Year of Waiting?

posted in: LawFirms | 1

Jenn Steele’s debut column at Legal IT Professionals has some interesting tidbits about what we’re waiting for in terms of law firms spending on IT projects. You should definitely go read all of it, but there were two things I found really interesting and wanted to highlight. The first is one of the two seeming contradictions I see in the legal industry:

Ironically, the same “powers that be” who are denying my colleagues the ability to do vital projects will get very upset if clients perceive them to be behind in technology, but that’s an issue for another day.

Ever since last month’s ILTA conference, I’ve been mulling this same idea over in my head and wondering how to put it in a blog post. It’s actually bigger than law firm management, I think there are clients who do want to be associated with what they perceive to be cutting edge, or innovative, firms, who also want to pay less in legal fees. Isn’t that the demand that is causing all of this upheaval in the industry? Clients want more for less. They want innovation from their outside counsel in terms of efficient use of technology, and in terms of billing arrangements.

Unfortunately, I think many firms equate innovation with large scale infrastructure, and that isn’t necessarily the case. Certainly, in many firms there are infrastructure projects that need to be financed in order to improve efficiency. Increased ability to work remotely, improving clients access to their data, better search tools, and more effective communications tools should be high priority for firms, and that may mean some improved infrastructure. But these aren’t the only areas where the business world has already innovated, and the legal industry is lagging behind.

There are plenty of areas of technology that lawyers could use much more efficiently right now, with a little time and education. That sort of innovation goes a long way toward making life easier for your clients. For example, how many firms have form documents that a client could just download and use without having to wait for an attorney to get back to them? How many have collaboration tools that go unused? How many are scheduling meetings and conference calls with technologists (internal and external) instead of allowing clients to directly talk to them? How many are tapping the expertise that exists in their own, non-lawyer, staff to educate clients on areas like records management, security policies, e-discovery, HR policy, etc. to help them avoid litigation to begin with?

Of course, any of those things would require management level attorneys to do things differently, and that may be the largest hurdle to the legal industry ever really being innovative. No, it’s much easier to build a virtual dealroom, a videoconferencing center, or some other big ticket item and brag about how innovative you are, even though no one ever actually uses it. Being truly innovative, and using technology efficiently on behalf of clients requires a bit more work than that. It’s not just about the money spent on the tools, it’s about putting them to good use. Innovative ideas and people will take you a lot further than any technology tool will, because they will build upon it and get the most benefit from it. They will solve real world problems with technology. No firm is going to be seen as innovative without the right people in place to make it happen. Let’s hope that firms get that before one of Jenn’s fears comes true:

Legal could bleed talent. Our best minds, tired of waiting and being over-extended due to short staffing, could jump to other industries that have ramped up more quickly. There is already evidence of an uptick in hiring in the general economy.

As far as the second seeming contradiction, well that’s coming in another post. It’s more directly targeted at e-discovery than this is though. 🙂

  1. Rolfsa

    Great post Mike. I'm right there with you on your thoughts about effective and efficient technology. As a somewhat related note, I find it interesting that the attorneys that believe that technology should make things easier and faster don't seem to factor in the complexities of their requests. If they had asked for someone to distribute different parts of a 2000 page document to groups of different people all over the world before the advent of email/ftp it would have been a project unto itself taking weeks. Now the expectation is that it should take only a few clicks of the mouse and it should be automatic just because it's electronic. They don't take into consideration file formats, storage sizes, email attachment limitations, etc… We can generally do these tasks inside of a business day compared to the weeks of work it used to take. So yes, technology is an enabler…but it's still work and it still takes time. It's not magic.

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