Maxims for Managing Legal Technology

Published as Maxims for Managing Legal Technology: Unwritten Rules for the Law Firm CIO or IT Director in Law Technology Today, an e-zine of the ABA, June 2008.

Abstract: A sometimes tongue-in-cheek guide to managing technology inside a large law firm in the form of maxims.

You probably always wanted to know the secret handshake, see your “permanent record,” or own a decoder ring. Admit it! Why else would you be drawn to technology today? You may never attain those childhood dreams but you can learn the secrets of managing technology for lawyers.

After two decades in the legal market at the intersection of law, technology, practice support, and business, I have seen legal tech management from many angles. I have distilled some of what I learned about working with lawyers. Here then are maxims for managing legal technology, my at times tongue-in-cheek rule book. Consider it and apply it wisely.

Tech Enthusiasts May be Your Worst Enemies

Value the lawyer tech enthusiast but beware. They often have great ideas but your challenge is to figure out which ones are practical now. Enthusiasts can be counter-productive by oversimplifying complex and expensive changes or by regaling other lawyers about adopting new systems. Managing the enthusiasts, who can verge on the fanatical, is often more of a challenge than managing the naysayers. Deep emotions animate the enthusiasts; skeptics, in contrast, usually don’t care as much.

Let Chaos Work for You, Not Against You

Governance in law firms is much looser than in corporations. Keep that in mind when advocating for new ways of working. If you are an advocate for practice support and knowledge management, learn to go with the flow. Work at the practice group level and meet the needs of individual groups of lawyers. Trying to achieve or impose a standard firm-wide often fails.

Appeal to lawyers’ sense of competition. If you achieve a victory with one practice group, advertise widely. Hope that envy and competition causes other practices to ask for the same.

But the same standard does not apply to infrastructure – there you must act forcefully, institutionally, and uniformly.

Honestly Held Beliefs May be Wrong

Lawyers vociferously support their ideas, convinced they are correct. But they may well be wrong. An honestly held idea does not make it right. Always reality-test strongly held individual views by checking against other lawyers and the marketplace. Some examples of recent honestly held but incorrect beliefs:

  • “E-mail will never amount to much.” Many lawyers honestly believed that in 1997.
  • “We can’t use optical character recognition ( OCR) – it’s not 100% accurate.” As if objective coding was 100% accurate?
  • “We don’t need to worry about e-mail in discovery.” Need I say more?
  • “We have no real competitors.” If that’s true, lay off your marketing department.

Which strongly held views today will look as silly in retrospect?

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom – Not!

Two decades ago, legal technology proponents advocated, echoing Chairman Mao, letting a thousand flowers bloom. That is, they wanted lawyers to be able to do whatever they wanted with their PCs.

Today, the complexity of IT operations, networks, and running help desks is much greater than in the early PC days. Letting users do whatever they want supports innovation and productivity but can mean chaos, extraordinary support costs, and real IT risks. Yet locking down desk tops and complete standardization has its down sides. So, how to keep both the IT professionals and the tech-adventurous lawyers happy?

I’m not sure there is a perfect answer. One is that IT gives power users rights to install local software and some personal support. If the desktop “blows up,” simply restore it to the firm standard image (and you are backing up data, aren’t you?)

Are there other answers to keep both power users and CIOs happy? It’s not obvious. What will happen as/if more firms adopt thin client computing (meaning your desktop really is running centrally)?

Better to Seek Forgiveness than Ask for Permission

Getting lawyers to agree is hard. Management is often prone to hand-wringing. Just do something new and if management doesn’t like it, ask forgiveness. Of course, you need to know where to draw the line if you value your job. But remember, never doing anything new or useful is often a recipe for job loss.

Less is More

When trying to persuade law firm management or technology committees about doing something new, don’t write a long report or provide too much detail to start.

Remember, lawyers love to find fault – the more detail, the easier it is to find fault. Also, more is a bore. Stick to concepts and business value initially; drop the detail. With this approach, the discussion is more likely to focus on the big picture and business benefit. Tell your audience that if they like the idea, you can develop supporting detail later. They can always nix the idea then.

If lawyers buy into a concept to start, they will be less likely to find fault with the details later. What should you do if someone asks for details at the outset? One approach – and this may be a novel question for some lawyers – is to ask how the answer would change their decision. Asking lawyers to think a step or two ahead and articulate reasoning can lead to bit of testiness. The question is important though; without knowing the big picture, the details may not much matter.

Reverse the Persuasion Equation (also known as Don’t Push on Strings)

Many CIOs, KM Directors, and others try persuading lawyers to adopt new technology, to do something different. Change directions. Supply standard productivity tools and make sure they work well. Then provide information on options for doing better to those willing to listen. In fact, make any lawyer who wants to go beyond the standard persuade you that it’s a good idea. That persuasion can be an e-mail with a couple of bullet points. Anyone who cannot take the time to do this in support of what is often an expensive change is unlikely actually to use or benefit from the new thing.

One of your jobs as a technology manager is to keep the infrastructure running. Today, that means dealing with IT complexity, not persuading lawyers. Once you move beyond infrastructure to practice support, however, the game changes. Then you must persuade lawyers and management, engaging them about business requirements. If you think technology is tough, just wait until you deal social, organizational, and political challenges. There is no secret handshake or decoder ring to negotiate these but the maxims above may help you get to the right solutions.

About the Author

Ron Friedmann is the SVP, Marketing for Integreon, which provides outsourced knowledge and administrative services for law firms and law departments. Friedmann has been at the intersection of law practice, law business, and technology for two decades. A lawyer, he has held senior management positions at two large law firms, two legal software companies, and a legal tech consulting firm.