SC Lawyer, March 2004, #5. Bringing order out of chaos.

AuthorBy Kevin Bell

South Carolina Lawyer


SC Lawyer, March 2004, #5.

Bringing order out of chaos

South Carolina LawyerMarch 2004Bringing order out of chaosBy Kevin BellWhile most law firms realize that technology changes rapidly, few are prepared to systematically evaluate technology and manage the process of change.

Most attorneys are focused on practicing law and would prefer to let someone else worry about the firm's technology. Unfortunately, the firm that fails to manage its technology may find itself wasting time and operating inefficiently. Since time truly is money for a law firm, no firm can afford waste or inefficiency. This article is about lessons learned the hard way and pitfalls to avoid as law firms manage changing technology.

Over the course of a weekend in August 2002, Robinson, McFadden & Moore moved into new offices and opened up our first satellite office, went live with all new computer hardware, a new word processing program, a new time and billing system, new remote access and direct faxing and a new, integrated case management system. While the physical move was daunting, the overhaul of our computer technology presented the greatest challenge.

Creating and implementing a process for evaluating workflow, assessing needs, selecting a vendor and implementing the new technology are all part of the process, but so is overcoming the natural human tendency to resist change. Successful change depends upon an atmosphere that supports change. Creating that atmosphere is critical.

Have a representative group study what the firm is doing now

Many technology changes fail because the people who use the system are not firmly in control of the outcome. Avoid this mistake by having both attorneys and support staff involved in deciding the direction the firm's technology will take. We formed a committee, headed by an attorney, but that included administrative and technical support staff, to create and oversee the process of needs evaluation, vendor selection and implementation of a new system. Everyone had a chance to be heard at every step in the process.

After a committee is formed, the first step is to find out what and how work is done. Don't guess at what staff are doing, how they are doing it and what would make it better. Ask them, watch them and then analyze what is seen and heard.

Our investigation revealed that our firm did not have a unified system for managing case documents and work flow. Over the years the firm had acquired an eclectic array of standalone products that did not "talk" to each other. Despite the creative, best efforts of all to make do, it became clear that everyone really had his own filing and calendaring system. The two dozen or so discrete systems of supreme logic that had evolved made accessing even routine word processing documents from a file supervised by a different partner difficult, if not impossible. In reality, even those who felt they had a good system only had a system that was as good as could be expected without an interface between the data and the end user.

Decide what the firm needs based on the input from users

Before calling in vendors, take time to define the firm's objectives. Starting from what we knew did not work, our committee proceeded to gather information about what mattered to people who would be using the system; researched the current state of the art in standalone products and case management technology; separated features and capabilities into "must haves", "would be nice" and "do not need"; and set our objectives.

The most critical need was to replace or integrate the separate legacy systems for calendaring, contact and file management so that all network users could easily access all information related to a file, especially a file that they did not work on routinely. In our case, integrated also meant integrated at the most basic level such that all parts of the network would flow from a single source supported by a single vendor. If things go wrong, a firm should have one vendor to call. Other vendors may need to be brought in, but only under the management and responsibility of the primary vendor.

After our investigation, we determined that our objective was to implement an integrated system, preferably from a single vendor that provided:

* consistency in the way data was stored;

* integrated data types (word processing, e-mail and calendar);

* integrated primary network components;

* support for enhanced remote access, direct...

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