Maximizing software: When do-it-yourself isn’t the wisest move
By Carol L. Schlein
There’s an old adage, “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” In today’s environment, that sentiment also could apply to law firms that go it alone when it comes to automation.
While some lawyers and their staff can leverage the technology and successfully adapt it to their practice, they’re the exception. Business software is complex. With each new function, there’s a greater need to understand, apply and integrate it with a firm’s procedures.
A frustrated attorney recently told me he didn’t like his practice management and billing systems because they took too much time to learn and weren’t intuitive. As he vented, he added that the programs these had replaced were much simpler to use. What he failed to recognize was his comfort level with his previous billing program had been achieved over an extended period. He didn’t consider how much simpler his law practice was when he first hung his shingle. He had fewer clients and consequently fewer files to bill and manage. Earlier versions of programs were simpler because the underlying operating systems limited what could be done.
Many small law firms began using programs like Timeslips in the late 1980s or early 1990s when it was DOS-based. It’s easy today to forget how traumatic the transition was from WordPerfect 5.1 to WordPerfect 8 for Windows. Changing products can be even more disruptive. Just ask anyone who fought with staff over the decision to switch to Word. Most firms realized changing from one program to another required outside assistance, training and often customization to ensure similar functionality with the program being replaced.
In the early days of personal computers, users had to know about the operating system, autoexec and config files, installing printers and more. There were no standards for installing software. Each program had different instructions and could be especially confusing to people using one of the early networks (or “not-works” as one client called them). I was trained by vendors on the specific steps to install their software. While Windows has made things simpler, there still are tricks of the trade that don’t get set properly by network vendors who blindly install software without opening the instruction manual. Granted, software is tiny or electronic these days, but I prefer working with people who know what they’re doing.
Installing most software is generally simpler today because of the standard installer tools built into Windows. Where printer drivers and other equipment formerly required installation, modern computers automatically recognize when new hardware is attached. Many programs used at home require little or no training or instruction. We live in an “I want or need this now” environment where few expect to invest time to think about how they work or learn how to improve it. This seems to result in an unrealistic expectation about what’s involved to effectively use law office applications.
I frequently hear lawyers complain about the costs — in terms of time to learn, inputting data and the actual finances — to effectively use billing and case management products. I would be rich if I had a nickel for each time I’ve heard, “My needs are simple; isn’t there something easier that I could use to … (pick your function).” Yet, if you question them, you’ll inevitably find some things each lawyer or firm does are unique. My consulting clients often ask, “Can’t you just do the same thing for us that you did for so-and-so?” Even with similar practices, there are different intake procedures, rate policies and billing practices. Given how small the legal industry is within the software world, it’s sometimes amazing there are so many options.
If your budget is small, your time limited and your staff techno-phobic, what’s the best strategy for implementing new billing or practice management software or improving your use of existing applications?
The two most important considerations are a realistic expectation of what you can accomplish and using outside resources strategically. With billing, it’s easier to define what you want to do: Your main focus should be producing clear and timely bills. While this sounds simple, lawyers can sabotage their own business by having too many rates, billing arrangements and formats. While each client is “special,” there is no reason for as many rate levels as there are clients. Imagine walking into a store and each customer is charged a different amount for the same product. While I recognize legal services aren’t a retail commodity, we can still learn from other businesses. Billing rates, to some extent, are dependent on the practice area, local competition and types of clients. For attorneys who can set their own rates, consider a standard one, then use discounts or success fees for special circumstances, rather than different rates altogether.
Implementing practice management software is a bit trickier. Different firms, and even different attorneys within the same firm, can have different priorities about which functions to implement first. Lawyers should consider practice management software a “work in progress.” Periodically, or at least with each upgrade, review how the program is being used and make changes to better suit your needs. Most often, firms initially are overwhelmed by these products. As users better understand the relationships between the different functions and how they apply to their practice, they’re in a better position to adapt the software to their firm.
While each leading practice management and billing program is different, it’s worth investing in outside experts to do the initial set-up and design for the most effective use. Too often, I work with firms that “did it themselves.” While that may provide the product’s basic functions, firms may miss important aspects. For example, I recently worked with a firm that used Timeslips many years and had been struggling to break up its billing so it could bill major clients separately. Each month it had to select all the files to be billed for each client. Although it had been using Timeslips many years, it was not using the Custom Fields to designate which major client each file was associated with and use that for separating the monthly billing. Similarly, with practice management, I’ve seen many self-taught firms miss such important concepts as making relationships between Contacts, Cases and other records.
Often, there are simple solutions to aggravating problems. Too often, I’ve seen firms rely on their hardware vendors or someone’s relative for assistance with legal-specific software. Doing this may save money (at least initially), but will prevent firms from learning how best to adapt software for its practice. Equally frustrating is the situation where an experienced consultant has been hired, but her advice ignored. While it can seem expensive, working with a consultant often is worth the cost to avoid poor or inefficient design or procedures. Just as lawyers add value through their experience compared to “do-it-yourself” legal kits, qualified consultants are exposed to a wide variety of firms and are able to best apply and adapt products to their law firm clients.
While this may sound self-serving since I’m a legal technology consultant, I regularly help firms after they’ve tried to do things without outside help or without experienced outside help. These firms spend more time and money in the long run to rectify mistakes made when systems are not set up properly.
With the right chemistry and expectations, a law firm can leverage its staff, time and money to streamline its billing practice, improve case flow and marketing, and become more responsive to clients.
Carol L. Schlein is president of Law Office Systems in Montclair, a
training and consulting firm specializing in law firm
automation. Copies of previous columns are on her company
For information about her quarterly meetings for Time Matters
users, check the website or e-mail
formerly chaired the Computer and Technology Division of the
ABA Law Practice Management Section.
Questions for Carol L. Schlein on law office technology may be
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