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Tech War Stories: Oh, the Goofs I've Seen And Other Tales Of Woe

by Carol L. Schlein, Esq.

For several years, Iíve been threatening to write a column about the dumb things Iíve seen my clients do in connection with choosing, implementing and using technology to manage their law practices. As a legal technology consultant working mostly with solo, small- and medium-sized law firms, I have seen many counterproductive steps taken in the name of moving a firm forward. Hopefully, by sharing some of these errors, I can spare your firm the same, often costly, gaffes.

During the time Iíve been writing this column, Iíve often been asked by clients whether I was writing about their firm. Ironically, no client I actually wrote about ever recognized its own situation!

One of my favorite law firm mistakes is when a firm hires a consultant, asks for advice and then ignores it or questions it based on comments from a client or a brother-in-law who dabbles in computers. A variation is the lawyer who reads technology magazines or subscribes to e-mail lists that may contain good advice, but may not be appropriate to a law firm. What works for a large corporation or a technology magazine columnist may be totally wrong for a small law firm. This error occurs when law offices using an older version of WordPerfect and have a huge investment in forms or macros are told by someone who supports computers for a Fortune 500 corporation that the office should switch to Microsoft Word because thatís what everyone uses. Never mind that the firmís office staff will pull out their hair and that documents and forms wonít convert properly. While its market share has definitely decreased substantially in the past five years, Corelís WordPerfect, in its various flavors, is still the preferred choice in many law offices.

Another variation of this mistake is when a law firm receives several proposals from systems vendors and shops primarily on price rather than focusing on the vendorís reputation, ability to timely service the firm or have the knowledge to serve the firm properly. To compound this mistake, firms, when presented with the bottom line, often lose sight of the reasons theyíre upgrading and start eliminating features or options to save a little money. I have found itís easier to swallow the bigger bill for hardware upfront and remember that every day, the added processor speed or memory will make the staffsí jobs easier. While $200 more per workstation adds up when purchasing one dozen computers, remember that for every day those computers will be used, everyone in your firm will be able to locate files faster, print faster, do online research faster and generally be more productive.

Penny wise?

A pattern Iíve seen recently at several clients is a cost-saving measure that turns out to be much more expensive than the initial savings firms hoped to realize. In network environments, itís tempting to think that individual workstations donít need a CD-ROM drive since, in theory, most software can be installed from the network. However, in reality, with the improvements that have been made to CD-burners (also known as CD-writers), patches and documents often are sent on CDs that need to be loaded on a specific workstation. If a consultant being paid on an hourly basis has to set up a workaround or locate one of the few machines with a CD-ROM drive to install a maintenance release, the firm is spending unnecessary dollars.

More and more software vendors are including CD-ROM-based tutorials with their products. Again, the lack of foresight in configuring the firmís workstations with CD-ROM drives means youíve hampered the learning opportunities for your own staff as they adjust to a new product. Had the firm installed a CD-ROM drive on each computer, the staff could work with the tutorial on down time.

Years ago, I would advise firms they could save some money by not ordering a sound card or speakers for their computers. Today, there are many reasons not to skip sound systems on new computers. While some websites use sound as background, more and more are using sound to relay valuable information. This is a trend we can expect to see expand. Using a computer with a voice recognition system also is a reason to anticipate and include a sound system. Adding a CD-ROM drive or almost any component to an existing computer is substantially more expensive than including it with the initial purchase.

On the purchasing side, I also see too many firms buy software without doing sufficient homework to determine whether the product is right for its office and whether it has the time, personnel and financial resources to implement and maintain the program properly. Products like Timeslips and Time Matters come to mind since they donít cost a lot to purchase, but take a big commitment of time and effort to obtain the full potential. Implementing these without a consultant is another mistake. While this may sound like Iím tooting promoting my own consulting firm, in fact, I have found that firms that go it alone often end up having larger consulting bills for cleaning up messes that could have been avoided.

I worked with a firm recently that had been using Timeslips for several years. I was called when the billing clerk quit and the new person was confused about how to proceed. In reviewing the former employeeís steps, we discovered many procedures were being done the long way or the wrong way. For example, no one knew that Timeslips could be customized to print letterhead along with the bill. Until I worked with staff members, they were printing bills one at a time so they could feed first sheets of letterhead into the printer at appropriate intervals. The bill layout took me about 10 minutes to create and refine. The firm is now able to print an entire monthís billing in a single step, saving a huge amount of staff time.

Bogged down

Often I see lawyers bogged down on formatting or procedural issues that are not substantive in terms of client relations. One of my all-time favorites is cover letters for bills. While there are exceptional situations when these might be needed, attorneys who insist on preparing individual cover letters that regurgitate the information already on the bill are a complete waste of staff and lawyer time. For corporate clients, the main contact may not even be the person opening or reviewing the bill. And most individual clients are bright enough to understand the document they have received is a bill to be paid.

Another variation of this problem is lawyers who focus on the billís format rather than the substance. They get bent out of shape if lines are in the wrong place, but donít make sure the descriptions for the work performed are clearly explained.

Dealing with training is where I see even more costly mistakes on a regular basis. When installing new software, most firms are pretty good about arranging for at least some introductory training. Mistakes occur when there is no or inadequate follow-up to support new users as they work with the product. Most people can absorb only a limited amount of information at a time. In fact, I often tell those in my training classes that I expect them to recall only about 10 percent of the information I provide. Iíve witnessed many situations where, for the convenience of the trainers, students are subjected to full days of training, often on several consecutive days. This is a totally unnatural way to learn and master a new software product.

Training is better in shorter sessions with time between sessions to allow new users to work at their own desk with the new product. Training also is best accomplished when people arenít pulled out of sessions for emergencies and when they receive supporting materials to document how the new system will be implemented in their firm.


This brings us head-on to personnel issues I often see among my small-firm clients. Lawyers ó and I include myself ó tend to both delegate too little and too much. While we trust our staff with some functions, we keep as our own responsibilities others we should delegate. Some firms have passwords and set up their network to limit the time of day staff members can log into it, yet also allow anyone in the firm to access the firmís checkbook to pay vendors. While time-based log-ins sound like a good security measure, they can backfire when a vendor has to install new applications and test them when the computer user is away. The vendor canít proceed without contacting the system administrator for the log-in.

Another frequent situation is where one lawyer becomes enamoured with technology and begins to spend more time "futzing" with computers than practicing law. At most attorneysí billable rates, it makes no sense to have a $250-per-hour computer support person. Knowing when to do things yourself and when to delegate is a skill that doesnít come naturally to many lawyers.

At the other extreme are lawyers who want nothing to do with implementing their firmís new technology until after all the basic design work has been performed and then present a laundry list of issues theyíd like changed. Such lawyers must get involved earlier in the process to ensure their needs and concerns are met.

One area where this is clear is billing. I know some lawyers who do a great job delegating their billing because theyíve implemented systems to check their time entries regularly during the month and entrust their staff to proofread and prepare final bills without additional interference from the lawyers. In contrast, there are lawyers who micro-manage the billing process by adding individual cover letters to each bill or doing so much editing at the end of each bill cycle that the entire process bogs down.

Another counterproductive measure firms take in the name of security is to limit what functions staff members can access within applications or in Windows generally. I have seen some firms that prevent their staff from accessing their recycle bins or opening Windows Explorer. People may not have the option within applications to edit codes or change settings; they wind up running around to find someone in authority to make a minor change to the program. In my opinion, itís better to give people more access to let them explore, learn and use the system more productively.

ĎStupidí rules

Along the same lines, setting firm policies and procedures that are complex or confusing will lead to staff dissatisfaction and possibly turnover. Support staff constantly confide in me about the "stupid" rules or decisions their bosses have made regarding office procedure. If youíve hired these people to help run your business and care for your clients, give them the respect they deserve and assume theyíre capable instead of incapable of handling simple tasks. Giving people room to be creative to solve your firmís business problems will result in higher morale and loyalty.

With the robust economy, many firms have experienced growth. Small firms typically start with name-based filing systems. As the number of clients and cases increase, however, firms should consider switching to a number-based system. While numbers are harder for most people to remember, numbering systems are much more predictable and therefore easier to work with as the number of active matters increases. With numbers, you merely increment, whereas with names you often end up with a hodgepodge of inconsistencies when thereís a second client with the same last name or a large client has a number of underlying matters.

A variation of this problem is the firm that has too many different systems for identifying clients and matters. It might have one system for billing, another for folder structure in its word processor, a third for charging clients for photocopies and a fourth for telephone charges. A firm like this should be aiming toward a single, unified system to identify all cases.

File management

Word processing file management, especially in small firms, seems to be a big mess too much of the time. Even when networked, firms still seem to allow each secretary to have their own folder and file-naming conventions. This can be a recipe for disaster when a secretary is out ill or leaves the firm. While well-intentioned, a secretaryís idea of how to organize files is at odds with how a lawyer would want them organized in many instances. A secretary who works for several attorneys might be inclined to set up separate folders for each lawyer and within that organize the documents in folders based on the type of document ó all letters together, all pleadings, etc.

While it may seem logical and workable, itís a mistake. If two lawyers work on the same case, they may have documents in different places. The same issue occurs when the main folders are based on who typed the document. There, the lawyer needs to know who originated the document.

The better way to organize files is by client, then case. There are tricks to grouping clients together if your firm has so many clients that one big folder with subfolders would be unwieldy. Of course, in such a situation, a firm might be a candidate for a document management program like Worldox, PC DOCS OPEN or Imanage. These programs literally manage your document creation and access.

Donít just run out and purchase one of these programs. That can be a mistake, too. Do your homework. Make sure youíve selected the right product for your firm. Before spending money on new software, make sure youíre getting your value from your current applications. Iím always surprised at the number of calls I get from attorneys who purchased a product and let it sit on a shelf until a crisis arises where itís needed. One of my favorites is when a firm buys a billing program with good intentions but doesnít implement it until it has to do a fee petition or an accounting for an estate. Implementing complicated systems under a deadline is one of the worst things you can do to your already harried staff.

Proper staff

Small firms also often are reluctant to understand when itís time to hire new or different types of staff people. I am always surprised by sole practitioners who pride themselves on operating totally solo without even an office assistant. To me, just having a person who can stuff bills into envelopes, make copies, maintain filing, schedule appointments and eliminate my need to talk to phone solicitors makes having an assistant well-worth the expense. Firms with even a few lawyers would be well-served to consider hiring an office manager. This relates to earlier comments about failing to delegate. In observing many law offices over the years, Iíve been surprised at how many of the tedious administrative tasks lawyers keep for themselves. I, too, am guilty. Iím often the one putting together the supply order. I should ó and will ó start delegating that to my staff!

Having a professional office manager, while it may sound like a big budget item, in the long run can be a real improvement to the smooth functioning of your office, since it allows lawyers to refocus on billable work and not waste time on matters better handled by someone trained to deal with personnel, benefits, etc. Similarly, many firms might benefit from either hiring or training an existing employee to take on more-advanced responsibilities in maintaining the firmís computers. Tasks like performing backups, deleting temporary files, emptying recycle bins and maintaining the network can be expensive to farm out. Additionally, this person could document the firmís systems and procedures, and possibly train people to improve their use of the products already installed in the firm.

If you recognize yourself or your firm in any of these issues, you may want to reflect on how you can improve the firmís functioning and decision-making.