As the year starts to draw to a close and planning is underway for 2015, I thought it would be fitting to look at some elements of strategic planning for law office management.
Friends and colleagues often ask why they find it difficult to figure out what law office technology they should use that will work simply and effectively for them. While I am not a technology consultant and do not purport to be one, I do have some ideas to share through my vantage point as a user, as well as someone who runs a law office.
It strikes me that the reasons for the difficulties that lawyers who run law offices face in selecting technology and infrastructure stems from the fact that, unlike in earlier times, technology applications these days are nuanced and constantly develop, with different applications for different types of users or offices.
Technological innovations are, to a significant extent, driven by the overarching trend towards cloud applications, where the move to the cloud is gradually realigning many (and I suspect, eventually, all) software applications in the legal marketplace.
As a result, there is no more “one-size-fits-all” (if there was ever one) that can work in law office technology, even for small firms.
Different law firms, comprised of legal professionals and administrative support of varying technology skills and inclinations, will prefer different types of technological setups.
Various types of practices, or combinations of them in the law firm, and the different type of clientele, will also play important factors in determining suitable technology for each firm.
The technology has to meet the needs of all legal professionals in the firm in a predictable manner. In coming up with core factors that should impact your assessment of the kind of technology and the sort of applications that would be most suitable for your firm, you should consider the following preliminary considerations:
• How flexible the technology has to be to accommodate different types of users, anticipating the evolving needs of your firm, and how experimental and “cutting edge” some or all aspects of the technological applications can be. The more the firm can look into new, cutting-edge programs, the more support and resources are likely going to be needed for ongoing adjustments and tweaking. On the other hand, new types of applications offer benefits in that they may be more innovative and advanced.
With these preliminary considerations in mind, it seems to me that lawyers who are charged with managing their firms, or recommending law office technology to others in their firms, should consider the following basic factors:
• How many legal professionals, i.e., lawyers and perhaps paralegals, is your firm comprised of? The evaluation criteria should in this respect focus on the common needs of all these legal professionals, and of the differing individual needs of legal professionals.
• How advanced are the technological skills of the legal professionals? And how inclined are the legal professionals to regularly learn new technologies and new ways of performing tasks?
As a side, note, I have found from past experience that, perhaps contrary to popular convention, age is not indicative of technological inclination. Younger professionals are not necessarily more skilled or more inclined to learn new technologies. Older professionals are not necessarily less inclined to do so. This appears to me to be much more a function of individual personalities and predispositions. I have encountered resistance from younger professionals, and have seen senior practitioners very interested in technological advances, and vice versa.
As well, different legal professionals focus on different technological advances: some are comfortable with simply e-mailing file materials to themselves to be able to work off-site, while they may look for much more advanced applications in other aspects of their practices. Others may wish to have advanced applications across the board. Still others are happy to remain as basic and bare-bone as reasonably possible in their circumstances, still dictating e-mails to their assistants to type them out, but whose assistants want to have advanced computer hardware. There are many combinations in a legal practice, mostly driven by the legal professionals and their own personal preferences and ways of doing things.
• How technologically advanced and technologically inclined are the administrative and other support staff? The same applies here: some are not interested in new technologies, while others are very excited by new advances in technological applications. Support staff are key in many legal practices. While the type of things they do has vastly changed over the decades, in many places support staff remain vital but with evolving roles. Therefore, it is important to assess their technological needs in light of their roles and their personal predispositions.
• What are the firm’s practice areas and client base? Personal injury, family law, wills and estates, real estate, civil litigation, and criminal defence are some examples of core areas that have vastly different technological needs and applications. Part of this analysis involves the clients and how involved they like to be in accessing their files.
• How integrated is the law firm? Is it mostly comprised of separate or somewhat independent legal practices with shared expenses, or are lawyers in the firm working with one another’s files in an integrated manner that requires more complex technology to allow more involved teamwork?
• How much of the “real work,” i.e., that which is billable, gets produced from the office and how much of it gets produced from professionals’ homes? Transactional lawyers seem to prefer to do the bulk of the heavy-lifting work from the office. Litigators seem to vary more on this front, depending on personal preferences. For example, where is your ideal setting to draft a complex factum — office or home? The more that work gets done from remote locations, the more mobility and remote accessibility technology is needed.
• How much IT support does your firm have, whether internally or from an outside source? The less support your firm has, the simpler and more basic the technology should be.
Perhaps these issues explain why it may be practically impossible for law firms to quickly get a one-size-fits-all technology recommendation from consultants. I do not purport to speak for consultants, and I speak as merely another user and law firm manager, and so these are observations of just one lawyer. I do hope these factors help you in your ongoing assessment of your office technology needs.