The Five Biggest Mistakes by Big Firms
By Joe Bookman
TECHNOLOGY continues to advance the practice of law in all sorts of ways that were not anticipated just a few years ago. Firms and individual attorneys are using Blackberrys, enterprise wide systems, and many things in between. Yet even as technology enhances the practice of law, the slow pace of technological advancement frustrates many people in large law firms. Many ambitious projects either fail or require much more time and expense than anyone expected.
Here are five mistakes to avoid:
1. Don't enter into technology projects without clear definition of problems.
Describe the goal of the project in business terms. Does it save resources? If so, how much? Does it improve productivity? If so, how and how much? Does it provide a competitive advantage? If so, how? Are there other ways to address your problem? Why is this project your best alternative? The answers to these questions deserve careful consideration before introducing new technology to your firm.
There are many good reasons to install new technology. Document management, contact management, litigation support, and other applications can, and do, benefit many law firms. The basic problems to be solved with these applications are well defined.
Some technologies, such as corporate portals, are still evolving. Determine whether your firm will benefit from this technology in its current form. Perhaps your firm will gain more by applying some older technology, which may already be in-house, to the problem at hand. Maybe no product or service is available that includes the particular features to solve your most pressing problems. Depending upon the urgency of your situation, it may be more practical to settle for a partial solution or to put the project on hold until better alternatives are available.
2. Don't begin without a project plan.
Be sure everyone knows what has to be done and when. Schedules can be changed later as realities demand, but as Yogi Berra has said, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll probably end up somewhere else." A clear project plan will help to establish the priority needed to advance the project. Without a plan, important details can easily be overlooked, creating delays as the project is supposed to be concluding. This is a primary reason why so many projects are thought to be 90 percent complete for the last 90 percent of the actual project duration.
3. Clearly define the stakeholders for a project and get their commitment.
After everyone has agreed upon the implementation plan, be sure each person on the project understands his or her responsibilities as well as the priority of this project. Stakeholders must feel responsible for their role and they must have the time and resources to devote to the project without creating a major impact on other high priority work. Otherwise, the implementation will suffer from a continual lack of progress.
4. Perform due diligence before introducing technology.
Learn as much as possible about similar firms who have experienced the learning curve that you are contemplating. Learn about successes but also find out about failures and about firms that chose alternative ways to address similar problems. Regardless of a particular project, it is useful to understand the mistakes of others and to share knowledge with people in your position at other firms. While you may feel that your firm is unique, there is no downside to gaining more information before you commit significant resources to your project.
5. Don't underestimate the training and support needed.
If new technology will be useful to a variety of users throughout the firm, then training and support must help each user maximize the benefits of the technology.
It is tempting to understate the training required. It is often easy for a casual user, comfortable with technology, to master the most elemental features of a new application, but some people will need to master the most advanced tools while others may be unfamiliar with basic computer usage.
The long-term success of the system usually requires more up front work than optimistic implementers anticipate. If you over budget for early training and support, there will be no complaints with an implementation that is smoother than planned.
The tools available for improving the practice of law continue to advance. There are great temptations to just get the latest and greatest new gadgets and then worry about how best to use them.
Avoid these temptations. Focus on solving problems. One success can build confidence within your firm and lead to better cooperation and appreciation for the benefits of technology within a law firm.
Joe Bookman is president of New York City's Ozmosys, Inc.