Appy Lawyering

A favourite quote of mine is by Fred Bartlit at the 1994 ABA Techshow

We experiment with software. We buy, we try, we fail. The key to making it all pay off is in the re-engineering process — that is starting off with a blank slate and working from there.

With evaluation periods becoming commonplace, maybe Fred would now say, “we try, we buy, we fail”. Regardless, desktop and smartphone apps are now so abundant and relatively inexpensive that it is all too easy to head down a path of dependance on a program without realising it.

While your main selection criteria for software is likely to be how it personally empowers you as a lawyer, also consider before investing too much of your time, as to how it fits into the future plans for your practice and this new age of “sharing”. At the July, 2010, Innovation+IT Conference for Inhouse Lawyers, Sean Simmons, GC for Oz internet intermediator, suggested that the problem with social media for lawyers, is that we are anti-social. He said that the idea of being social is sharing. Lawyers are bad at sharing

With that in mind, and if you wish to grow, or to eventually sell your practice, you might be wise to invest in tools that facilitate sharing of both the workload and the output with your colleagues and clients.

The problem might then become that you are too far ahead of everyone else. It’s all very well using IT to help you build up your legal business when it is just you, but if you are not careful it can lead you into a dead end. This might be as soon as you need an assistant, another lawyer or to operate collaboratively with colleagues and clients, assuming that cloning-yourself is not an option, just yet.

Technology-based concepts such as “cloud computing”, “electronic lodgement” and the “paperless office” sound easy, but implementing them is another thing. But you might be at an advantage if you are small and starting from scratch.

Consider a large Oz bank who argued that it would take them 5 years to implement electronic lodgement of property title information. For them, it would involve:

  • acquiring scanners to replace photocopiers;
  • developing workflow procedures;
  • dealing with new issues such as image resolution, image format and image viewers;
  • developing file naming and saving conventions etc.; and
  • re-training staff on new procedures, tools and raw materials.

Fax machines still persists in law firms long after they should because it is a similar, but far simpler technology. Those of us who have been using IT for years forget that we have absorbed a lot of IT-knowhow over time. In my case, a long time. It is not yet possible to pass it on in one digestible tablet. These things can take years, it seems, especially if you are a large organisation.

Finding staff that can effortlessly keep up with you, and your toolset, may be a challenge. So it is not going to help if your tools don’t scale beyond single-user, or deal with data in a way that doesn’t allow it to be shared.

Worse news might be ahead if you then try to sell your practice. A few years ago, the former BigLaw partner who had turned solo and was a heavy user of IT, confided that when it came time for him to retire, he would simply turn out the lights, and close the door behind him. While all his matters were on his computer, and his computer alone, and no one else could easily step into his place and drive it. It was ironical that his use of IT was so great that it presented a barrier to succession, and to a rewarding sale of his practice. I.e. someone with little IT, lots of paper files, and a secretary would have a better chance of selling the practice. While less profitable, in this case, the old style of legal practice was more tangible to sell. The “system” was not totally dependent on him.

If, instead he had used a complete Practice Management System (PMS) to its fullest, one that incorporates the capture and re-use of processes and other knowhow such as research he would have found it much easy to pass on the baton.

Like artisans, solos can gather a suite of their favourite tools which greatly empower them. Traps can include:

  1. Data not easily shared among the tools so there is re-keying which leads to errors,
  2. Data not in a format that is easily shared with other staff, or clients,
  3. Only one person at a time can use the tool to work on the data.

Like operating system developers such as Apple who must relish all those App developers who show the way for future system enhancements, PMS developers have no shortage of proven enhancements they can add to the more traditional feature sets. While their features might not be as glamourous, they should aim to make up for it by making the feature more “shareable”, and “systematisable”. Using such PMS tools will result in a practice that scales and can be passed on.

Striking that happy balance between the “Law Factory” and the craftsman’s workshop will be the challenge, particularly as you will be competing increasingly with some highly capitalised, well managed and cleverly marketed legal service providers, along with other law firms.

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