Editor: W. Patrick Tandy
Solo/Small Firm Practitioner
Everything Old is New
Looking at Your Office Technology
|By Pat Yevics
Maryland State Bar Association
I just received my
January/February issue of the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s Law
and the issue is devoted to “what’s next for law practice technology” and
promotion of the ABA Techshow (www.techshow.com),
which is being held March 25-27, 2004 in Chicago. Now in its 18th year,
the ABA Techshow is the premier legal technology show in the country. Since
1994, I have attended many Techshows and have always been overwhelmed by the new
technologies: Windows, the Internet, PDAs, case management software, document
assembly, the paperless office and so on.
What struck me about
this issue of the magazine and the offerings at Techshow is how little new there
is when it comes to technology. That does mean, however, that lawyers and law
firms are at the top of their game when using technology to be more effective.
In fact, some practitioners are way behind the curve. Most use word processing
and some other products, but there is much more that can be done to utilize the
technology that is available.
But a dearth of hot
new technologies does not mean that there is nothing worth learning or
considering. There are two advantages to this “reheated” technology. The first
is that the techies and geeks, who have to be on the bleeding edge of
technology, have worked out many of the bugs and now the rest of us can find
practical and useful ways to use the technology in the real world. The second is
that it gives practitioners the opportunity to take a deep breath and
re-evaluate the technology they currently use and what if anything needs to be
changed, added, eliminated or upgraded.
Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail
technologies that need to be considered or, in some cases, reconsidered. This
article is going to address the issue of how solos and small firm practitioners
can begin the process or looking at what they have and determine what if
anything needs to done and how to do it. Planning is for all firms whether you
are considering new software or upgrading your current system. How detailed a
plan you will need will be determined by your current technology situation, your
level of expertise and the size and type of your practice. Due to lack of time,
expertise, information or interest, solo and small firm practitioners too often
rush through or ignore this step completely. As a result of failing to plan,
ill-informed, hasty and costly decisions are made which affect the practice long
into the future.
If you are a solo
practitioner, you will have the responsibility of the planning. If you are in a
small firm, one of the partners (or an associate) should be assigned the
responsibility of drafting the plan. This person may then delegate many tasks to
others in the firm if appropriate.
You may also want to
assign your secretary or legal assistant the responsibility for assembling
information about vendors, software products and reviews about the products. The
advantage to having your secretary assembling this information is that it will
allow you to practice law and it will give him/her the opportunity to be part of
the decision-making process.
Whether you are a
sole practitioner with one secretary or in a small firm, it is critical to
obtain input from everyone in the firm who will use the technology. An
automation or technology plan for a solo/small firm practice isn’t simply a
matter of buying equipment. One of the most important parts of the plan is the
people who use it.
Getting input from
the people in the office is especially important when you are either considering
new software or upgrading your current software. If you are changing software,
ask them what they currently like about what they are using and what they would
like to see improved in new software. If you are getting new software, such as
case management or calendar, ask what features the users might want to see.
Defining the Process
It is important to
know what you expect the technological changes or improvements to accomplish.
Computerizing without knowing what it will do is like hiring employees without
knowing what they will do. What do you want to be able to do with the new
software/hardware/technology that you cannot currently do?
As you list your
reasons, bear in mind two considerations that are too often easily dismissed.
One reason is that it is simply time to change the technology you are now using
because, while it certainly gets you through the day, it is no longer advanced
enough to keep you competitive. It would be like a carpenter using a hand saw
instead of a power saw when building a new house – though it can certainly cut
the wood, it won’t allow you to do it as effectively and efficiently as you
would need to have it done.
Another reason to
consider is “because everyone else is using it,” quite simply because if you’re
not using it you will be less effective in dealing with your client’s matters,
thereby making you less competitive. Use of the Internet is a good example.
There are many good reasons for using the Internet, but the fact that everyone
is using it makes it even more critical for you to not be left behind.
List objectives or
reasons for wanting to computerize based upon your firm’s goals and practice
needs. Some of the goals might be managing your cases and information, improving
the billing and collection process, improving and monitoring cash flow,
scheduling your calendar, increasing efficiency and speed of document assembly,
tracking referral and marketing efforts or simplifying research.
You Should Upgrade
(This is information
taken from a presentation/materials at the 1997 ABA Techshow. The presentation
was given by Phil J. Shuey, Esq., of Shuey Robinson in Colorado.)
Reasons to Upgrade Software:
- To obtain
features that your firm or your clients need to deliver the service
- To maintain
or achieve compatibility or integration
- To make
certain you will be able to get the data out of your old system
- You can no
longer find employees who know the software/technology you use
- You can no
longer get support/training for the software
When to Upgrade Hardware:
- When it
cannot run the software you need
- When it’s
- When it’s too
- When it
Creating a Wish List
(Warning: Do Not Skip This Step)
Before beginning the
process of getting information about software or hardware, you and your staff
need to make a wish list. This will help you when you create your budget and
ultimately make your decision. Obviously, the longer and more complicated your
wish list, the higher the cost in both time and dollars. As you go through the
exercise and discuss it with others, some of the functions and items will move
from one list to another. This will also happen when the cost of some of the
list items are revealed.
The Wish List should
have three columns or categories. The first column is the “Must Have” list.
These are items or functions that your firm must have. Your success depends on
them, and cost is no object.
The next column will
be “Would Like to Have But Need to Consider Cost”. These are mid-level bells and
whistles. In today’s world of software development, many of these functions will
be available for minimum additional cost. You need to consider some of these
functions and determine if you need to budget for them.
The last column is
“If Money Were No Object and We Were All Geeks.” These functions are the
pie-in-the-sky type options. Deciding to go with them will usually involve
budget decisions and ease of use.
Once this process is
completed, take some time as a group (this is easy in a small firm) to review
each person’s list. This could be done at a lunch meeting. There is no right or
wrong answer. Make a “Firm Wish List” from the individual lists. Once you have
the firm list, you are ready to match your needs and desires to what is
available. (It should not be the other way around!)
Create a Budget
Be realistic when
creating your budget. If you are on a tight budget, then you need to know that
up front so that your expectations are realistic. Keep in mind that it is not
always necessary to implement the entire plan or project all at once unless your
day-to-day activities depend upon it.
While you should
make every effort to keep your costs reasonable, do not be penny-wise and
pound-foolish. There is often a good reason one particular product or service is
considerably less than another. You must take into consideration future needs.
In the ever-changing technology era, products do not have the longevity that we
would hope. Your budget needs to reflect the constant need to upgrade software
Include in your
budget hardware and software, installation and maintenance, consulting,
conversion costs, downtime and training. Use vendor proposals to compile
information on many of these costs. This budget process is another area where
many practitioners often make errors usually by underestimating the cost of the
time involved with many automation projects.
All consultants and
experts agree that training is a key element in the success of law firm
automation. This must be included in the budget.
Seeking Additional Assistance
As all solo and
small practitioners know, time is always a precious commodity. If the planning
process takes too much time or if you find the task too complicated for your
level of expertise, employ a knowledgeable consultant to help with decisions and
selections. Consider the money you spend an investment towards your success.
As well as technical
knowledge, the consultant will bring an independent and objective point of view
to the process. The consultant will be able to sort out the confusion of
competing vendors and products. According to Doug Caddell in the January 2001
issue of Law Technology News, there are three keys to successful
technology projects: 1) managing expectations, 2) careful preparation and 3)
When deciding upon a
consultant it is important to seek an independent third party with experience in
the legal profession, especially with solo or small firms. Interview the person
to make certain that he/she understands your firm and its goals and that you
feel comfortable with the person. Ask for references and check them carefully.
Remember that the
decision you make now will affect your practice for some time. The more time you
spend in the beginning making certain that you have all the information
necessary to make an informed decision will allow you to do what you do best –
You can also contact
our office at the Maryland State Bar Association for:
- information and
reviews of various software products for solo and small firm practitioners
information on choosing and using a consultant effectively and affordably
- a list of
technology consultants that have worked with solo and small firm practitioners
Please contact Pat
Yevics at (410) 685-7878 or (800) 492-1964, ext. 3039, or e-mail
email@example.com. A list of the
many information packets we offer can be found on the MSBA website at
In addition, MSBA
members can receive a $100 discount on the regular registration fee for the 18th
Annual TechShow, March 25-27, 2004, in Chicago (to take advantage of the MSBA
discount, use the code PP7). Registering before February 26, 2004, will earn you
an additional $100 early-registration discount, bringing the total discount for
Therefore, MSBA members who register before February 26 to $200 off the regular
registration fee of $795. While this is still expensive, it is a great place to
learn a lot in a short amount of time.