One of the most common mistakes that law firms make when they upgrade technology is that they don’t do their homework or pay the smartest kid in class to do it for them. We saw in one of my previous columns that it’s critical to understand the problem you’re solving, and it’s just as critical to make sure you understand how the technology you’re moving to is going to solve that problem.
The Map is Not the Territory
Part of the problem firms have in evaluating how well a particular bit of technology is going to solve their problem is that they too often have to rely upon brochures and marketing pieces for information about the software. If you’re lucky the product’s sales guy will show you a demo of the software. But the demo is a best case scenario and may not apply directly to your situation. The demo is often a carefully scripted and controlled environment and the business of law can be anything but scripted or controlled.
Ask the salesman what other firms in your area are using the product to solve the same or similar problem that you’re looking to solve, then follow up on that information and contact those firms. See if you can take the contacts at those other firms to lunch and talk with them about the product. Ask what their favorite parts of the product are and ask what their least favorite bits are.
Ask how the vendor has been to work with and what the biggest surprises they had (positive and negative) in the experience.
If the vendor has support forums online browse those forums and see what other users are reporting. Forums can be a very revealing look at a prospective solution because the people who come to forums tend to come to talk about problems they’re having with the product – if the forums are full of people complaining that the feature you’re most interested in doesn’t work right, you’d like to know that up front.
Perform a basic Google search on the product and the vendor’s name. See what people online have been saying about them.
When you do get a demonstration of how the prospective solution works make sure and invite key personnel to participate. Don’t limit it just to the management committee at the firm, include key members of staff as well. If this is a product they’re going to have to use on a daily basis to do their jobs don’t just surprise them with it on the day you roll it out. Give them a chance to see it ahead of time and solicit their feedback on how well they think it will solve the problems you’re trying to address.
Working with Consultants
You may decide that you don’t have the time to do all that research on your own. In that case it’s worth bringing in an outside consultant to help you. Try to select a consultant with experience working with law firms and an understanding of the different issues law firms tend to experience.
If you’re going to work with a consultant it may pay to select a consultant who is NOT going to be selling you any part of the solution. By getting an advisor who doesn’t have a dog in the fight you’re more likely to get an objective opinion.
When you establish a relationship with a consultant you should have a service agreement with that consultant and you should make sure that your agreement clearly lays out, in writing, exactly what is expected from the relationship. You should know precisely what they’re going to do and what they expect you to do. Naturally you also want it to clearly explain what you’re going to be paying for this service.
The service agreement should also specify a clear deliverable or point at which the project is concluded and that conclusion should include some sort of meeting (either in person or via phone) where a “sign-off” on the project (preferably written) can happen.
Finally, make sure you select a consultant you can understand. One of the primary jobs of the consultant is to inform and advise you on the elements of the project for which they have expertise. If they can’t clearly communicate that advice and information to you then the relationship just isn’t going to work. Let your consultant know how much (or how little) information you want and don’t be afraid to give them feedback as you go. Some of my clients want to know how a watch works and others just want to know what time it is.
Before you set off to change the technology your firm runs on, make sure you have a clear understanding of where you’re going and how you’ll get there. If you’re not already familiar with the territory there’s no shame in hiring an experienced guide to get you there. You don’t want to be halfway thru it and trying to find a gas station to ask directions.