Computer Counselor - March 1999
Managing An Information Management Makeover
Experience shows how to implement improvements in the law office while staying sane
Rebecca Thompson Nagel and Daryl Teshima
Rebecca Thompson Nagel (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Daryl Teshima (email@example.com) are the editors of Law Office Computing, a bimonthly publication devoted to legal technology.
Have you ever imagined your law practice working in total harmony? Can you picture your firm as a place where everything comes together seamlessly: client information, research, financials, documents, notes? As a haven of organization, where an attorney-any attorney from any practice and any size firm-can spend his or her time pondering the merits of a case instead of frantically searching for a particular file or piece of information? Many experts agree that technology can do this for your practice, depending on the programs you choose and how you implement their use. In turn, many lawyers in search of knowledge have undergone the conversion experience of adopting a new technology, and that experience indicates that the true challenge lies in converting your firm's people, not its machines, to the new applications that best suit its needs.
Much of the new technology has unmistakable appeal. A properly exploited case management system, for example, can serve as central depository for all client and case information, linking calendar dates to documents, matters to clients, and so on. New research tools can quickly search every law book that applies to your practice area. Time and billing software can maximize your time and bottom line. Organizational peace is only a few installations away.
Or is it? Unfortunately, achieving administrative Nirvana is not as simple as loading a program onto your C: drive. Things get even more complicated when you find yourself in the position (voluntarily or not so voluntarily) of being the one who spearheads technological progress in your office. In an office of more than one person, it is not enough for one lawyer to board the information management train. Once you have chosen the means to get better organized, the question becomes how you can ensure that everyone in your office will employ them. How much training should you give users? How can you make sure at the beginning of your investment that it will pay off?
The first step in installing any program is to make sure that the computer you use meets, or better yet exceeds, the program's system requirements. "You're probably going to be using a word processor [and an] e-mail program at the same time," says Marc Fogel, a system administrator at Parker, McCay & Criscuolo in Marlton, New Jersey. "You want to make sure your machines will be able to handle all the applications."
Kathy Taylor, president of KeyPoint, which designs case management systems for criminal defense firms, agrees. "For heavy users, workstation upgrades-especially memory-will be money well spent. Minimum system requirements are just that: minimum, for light or infrequent use." Taylor suggests that firms consider hiring a consultant to help with installations. "Invest in consulting prior to installation to be certain the hardware and networks are configured correctly," she says. Because of the heavy workload involved implementing these types of systems, even firms with dedicated technical staff should consider hiring extra help during the interim.
The technological advocate's next step is to decide exactly how to implement the new software. In this area, size matters. "Many systems allow you to start out using the program by just entering the information as you go. For smaller firms or sole practitioners, this method often works well," explains Ron Collins, president of Gavel & Gown, the makers of Amicus. "For other firms, the more organized the implementation plan, the smoother the implementation will be."
A slow, segregated rollout is best for mid- to large-sized firms. "Do a pilot group first," recommends Adam Nelson, a consultant with Baker, Robbins & Company, which is based in Chicago. "[Use] a small pilot group with 5 to 10 people with representatives for everything. Don't involve everyone at first-it will get too crazy." Once your pilot group has worked with the system for a while, Nelson recommends that you hold a design workshop. "Get everyone in a room, and find out what they like-do they want matter names to appear a certain way?-then go back to the vendor and have them customize it," he says.
Training is a good idea for small and large firms alike. After all, everyone needs to use the system regularly in order for your firm to reap its benefits, and people will not use it if they do not know how. The type of training and the amount depends on the firm. Holly Bishop, a partner in a three-person firm in Tennessee, had a certified consultant stay at the firm for a day to help her set up a case management system. "They spent a full day with us, working with me. It saved us a lot of time trying to do it ourselves," Bishop acknowledges, "and the security of having a consultant telling me that I was doing things right was nice."
Other offices opt for a more concentrated approach, such as shutting down the firm for two or three days to focus solely on training. However, for most firms, a complete shutdown is not an option. Fogel's 115 users were treated to regularly scheduled five-hour training classes spread over two weeks. In these sessions, trainees were required to fill out worksheets-in other words, do homework-using sample databases provided on their desktops. Upon completing this training successfully, the system was activated on the user's desktop. Fogel also made sure plenty of help was on hand when the software was fully implemented. "We provided floor support to walk around the first week and help people," he says.
Nelson recommends this approach. "You need to have the vendor and IS people working together. You can't do it for more than a few days or a week-it's just too taxing on the IS staff-but it's very helpful in solving those initial problems," he says. For Fogel, this training was crucial in successfully implementing their system. "Legal secretaries will no doubt find a way to make things work, but it might not be the best way," he explains. "You have to let staff know they're not alone."
Getting everyone to use the technology is the hardest hurdle to overcome for most firms. For six months to a year after implementing the software, your job will be not only to get your users familiar with the system but to get them to believe in it. In the meantime, you must continue to hold on to your faith, no matter how frustrating the interim.
When the transitional ride is at its roughest, management support becomes crucial. With "a top-down, management push in which the managing partner says, 'You will all be using the [technology],' you create a situation in which even the recalcitrant will sign on," Bill Bice, president of ProLaw, explains. "And if the pilot group has done its job-it is enthusiastic, excited, informed, and helpful-the transition becomes less of an ordeal and more of a cooperative effort."
Every successful installation has an "in-house advocate and cheerleader," says KeyPoint's Taylor. "Then it can take up to six months to gain everyone's support. Without an advocate, it might take longer." The biggest decision that the technological advocate faces after implementation is how and when to let go of the old system. For users and management alike it is a scary day when the safety net offered by legacy systems is removed. "There are two schools of thought," says Nelson. "You can roll it out slowly, or you can make everyone use it. It's kind of a paradox: the only person who can hand that kind of edict down is the managing partner, but that person may be the least likely to want to use [the new system]. You have to look at your firm culture to see what will work best." Fogel supports the slow approach. "It's helpful to do it slowly. It's less stressful if users ease themselves into it."
William Go, directing attorney for Go & Associates, a Bakersfield, California-based prepaid legal services company, disagrees with Fogel, stating he tried it that way and it did not work. "The three people we trained had to become the goodwill ambassadors. One by one they had to woo users away from the old system," he recalls. "If I had to do it again, I wouldn't train people and beg them to use it-I'd threaten them with death so we'd have no holdouts!"
One Tampa, Florida, attorney had no problem getting his users to abandon their old system-he simply took it off the network. "When we shifted to a calendaring system, people weren't using it, so we said that on Friday at 5 p.m., one lawyer would go around and gather all the paper calendars and throw them out," recalls managing partner Alan Wagner. "We did the same thing with Rolodexes. If the old system is still around, it's too easy not to use the new system."
The Inevitable Setbacks
Whichever approach you choose, realize that there will be a transition period in which your firm will become frustrated with users and vendor alike. Instead of turning away from your vendor, get the vendor to help you through the transition, advises Taylor. "Vendors should provide solutions," she says. "Vendors have heard most of the questions many times before, so chances are high the vendor can give fast solutions to a majority of the questions."
Taylor also suggests that advocates of computer progress inform vendors which system the firm is replacing. "Vocabulary can be a problem. Vendors should learn the old system terminology, then translate it to help the new user transition," she explains. "Everyone needs to be flexible."
Finally, one day, all your hard work as technology's advocate will start to reap its rewards. "The big payday comes when you have all the information for your practice immediately at your fingertips," says Bob Butler, technical director and cofounder of DataTXT, makers of Time Matters. "Depending on how busy the firm is, this typically takes from three to nine months."
Besides productivity increases and quicker information retrieval, properly implemented technology can give lawyers a new perspective on their practice. For example, applications such as case management systems and time and billing packages can summarize firm data better than a room full of accounting clerks and paralegals. "The biggest benefits come from the output: reports, reports, reports," says Taylor. "Management reports, caseload analysis, calendar, and more." You may also see a financial benefit. Go & Associates uses its new Gryphon case management system to attract new clients. "It's a tool in getting new business," Go says. "It makes us look better than our competition."