Recently on a state bar tech and practice management-focused listserve where I participate, an interesting question came up related to the key distinction between “IT” (Information Technology) services/guidance and “LT” (Legal Technology) direction. I think my answer to this question has broad applicability to many law practices, large and small, corporate, municipal and private, alike. So here’s the question posed and my response. Hope you find the exchange useful.
Question: We are looking for recommendations for a knowledgeable and reliable computer technician/firm in our area to help our small law office revise our three-computer system for increased security and efficiency. We need someone who can recommend hardware, software, network setup, back-up/secure setup (with encryption) and so on. We appreciate any recommendations you folks can pass on.
Ross: Careful. I see this as really two separate questions, as follows:
1) The need for a computer technician / IT specialist to help with the system infrastructure â€“ your PCs, your network, internet access, data backup, security, etc. The “system” that all your software runs on, more or less. This would be what is typically referred to as an IT person.
2) The need for someone to help you with the word you used: “efficiency” â€“ in other words, the “front office” part of using technology in your practice. Simplistically, this means the software side of things. But software only accomplishes tasks that need to get done. So it is probably better thought of as “running the practice.” This means help with selecting the right combination of software: document generation, document organization/work product retrieval, email and email management, billing and bookkeeping, case information tracking, docketing/calendaring/tickler system, conflict checking functions, specific practice area automation software (i.e. bankruptcy, real estate closings, family law calculators, etc.).
But FAR more important than the mere selection and deployment of software is focus on the processes and procedures â€“ how you actually have your client files handled â€“ how cases “flow” â€“ what are all the steps that happen in your office from the point you have a prospective client or a new matter for an existing client, through conflict checking, file opening/intake, handling of the matter and all the way through completing and closing/archiving the file. It’s this “case flow” that is most important to understand, and then to streamline.
Then once you have a well thought through, streamlined “case flow” in each of your areas of practice, you’re then ready to think about how to use your selected software systems to work together in an integrated way to automate these procedures and processes. Even picking software before thinking through this can be a mistake. Think of it this way: “process first, then products, then fit processes into the products.” Overall, this can be referred to as the “LT” side of the process â€“ “Legal Technology” v. “IT” or “Information Technology in the previous item.
This is much more important, and actually much harder, than the previous item. But without the proper emphasis on this LT area, it makes no difference what kind of IT system you have. You can buy the fanciest hardware and software and build a fantastic network of computers and still end up with complete chaos and constant reinvention of the wheel in your practice. I see this all too often â€“ firms that have spent a ton of money on “the right stuff” but constantly struggle with inefficiency, wasted steps, frustration and even abject hatred of their computer systems. Why? Because they took care of the IT part of the process, but ignored the LT part or handled the LT part in an ineffective or incomplete way. As my friend and long-time fellow legal technologist Andy Adkins, Director of the Legal Technology Institute at the University of Florida College of Law once observed, “you can’t automate chaos.” What he meant was that if you just go to an IT person, buy a bunch of new hardware/software, slap it into place, you end up with the fastest, most efficient way of being Inefficient you could ever imagine. And of course, that’s not rational. So stop doing it, if that’s what you’re doing!
A mistake I’ve observed SO many firms of ALL sizes across the continent is confusing IT and LT â€“ not making, or not knowing there is a fundamental distinction between these two areas of information. The two barely have anything to do with each other. Most firms end up with an “IT” person and then expect them, and look to them to provide LT advice/guidance/training/support as well. And what ends up happening to many firms is they end up with a capable IT person/company that wants to provide them with infrastructure support/guidance, new hardware, network maintenance services etc. and may do a very good job at that.
But then when it comes to the LT side â€“ the “software” and “case flow” side of things, the vast majority of IT people are not qualified to help, nor do they usually want to help. They want to do what they do best â€“ help with the computer side of things. Very few IT people have real experience and ability to help you with the LT side of the process â€“ because they have no legal background â€“ it’s not what they know. Smart practices learn this (usually the hard way, over time) and find either support with strong LT capability as well as IT capability, or two separate resources â€“ an IT professional and an LT professional who work together to achieve the needed results for any given practice.
And think about this logically â€“ analyze it like a lawyer. What are the facts? You find an IT company. The technician who will work with you and the sales rep who work with you have tech school or maybe even college-level computer science or programming backgrounds. They may have gone through various technical certification programs from companies like Microsoft, or Cisco, or Citrix, or Novell in how to support and configure your network parts and pieces. What in that background would suggest that they know anything whatsoever about how work flows through a law practice? Or know anything about legal terminology and our special language â€“ like what is a “conflicts search” and what is a “pleading?” What would suggest they know anything at all about how to make sure you technology tools comply with your ethical requirements under your jurisdiction’s Rules of Professional Responsibility â€“ especially in terms of what would allow you to meet your obligations to practice “competently” and to protect client confidences? Yet, if you use a generically oriented IT specialist, you’re effectively asking them to guide you in these areas when not only do they come to you with no legal background, but no law office work/law practice experience. In that case YOU know infinitely more about law practice but you’re asking someone who doesn’t to guide you in these areas and to innately know and understand how legal software works and to integrate it into YOUR practice . . . and to guide you in streamlining YOUR practice. How could that yield a positive result? It’s illogical. It’s not rational. Yet, that is what so many firms do because they just think that they have a “computer guy/gal” who helps with them ALL their “computer stuff.”
This is true of every industry. Think about healthcare. My brother’s a doctor in Seattle. His clinic has an IT company that installs and keeps their network system running. But those people know NOTHING about automating patient records, the insurance billing process, HIPPA requirements for protecting electronic patient information. They have a different company that helps them with those things â€“ in fact a company that has three doctors-turned-medical practice technologists who have years of experience automating medical practices. So his clinic has both IT services available and MT (Medical technology) services.
In my state, we have lots of very capable IT resources â€“ individuals and companies who can help law practices of all sizes with their system infrastructure. There are far fewer choices available on the LT side, but nevertheless, some very good ones. If you don’t have LT experts in your region, don’t worry â€“ the top legal technologists world-wide are a phone call, and a web supported Webex or GoToMeeting session away â€“ geography shouldn’t be a barrier to getting the right assistance in this flat world of ours.
Resist the temptation to first call an IT company. Start instead with an LT resource and ask them to figure out the best way to take what you’re doing now and then streamline your processes (or work with you to create them where they might not now exist at all!) and get you READY to be automated. And to help you figure out what hardware/network systems are needed to most effectively run the software they’ll help you select in the best possible way â€“ and even to help you find the right IT resources to partner with . . . OR they might actually help with the IT side as well without having to partner with a separate IT company.
Ideally, it should work like this:
â€¢ Who are you and what do you do now? Figure out what you’re doing now in terms of case handling â€“ the “case flow” process â€“ what do you like about the way you do things? What drives you crazy in terms of getting the work done? What do YOU think are your biggest issues getting your work done?
â€¢ What do you need? This is the process of taking what you do, streamlining and/or creating your processes, figuring out what software to use, how to configure the software, how to build “workflow” â€“ the steps of something like “New Client â€“ File Opening” or “Managing Discovery” â€“ and also determining what hardware systems are needed to best serve as the “engine” to run your practice and handle your cases
â€¢ Who’s in charge? Ideally, your LT pro will serve as kind of a “general contractor”, coordinating all of this and managing the IT resources â€“ letting them know exactly what is needed in terms of the new hardware/network stuff, how it should be set in the best way to run the new software and the new procedures. So the IT resource is more or less like a “subcontractor” working under the direction of the LT pro. With the Oscars coming, up think as the LT pro as your “Executive Producer” and also the “Director” for the LT side of things. The IT pro is the “Assistant Director” working for the LT pro â€“ and together, they’re your team. Remember, in the case of the folks I’ve listed as Wisconsin resources, several can serve as both your LT and IT resource.
Inevitably, some of you will say “but I find someone who “knows” law practices and is a really good $60/hour IT person when he/she’s not finishing their 2nd year of classes at the local community college” and that you think what I’ve described sounds too complex, too expensive or overkill somehow. You’re entitled to that view of course! But after nearly a quarter century of doing this and having been inside of literally thousands of law practices and seeing how they done their “tech stuff” â€“ those who haven’t done what I’ve described, generally have either barely functional, partly functional or mostly dysfunctional systems (and they may not even know it because they have no basis for comparing what they do to practices who do it the way I’ve described â€“ in the “ignorance is bliss” category).
One more analogy to try and help in understanding this and applying it to your own practice situation â€“ whether you’re a solo or in a larger practice â€“ all of this applies. Let’s say you’re an IP lawyer â€“ you do trademark and copyright work. A close friend comes to you and says, “my son has been arrested and is being charged with murder. Since you’re a lawyer and the only one I know, I need your help.” Presuming you’re not a pinnacle-level criminal defense expert, what are you going to do? You’re going to help your friend by referring him/her to an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Why? Because you know IP, not criminal law and certainly not in a case as serious as a murder defense. You wouldn’t decide to take it on yourself when so much is at stake because you’re way out of your element.
OK, so then if you’re not a legal technology expert, or an experienced IT expert, why would you think of tackling those issues on your own? Effectively, why would you represent yourself pro se on your technology issues? Or why would you ask the 22 year computer whiz who is your local IT guy who may be a genius at keeping your server running, but knows zip about practicing law advise you on the complexities of customizing a modern legal case management system to automate the workflow of a family law practice? It makes no sense â€“ it would be the blind leading the blind. Use professional help intelligently!
I’ll finish this thought with one of my very favorite quotes of all time. It’s attributed to Red Adair, the Texas oil field firefighter immortalized by John Wayne in the movie, “Hellfighters.” Red said, “if you think hiring a professional is expensive, try hiring an amateur.” But some people still need to learn the hard way.
What I’ve described may not actually cost any more, or maybe just a bit more to do it “right” v. doing it the “wrong” way. Be sure to re-read my article on the real costs related to going “tech pro se” and taking a DIY (do it yourself) approach here with an updated version from the ABA GP|Solo’s Technology eReport, October 2007 edition here. But taking the wrong approach will cost MUCH more in the long run â€“ when you’ve spent money on the project you thought would make you more efficient, but instead, just replaces the old stuff with newer, shiny, faster versions of the inefficiencies you’ve had before.
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