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Technology Developments that Will Change Your Practice

Published in the College of Law Practice Management News, Spring 2005.

ABSTRACT:  In the past, the challenge was just getting new technology to work. Today, the challenge is adopting new systems to improve business, practice management and client service. Law firm managers should consider technology-enabled opportunities along three dimensions — communications, practice management and business management.


Introduction

The over-hyping of technology leads to a natural reaction to discount its impact. That is a mistake. Broken promises notwithstanding, new technology continues to change law practice and business.

In the past, the challenge was just getting new technology to work. Today, the challenge is adopting new systems to improve business, practice management and client service. Adoption depends on culture, attitude, competition and management, not on the technology itself.

Law firm managers guiding their firms’ futures should consider technology-enabled opportunities along three dimensions — communications, practice management and business management. Here is a top-level view of existing and emerging technologies that are likely to change the way we work.

Communications

Technology allows better internal and external collaboration and better information-sharing. Extranets have been used long enough to become a virtual requirement of doing business. Law firms need to consider other “channels” to reach clients and prospects.

The easiest “new” way to reach clients is to use web conferencing for real-time meetings that share an audio connection, screen and, sometimes, video. This is a standard tool in business. Will clients like webinars? Maybe. They are easy to set up and test, and the down side is minimal. They are certainly easier and cheaper to arrange than live seminars.

Blogs are another channel. Reaction to blogs is similar to the reaction to e-mail updates about 10 years ago… “Horrors. It’s not done. The liability…” Having successfully lived through that suggests that adoption of blogs will happen soon enough.

Practice Management

Managing substantive practice information has become more complicated. Several vendors offer “matter centric” or “life cycle management” approaches. These warrant serious consideration, both as a way to integrate business process (e.g., opening new matters) with the work and to manage work product more effectively. Well conceived systems include records management rules (to declare certain items as official records) and knowledge management elements (to make it easier to find and re-use work product).

Business Management

Profits per partner — need we say more? A new crop of financial analysis tools from traditional and new accounting and software providers helps firms analyze and manage cash and profits. These tools — and the rigor they can bring — seem to be gaining traction in larger firms.

Separately, work force management bears watching. New tools are emerging that will allow law firms to match their resources (lawyers and other professionals) to client needs. American industry is marching toward “real time systems” that allow adjusting prices, manufacturing mix and inventory in response to current (by the minute) data. Since gas prices change daily (if not hourly), why can’t law firms adjust lawyer allocation as needed? Law firms need to adopt workforce management tools to manage their main productive asset — lawyer time.

Conclusion

Use of the technologies discussed (and many others) will be driven by business decisions; cost and tech issues are relatively minor considerations. Managers who do not consider the opportunities and delegate decisions that involve technology only to the “techies” shirk their duties. They have to get over lack of knowledge and unwillingness to grapple with the new. Today’s leaders must be able to guide a business discussion around how technology can help work smarter and improve profits.