After I wrote my previous post about my recent ABA Journal column on law firm technology committees, I went back to see what I had done for the 2006 webinar I did on my top ten tips for tech committees. It turns out that the slides I did were very visual (in the Beyond Bullet Points style), so it doesn’t make sense to post them. However, I did find the handout I did for the session, which I write in an article format. As best I can tell (or remember), it hasn’t been published before outside the actual webinar. I decided that I should post it on my blog as a companion to the earlier column. And because I don’t like the idea of a good article not being available to the public, It appears below. I didn’t edit it, so there might be some 2006-ish outdated references, but it still should work pretty well. Your feedback will be appreciated.
Dennis Kennedy’s Top Ten Tips for Technology Committees
It might be a question: “Would you like to be on the firm’s technology committee?” It might be an assignment: “We’ve put you on the firm’s technology committee?” But, however it starts, one day you find yourself on your law firm’s tech committee. Maybe you even find that you are chairing it.
You know a few things right away. First, you won’t see anything extra in the pay envelope for this mission. Second, this appointment probably has more to do with the fact that you seem to know your way around a computer more so than you know what is required to meet the technology needs of a law firm. Third, based on my experience, you will quickly find that a word like “paucity” seems quite appropriate to describe the resources that are available to help you learn about your assignment.
The technology needs and goals of law firms can vary dramatically, depending on the size of the firm, areas of practice, firm culture and other factors. A firm’s historical experience with technology can have a dramatic impact many years after a negative experience, and every firm has at least one horrifying bad technology experience in its history. It’s also the case that technology committees often get started in response to a problem. They also get started and continue to exist in an effort to bridge the large and growing communication gap between lawyers and IT staff.
With that in mind, I wanted to draw upon my own experience on technology committees and working with and talking to many lawyers on tech committees to offer my top ten tips for technology committees and lawyers on technology committees. These are not “cure-alls.” They are not even specific things that you must do. However, they will help you have better success with your committee experience, improve the technology situation at your firm and make your life a little easier.
1. On the Same Page: Know Your Starting Point.
Quite probably the most illuminating question that a technology committee, or a new member of a committee, can ask is: “How many computers does the firm own?” A simple question, but it is the rare firm that can come up with the answer with any certainty. Follow up that question with: “Do we have enough licenses of the software we use to cover all of those computers?”
These two questions will give you a sense of how tight a ship your firm is running and how well you know what you are dealing with.
A technology committee works best when it works with facts that are known. It’s hard enough to predict the future in technology, but it’s impossible to do so if you don’t start from what is known with certainty.
It’s vital to get everyone on the committee on the same page and working with actual facts. Tech committee meetings can quickly run off-target with all kinds of speculation. When you try to work without specific facts, your chance of wasting time go way up and your chances of making good decisions go down.
Recommendations: Nobody likes the word “audit,” but the fact is that some form of regular technology audit is a baseline requirement for any law firm technology committee. The potential savings from identifying unused, expensive and unnecessary resources alone will make these efforts worthwhile. The benefits you get from having committee members on the same page will pay off many times over.
2. Diversity Matters: Get the Right Mix of People.
The first technology committee I was on had a managing partner of the firm, the office manager, the IT director (in our case, she was the whole IT department), me (in the role of the lawyer who is very knowledgeable about technology and can act as the go-between the IT people and the lawyers), and an outside consultant who was helping us with big projects. This approach worked extremely well.
The second tech committee I was on, at a different firm, had perhaps a dozen people, including the IT director, but no executive committee members or outside consultants. It worked, but not nearly as effectively, in my opinion, and there was a tendency to talk about some topics over and over for months and months.
As a result, I tend to favor smaller committees rather than larger committees, but I do recommend that there be enough diversity. By diversity, I mean representation in various categories of job functions, practice areas, and points of view. Although it is important to have people on the committee who “get” technology, it is more important have people on the committee who understand the culture, practices and business of the firm. The larger your committee gets, the more diverse you want it to be. Be very open to including young lawyers. I like to suggest that you consider adding the least tech-savvy lawyer in your firm. It gives you both an opportunity to educate this lawyer and an important reality check on what technology might really work in your firm.
Tech committees, even more so than hiring committees, are a good assignment for senior associates in the year of two before they are up for partnership consideration. It’s a great way to see how they work with people and test their business judgment in a real world setting.
Recommendations: If you have a large committee, consider slimming it down or even moving to a smaller executive committee that uses the full committee as a sounding board. Look for representation from each of the constituencies and categories in your firm on the committee. Consider business judgment of a member to be at least as important as technical knowledge. Don’t be afraid to bring the most knowledgeable people into the committee, even if they are young, associates, paralegals or even staff.
3. Decision-maker on Board: Who Must Be on Your Committee?
I once read that the best question to ask about project management is “Who gets to say that the project is done?” A powerful question, because if that person is not involved and invested in the project, its chances of success diminish greatly.
When your tech committee meets, is the person who makes the ultimate decision sitting at that table? In my first tech committee, the necessary decision-maker was at the table and things got done. If the necessary decision-maker is not at the table, you end up with more of an intellectual exercise.
There are different approaches on this issue. Tech committees can work quite well if the tech committee chair has the ear of the necessary decision-maker, but I prefer to see the decision-makers sitting at the table.
Recommendations: Ask the question. Do you have the necessary people at the table? If you include the IT director, office manager and a managing partner or member of the executive committee, you probably will have a very productive tech committee.
4. One Solid Strategy: A Prudent Portfolio Approach.
When I write or speak about legal technology trends each year, I can easily list ten or twenty (or more) important trends in legal technology. Lawyers and staff in your firm will always be bringing you more ideas. If you read the resources in legal technology, you can add even more items to your list.
From that, you might easily generate hundreds of potential projects. What you must do is the align technology projects with the firm’s business goals and mesh technology with what is needed to support the practice areas of the firm and help lawyers provide excellent work to satisfied and happy clients. That’s easier said than done, of course, and it’s easy to go down the path of doing technology for technology’s sake, because it’s cool, everybody else is doing it or one of many other justifications.
It’s also easy to “stick to your knitting” and only focus on conservative projects that relate to IT infrastructure and leave your lawyers literally years behind current versions of today’s software. Most law firms are reluctant to try any novel and creative (i.e., risky) IT projects.
If we look to the finances services sector and the Nobel Prize winning modern portfolio theory, we can find some answers. In modern portfolio theory, the focus is on diversification of assets, investing in a basket of assets that combine all categories of risk and reward. The learning in modern portfolio theory is that, paradoxically, investing only in the “safest” class of assets may be the most “risky” course you can take. For example, if you invest in low-interest, AAA long-term bonds (very safe) and go through a period of high inflation, your “safe” investment was not safe at all.
As a result, the prudent approach is not simply to focus on low-risk, low-return investments, but to diversify. Adding a portion of higher-risk, higher-return assets is, in fact, the safest move to make, especially in the long term. We then establish the appropriate mix of investments in line with our investment personality, risk tolerance and short-term vs. long-term needs.
If we move this notion over to technology committees, we see that a prudent technology committee will develop a strategy that begins to look like a mixed portfolio. This approach will help a firm develop a mix of projects that will help balance failed projects (and there will be some) and position the firm to exploit wise bets on newer technologies, rather than always focusing on infrastructure and being reactive.
Recommendations: Do a quick assessment of your firm’s priorities and projects by assessing them to the appropriate risk/reward categories and see how diversified your portfolio really is. Start to address any imbalance. Consider the difference between “prudent” and cautious. Use the portfolio approach in connection with the idea of business alignment to make some experiments in technologies, especially those that appeal to clients, and that might have some risk, but may pay off very well in the long-term.
5. Measure Results: Determine What is Working.
In most firms, a technology project will get done (and, in some case, will never get done), and the firm will move on. It is rare to see a firm that measures results on technology projects. What was the initial budget? What did it really cost? What was promised? What was delivered? Everyone likes to talk about return on investment (ROI) to justify a new project, but are you willing to compare the projected ROI with the real ROI.
At least a modest amount of measure and assessment is vital for technology committees. You want to operate from facts, not speculation, and definitely not from rosy memories. In some tech committee meetings, people will remember unmitigated disasters as successful projects. Show me the numbers.
I’m suggesting that you need detailed financial evaluations. I’m looking for some back of the envelope calculations that I can use as rules of thumb for future projects. If I know that it invariably takes twice as long as estimated to do a project in house, for example, then I can make a better-informed decision about outsourcing.
Ultimately, you want to approve of projects that have similar characteristics to other successful projects and not approve, or pull the plug on, projects that have similar characteristics to unsuccessful projects. By focusing on facts and the real numbers, a technology can do more good in this area than anywhere else and, as a side benefit, eliminate interminable discussions based on speculation and vague memories of other projects.
Recommendations: Take a recent project and calculate an estimated ROI on it. Identify one recent successful project and one unsuccessful project and see if you can identify the distinguishing characteristics. Look at a few ongoing projects and compare estimated costs to actual costs.
6. Tools for Lawyers: Aligning with a Firm’s Core Business.
When I was a young associate, new to the job, I got up the courage one morning to talk to a managing partner and make the case why I felt that I needed a computer on my desk and that, otherwise, I simply did not have the tools I needed to do my job. A year later . . . I had an old Wang word processing terminal on my desk and was as happy as could be and was the envy of other associates and a few partners.
A significant portion of my legal career was spent as a partner in a law firm. My point of view reflects that.
I often say that there have been three stages in legal technology. In the first, the needs of the staff (word processing, et al) were the key factor. In the most recent stage, the needs of the IT department (network stability, standardization, et al) took center stage. In the third stage, the focus is on what tools do lawyers need to do their work in a way that is most responsive to clients and efficient and easy for lawyers.
The core business of most law firms is to generate optimal income from the fee-earners. Too often, I see that take a second seat to standardization and conservative approaches. For example, there is now a current trend to move lawyers away from notebook computers back to desktop computers to save a few dollars and make it easier for IT departments to maintain computers, despite the push from clients and others toward mobile computing. Ask a lawyer at a firm of any size how difficult it would be to get a Tablet PC.
A big part of the role of a tech committee is to represent and convey the needs of the working lawyer.
Recommendations: Determine whether you would characterize your firm as in the first, second or third stage of legal technology. Remind yourself to ask follow-up questions whenever the concerns and wishes of lawyers are summarily over-ridden. Determine in what ways new technology projects makes the work of lawyers easier or harder.
7. It’s Good to Ask: Client Surveys and Client-focus.
I’ve also talked about a fourth stage of legal technology – the era of client-driven technology. Here, the initiative for technology change comes from clients and technology is chosen because of its impact on clients. This means that technology should make it easier for the client to work with and stay with the firm.
At this point, it’s quite rare to see fourth stage law firms, but there are a growing number of examples. However, it is growing increasingly common to see significant push from clients on their firms to move the firms toward client-facing technologies. E-billing and extranets are two common examples.
As you probably know, clients were responsible for the sea change that occurred when the vast majority of firms switched from WordPerfect to Microsoft Word as the primary word processing software. I have talked with many clients of law firms who are frustrated by incompatibilities, difficulties and other problems in using technology to communicate, work and collaborate with law firms.
At the same time, these clients, in many cases, are willing to work with law firms to improve the technology tools and arrive at common platforms. Almost all would respond to a technology survey.
If there is a single item that should be on every technology committee’s agenda, it would be this area of client-driven technology.
Recommendations: Put this topic on the agenda for your next meeting. Ask all lawyers what they are hearing from their clients on this topic. Consider creating and using a technology survey, possibly even in conjunction with new client engagement letters.
8. Less is Better than More: Focusing Your Agenda.
You can easily have too many items on your agenda. If you feel like there are too many issues to cover, it’s probably because there are too many issues to cover.
Tech committee agendas can be very frustrating. It’s rare to make it through the whole list. Topics like document retention policies and technology use policies might initially be allocated a ten minute segment and you may still be discussing them months later.
Your best approach is to pick a few main areas to address for a given year and make those a priority. Forget about covering every potential topic. Find some that will provide the most benefit and concentrate on doing them really well.
Recommendations: Try to reach a consensus, or at least a majority vote, on the three big issues you want to address. You can change them later if you need to. It does make sense to see what your competitors and clients are focusing on. In 2006 and probably for several more years, electronic discovery should be one of the big agenda items.
9. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask: Getting Outside Help.
As I mentioned, our outside technology consultant sat in our technology committee meetings. He was there as a sounding board and a way to give us a reality check. He also understood what our concerns were, the business issues we wanted to address and the ways lawyers worked.
The approach of using an outside tech consultant is relatively unusual, but the use of outside advice is quite common. Unfortunately, it tends to be word of mouth and very anecdotal. I’ve seen major project plans scuttled at the last minute because someone talked to a brother-in-law’s friend whose company might have tried something similar and it was a disaster. In other cases, law firms in a given city all may use the same programs because everyone heard that some other firm used it. Is that the best way to make decisions?
Based on my experience, getting expert outside help for your committee on a project basis or an ongoing basis is an attractive way to go. In our case, we got expert advice, a reality test and an education about technology and our options. Many of the legal technology consultants I know are excellent educators. Other benefits include knowledge of many software and hardware options, standards and practices in the industry, and access to other experts and vendors.
There are a number of approaches to take along these lines. I would suggest that you either hire someone who will be independent and not bidding on future projects or you simply invite your current outside consultant to the meetings.
IT people often lament that they simply are not aware of all of the legal software options and, increasingly, hosted services for legal applications.
Recommendations: Give this option careful consideration. This approach benefits both lawyers and IT directors and staff. Ask your IT director whether this approach might be helpful. Consider the knowledge of the legal technology vendors that your firm has and the access it has to high-level executives at legal technology vendors. If you have communications issues between lawyers and IT, especially if there are questions about competence and direction, this approach will be an important one to consider.
10. Preventing Surprises: This is Job #1.
I wanted my last tip to sum up in two words everything I have learned about law firm technology committees over the years. I wanted to describe what I thought the main purpose of these committees is.
My answer is: “preventing surprises.”
We’ve reached a point where people expect technology to be stable, to do what they expect and, frankly, to do almost anything. That’s because on the Internet and in other industries, people use technology routinely to do things that seem magical.
Lawyers and other employees look to a tech committee to make sure that they are not surprised by changes in the ways they do their work. Managers look to the tech committee to make good recommendation and bring important issues to their attention so that there are no surprises, financial or otherwise. IT departments look to tech committees to make sure that they are focused on the right priorities and that they are not surprised to find that they have been heading in the wrong direction.
In large part, the primary role of a tech committee and a tech committee member is to improve the level of communication about technology among all constituent groups in a law firm. In part, the role is one of education. In part, the role is one of a visionary. In part, the role is one of a hard-headed realist with an eye on the business of the firm and the bottom line.
If you tell a manager partner or executive committee that the only thing you will accomplish with your tech committee is to prevent surprises, they will be very happy indeed.
Recommendations: Begin implementing the previous nine tips. Look for surprises. Be willing to surface issues before they become problems. Talk to and listen to all constituencies in your firm.
Putting together a technology committee or serving on a technology committee can be difficult and you may have difficulty find the help and resources you need. However, the role of technology committees in law firms has become increasingly important to the success and viability of firms. With the ten tips you find in this article, you can have better success with your committee experience, improve the technology situation at your firm and make your life a little easier.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
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