[NOTE: This is another in the series of repostings of my previously-published articles. I wrote this article in January 2004 for the ABA’s GP Solo Magazine. Please note that parts of this article are dated, but I’ve not updated it to give you a sense of history. This article sets out several of my key principles in making legal technology decisions.]
To Tech or Not to Tech? Important Questions (and Answers) for Your Practice
Hamlet, in Act III, Scene 1, delivers these immortal lines:
To tech, or not to tech: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The crashes and reboots of outrageous operating systems,
Or to take arms against a sea of software glitches,
And by opposing delete them?
Or he might have, if the play was written now and set in a small law practice.
Trying to make good technology decisions has left many otherwise skilled and confident lawyers feeling like TechnoHamlets – seeing and speaking with ghosts and making friends and colleagues wonder about their sanity.
However, it doesn’t have to be that way. This article will show you how to think about systems and technology and give you a solid foundation upon which to build a framework for making good decisions about legal technology.
Technology is both a tool and an investment. As does any good craftsperson, we must try to find tools that are both the right tool for the job and of sufficient quality to give us a good return on our work.
A Story of Technology as Both Tool and Investment.
My wife’s brother went back to law school at the age of 40 after working in the real estate and art gallery businesses in the San Francisco area. He wanted to open his own law firm from day one. We had a number of telephone conversations about what computer and software he needed when he started, primarily focusing on a laptop computer and speech recognition software. He would ask me about specs, memory, screen size, percentage accuracy of the programs, and the like. After a while, we seemed to be returning to the same questions without getting a decision made.
Finally, I asked him what he really wanted to do with a laptop and speech recognition software. It turned out that, as a practical matter, he could expect to pay about $4,000 (about the price of the computer and software at the time) a month to hire a good legal secretary. He didn’t know whether he could make enough in the first months to pay the secretary, let alone leave anything for himself.
Now, we were on track. If the only thing the laptop and speech recognition software did for him was to delay the need to hire a secretary for a few months, buying them would be a good investment. In fact, he bought himself nine months. That’s $36,000 of value for a $4,000 investment in just nine months, not a bad return. He has told me several times that my “advice” made all the difference in getting his business off the ground.
I don’t think that I gave him “advice.” I simply asked the right question. When you ask the right questions, the answers get a lot easier. What I want to teach you is how to ask the right questions about technology.
The Right Questions.
The question whether “to tech or not to tech” is one of the right questions, but, properly understood, it is a question that comes later in the process.
There’s a great scene in my favorite science fiction TV series, Babylon 5, where one of the main characters is suspended in a state between life and death, bathed in waves of light, with disembodied voices asking repeatedly, “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” Because the character can answer those questions with clarity and authenticity, he goes on to fulfill his great destiny.
“Who are you?” “What do you want?” It really doesn’t get much more basic than that. However, these are pretty deep questions to answer when you really thought that your question was “should I get an inkjet printer or a laser printer?” My argument is simply that the better the answers you have to these two questions, the better decisions you can make about technology.
Here’s the Key.
You must choose technology on the basis of whether it helps you be who you are and do what you want better than the other alternatives that you are considering.
There are several consequences of this approach. First, my best technology choices will not be your best technology choices. Second, although you should listen to advice and recommendations, the final decision must be your decision. Third, this approach forces you to think of technology as both a tool and an investment.
Do Not Separate Technology From Systems.
Lawyers create and are creatures of systems. A law practice incorporates a large number of systems. There are systems for:
- Running your office (Workflow management, operations and procedures, hiring and training, accounting and financial, planning and continuity)
- Getting clients (Contact management, marketing materials, follow-up, client intake, engagement letters)
- Serving clients (Project and workflow management, procedures, filing, forms, calendaring and docketing)
- Getting paid (Fee setting, timekeeping, billing and collections, banking and trust account, procedures)
- Complying with rules (Conflict checking, confidentiality, calendaring and docketing, recordkeeping, training and CLE, taxes)
It’s no wonder you are so tired at the end of the day. There’s plenty of work involved in creating and maintaining systems before you even get to the practice of law stuff.
I have two core principles about systems:
1. You always have a system, but it may not be the one you want.
2. Your systems should work for you, not against you.
We all know lawyers who use the following “system” for locating notes, correspondence and documents. Every piece of paper is stacked in tall piles on desktop, credenza, office chairs and floor. When something is needed, the lawyer digs through the papers until frustrated and then calls in a secretary who assists in going through the piles until the document is found or another emergency arises.
This is, in fact, a system for retrieving needed documents. Is it a good one? Is it an efficient one? Is it one that the lawyer would have designed or ever have intended?
Technology in Proper Context.
Technology must always be viewed within the context of your existing systems. Thinking about technology outside this context will lead you in the wrong direction. Unless you consider how a technology fits into this context, you cannot read reviews in a meaningful way and lists of “editor’s picks” may lead you to unsuccessful purchases.
Consider the previous example of a “system.” The question of whether the lawyer should buy one brand or another is not useful. The “best” scanner is the one that will hold the highest pile of papers stacked on it when it is treated as another storage space. The better question is: does any scanner make any sense in this type of system or are there better options?
If you want to implement any technology, the introduction of the new technology must do one of two things:
1. It must implement a better system; or
2. It must improve an existing system.
If it will, it makes sense to proceed. It’s as simple as that. Even a technophile like me will admit that in certain cases a technology solution may not be the best approach.
Technology is only a tool; it is not a panacea. As a practical matter, technology simply enhances the habits and skills you already have. Technology does not magically give you new skills. Speech recognition only makes it easier to get your words into a document; it does not magically make you a better writer.
It all comes back to the basic question: does the technology help you be who you are and do what you want? If the answer is that you want to be a better writer, speech recognition will not be as good an option as some non-technological efforts. If, on the other hand, you want to be able to launch a practice with minimal expenditures and only bring in a secretary when you feel that you need one, then speech recognition makes a great deal of sense.
Two Big Roadblocks.
Most lawyers are aware of only a tiny fraction of the choices available today. For example, did you know that there are more than one hundred “case management” programs? Often, a lawyer or firm will be trying to decide between the lesser of two evils when there are better choices available that they haven’t heard about. The list of resources at the end of this article will help you with this roadblock.
You will also get a lot of well-intentioned misinformation about legal technology. People recommend using Linux instead of Windows to a lawyer who barely knows what a mouse is. People will warn lawyers away from newer versions of software or installing updates and patches (a security problem just waiting to happen), lead them to obscure programs, and draw conclusions from setups that are outdated or clearly inadequate. In simplest terms, they are giving you generic information that does not take into account your specific needs or the context of your systems. The result is that you learn that what works best for them doesn’t work out so well for you.
Think about the practice of law. A client comes to you and asks whether they should form a C corporation or an LLC. The best response is to ask, “What do you want to do?” To answer, “I heard that some people had some kind of tax problem with C corporations a few years ago so I tell people never to use them,” probably is not a good approach to the practice of law or helping your client.
Key Variables to Consider.
Some factors are especially important in making technology decisions and your needs in these areas can have a dramatic impact on the choices you should consider.
Solo / Solo with Staff / Small firm. The type and number of users will have a huge impact on your choices. If your practice consists of just you, you can look at much simpler choices over a longer period of time. As soon as you move to two users, you must consider networking, training and standardization of software.
Litigation or Not. I do not see how you can be a litigator and not use a laptop computer. Because litigation software, such as CaseMap and Summation, can be so valuable, you will need to devote time to learning more software options. Projectors, wireless access, PowerPoint and other “options” may well become necessities.
At Desk All Day or Not. If you are an at-the-desk lawyer, PDAs and cell phones are much lower priorities.
Volume of Work. This factor may be the most important one of all. The cost of replacement cartridges for an inkjet printer will eat you alive if you print thousands and thousands of copies a month. If you have a small number clients, you may well be able to run your accounting with a spreadsheet. If you have a lot of clients, a range of rates and lots of matters, you probably have to go with a legal accounting package. Asking “how often will I use this?” is an essential part of hardware decisions in particular.
Your Priorities. It could well be that who you are and what you want will be the lawyer who has the coolest gadgets. It might be that you want to reach jurors with a simple, plain-spoken style rather than thrill them with the latest thing in multimedia. Don’t ignore who you are.
Area of Practice and Client Needs. In some areas of practice, there may be standard technologies that everyone uses. Some lawyers have told me that to make a decent living in family law these days, you need to automate to the greatest extent that you can. Similarly, you may have clients who require that you provide documents in certain formats, have ready access to e-mail, or implement security measures.
Twelve Tips, Observations and Recommendations.
Because this article argues that a one-size-fits-all approach is never appropriate in making legal technology decisions, I hesitated before setting out a list of general comments. However, I do want leave you with some practical pointers.
1. Even the least expensive of today’s computers is a rocket ship compared to the computers of even a year or two ago. Don’t limp along with old, slow computers. Four corners not to cut in configuring a new computer are: memory (RAM), hard disk capacity, number of USB ports and CD or DVD burners.
2. The new generation of high-capacity external hard drives offers the best inexpensive backup solution we have seen so far.
3. A laptop now makes sense as the primary computer for all attorneys. It is essential for today’s litigator.
4. Windows XP Professional is the operating system of choice for lawyers in the Microsoft world.
5. For any firm putting in a network, the new low price of Windows Small Business Server ($750, or less when bundled with a server) make it a must-consider option to get standard networking capabilities, including remote access, at an affordable price.
6. Volume discounts for many software programs, including Microsoft programs, can be obtained for as few as 5 users and some consultants can offer you programs to roll hardware, software and consulting costs into a monthly payment option.
7. While Microsoft Office 2003, Small Business Version, might be the best option for small firm lawyers, there are now free alternatives such as OpenOffice that may work in your situation.
8. If you are prepared to do a little more research and go off the well-worn path, Macintoshes and Open Source software represent very acceptable non-Microsoft alternatives and no lawyer should dismiss them out of hand.
9. With the advent of electronic filing, a PDF creation program should now be considered essential software. The gold standard is Adobe Acrobat (Writer, not just Reader), but cheaper alternatives are available.
10. If you have a laptop computer, you should have a wireless card (802.11b or 802.11g) or Intel Centrino technology to take advantage of wireless Internet hotspots at airports, hotels and restaurants.
11. If you are not installing Windows security updates and updates for other programs, running an updated antivirus program, and using a hardware or software firewall (ZoneAlarm is free), you might as well turn on a big neon “welcome” sign to the bad guy hackers.
12. Take a class in any program you use on a regular basis.
So . . . what should you do when you finish this article? Take a few minutes to think about your technology and your systems. Then take the following actions over the next week or so:
- Do enough research to find 3 or 4 software programs you did not know about that can be used in your specific areas of practice.
- Inventory and make a quick assessment of your current technology and systems.
- Look back at one significant technology decision you made in the past and reevaluate it using the principles outlined in this article and write down the lessons you learn.
- Identify one or two technology options that have been on your mind and apply the principles outlined in this article as you make your decisions about them.
“To tech or not to tech” is only part of the question. Technology should not be seen as an area of bewildering complexity. Instead, treat it as both a tool and an investment. Fit your technology into the context of your existing systems and only make decisions that result in either the implementation of a better system or the improvement of an existing system. If you do so, you will come closer to the goal of having your technology enable you to work the way you want rather than force you to work the way it wants.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
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