it is vital that law firms develop and implement a technology plan for their practice.
A technology plan allows firms to manage financial investments in new technologies, reduce overhead related to the adoption of new technologies, adapt to obsolescence of technological infrastructure and roll out new technologies in a controlled and effective manner. When developed prudently, a technology plan can help firms remain competitive in today’s new legal marketplace.
The following five steps are inspired by the American Bar Association Checklist for Purchasing Software for the Law Office. They are meant to help guide lawyers to think through decisions related to their firm’s purchase, adoption and use of software: self-assessment, research, law firm technologies, test, purchase and implementation.
Conducting a self-assessment will help determine the technologies that will best help your firm more efficiently deliver services to clients and reach its goals. In conducting your
self-assessment, ask yourself the following questions: What is your primary practice area? What is your current use and ownership of technology? What are your future plans for your practice? Are you mobile? How comfortable are you and your staff with technology? What is your budget?
After you have completed your self-assessment, it is important to research your options before making any commitments that could become costly mistakes if rushed into. In order to identify vendors, software and optimal options and solutions for your practice, do not be afraid to reach out to other practitioners in order to learn from their experiences. Newsletters and industry-specific conferences, such as the ABA Tech Show and the Solo and Small Firm Conference in Toronto, can also be an excellent source of information on new legal technologies and the reputation of technology companies. Your research may also uncover potential software advantages and disadvantages down the road. For example, if considering cloud-based service, think about what would happen if a technology company goes bankrupt or is acquired. What will that mean for your data and/or your user costs? Properly researching your options will help you take proactive steps to protect your practice, such as investigating and understanding a software vendor’s archive policy.
3. Law firm technologies
Once you have researched and reviewed your options, determine which technologies you will need to operate your legal practice. Lawyers require certain categories of technology to practice law, including the following:
Communications technology: Here you want to consider the software and hardware that you would use to communicate with your clients, and that includes fax, email, teleconferencing and telephone. There are many alternatives to the traditional landline; for example, some lawyers are dispensing with a traditional phone for their cellphone, and others are using a Voice over Internet Protocol — or VoIP — telephone service. If you practise in real estate or litigation, then you still need a fax number. There are now many electronic fax service providers. An example is RingCentral, which basically allows you to send and receive faxes from your email. Email accounts can be set up very easily these days with nominal costs. You can also easily set up an email with your law firm’s name at little cost.
Receptionist, scheduling or calendaring: Many solo lawyers are doing away with a receptionist completely. If you cannot do without, then there are many virtual receptionist services, online or through shared office spaces, such as Regus or law chambers. One of the more interesting solutions for scheduling is an artificial intelligence scheduling assistant by Clara Labs. Clara is a system that combines human and software to provide scheduling service that understands context but uses automation to take care of most of the process at a very affordable monthly rate.
Practice management, invoicing and accounting: There are many practice management software solutions. What you want to consider in selecting a solution is whether it is cloud based or not, whether there is a one-time installation fee versus a monthly cost and whether the software solution includes accounting or only invoicing/trust accounting.
Document management, research and document automation: Here we are considering how legal documents are stored; for example, cloud document storage versus storing documents on a computer or on a server. You may want to consider how documents are backed up. Lawyers have certain obligations in terms of keeping records. You may also consider the location of where the data is stored; i.e., Canada versus the United States. Document automation tools are essential to certain practice areas such as real estate. We are seeing many new solutions in other practice areas such as a solution called Closing Folders for business closings.
Marketing: There are many different options, so it is important to have a strategy or some guidance from an expert. Some common software used by lawyers are blogs, social media (Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook), email newsletters and/or lawyer directories.
Some services offer paid packages that grant access to premium features. It is important to choose the type of technology that best serves your practice, as established through your self-assessment and research.
Before committing to any technology, test it. Many software providers offer free trial periods. When testing software, consider the following:
a. Ease of use:
It will be easier to use and implement user-friendly products that have a simple, well-designed interface. What is more, if a tool is easy to use, it may take less time to train staff on its use, thus saving money. It may be worth considering what tools your staff or support staff already know and use. Often, their comfort with a tool or solution can be a key driver in purchasing decisions, regardless of whether it is the best solution in terms of functionality.
b. Available support:
To assist in the adoption of software, consider the type of support a company/service offers. Many software providers will provide better support than others. Excellent support can greatly assist in the transition and implementation of the software and/or the addition and training of new employees. Look for software vendors who will spend time speaking with you on the phone and those who will provide on-site training. Some of the cloud-based software providers have a wealth of online videos that can be extremely useful in the training and implementation of the software.
It is also important to consider all the costs associated with any technology. For example, some tools and document storage solutions become more expensive as the number of users increases. While the urge to quickly decide on and implement technologies in order to get on with firm business may be strong, having to replace them when they turn out to be incompatible, unsuitable, redundant or too complicated may cost you more time, money and reputational capital in the long run.
5. Purchase and implementation
While many law firms have made the appropriate technology investments, they have failed to achieve the desired results because of poor implementation. Part of implementing new technologies successfully is to ensure that participants understand the goals and expectations.
To that end, be sure to communicate to the staff when and by whom the software will be implemented. When arranging training on new technologies, be sure to include yourself and other partners. Staff will be less likely to reject new technologies if they see partners committed to its use. To help stay committed, it is vital to make plans to manage, communicate and monitor progress. Finally, it is important to be positive and patient with yourself and your staff while in the transition period. While it may take some time before everything runs as smoothly as anticipated, reporting on and rewarding successes will help keep staff motivated.
The use of technology within the practice of law has become ubiquitous. In order to remain competitive, it is important for firms to adopt technologies to help streamline legal processes and more efficiently deliver client services. In order to make the next technological transition successfully, it is vital that firms develop and implement a technology plan for their practice.
Such a plan can provide the insight, direction and support to anticipate challenges, overcome obstacles and minimize growing pains. What is more, through careful planning, communication and commitment, firms can adapt to succeed within the new legal landscape.
Monica Goyal is an entrepreneur, lawyer and tech innovator and founder of My Legal Briefcase and Aluvion. She began her career as an engineer doing research and development for Toshiba, Nortel and Nokia.