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December 1999

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Small & Home Offices

There's Just Something About Larry

Larry is convinced that he's technologically savvy but he's sadly mistaken, and it costs his firm.

By Gary A. Munneke

LARRY. Everyone in the firm knows it. The lawyers know it. Members of the staff know it. The clients know it. Only Larry doesn't know it. Larry either missed the technology revolution or else he just does not know what to do with it.

The irony is that Larry believes that he is on the technology train. He fails to understand that the train has left the station without him. How can this be?

To understand Larry, one has to understand how Larry practices law. For the last 25 years Larry has engaged in what is euphemistically referred to as a general practice - not the kind of full-service practice many large firms would describe as a general practice, but the kind of practice where Larry built his practice around clients who walked through the door.

When Larry started to practice law, lawyers were not allowed to market their services to prospective clients. Although he understands that marketing is okay today, he still considers it a little unseemly to rely on anything other than word of mouth to get new clients.

When Larry got out of law school, he did not know much about how to run a practice, but the senior partner in the first firm where he worked showed him the ropes. Larry learned that there was a certain way to organize files, prepare for a case, bill for his services. Back when Larry was starting our there were no computers in law offices, so the key to success in the practice of law was to follow these tried and true manual systems religiously.

Inherent in the practice model Larry was taught was the notion that lawyers should spend their time practicing law and delegate the non-legal work to support staff. To Larry, delegation meant that the roles of the lawyers and support staff were clearly delineated. Practicing law meant preparing cases, drafting documents, advising clients and going to court. Everything else -- typing, filing, calendaring, billing, answering the phone, making copies, and answering to his every demand -- was the work of staff.

Larry felt like he was a hands-on boss because he often dictated directly to his subordinates the content of documents, pleadings, bills, correspondence and other work.

At the same time, however, he offered precious little direction as to how they should handle their end of the practice. After all, how could he know any more about calendaring or filing than they could know about the law? Anyone who worked for Larry often felt that they were usually left to their own devices, except for Larry's bouts of dictation and occasional directives.

This is the way lawyers practiced law in Larry's first firm, and it worked. The lawyers made a decent living and the work generally got done. Being a generalist was interesting because lawyers and staff were always learning how to handle new cases. After a few years, Larry opened his own firm, which he administered the same way his mentor had taught him.

Over the years, Larry did not notice how his practice was slowly losing its edge. He lost a lot of staff to other firms and businesses in the community. His income was flat. In the early '90s, he attributed the situation to the recession, later to the glut of new lawyers in town. He lost a few really good clients to a handful of practitioners who concentrated on narrows fields of law. He found that he no longer enjoyed the work he had once loved.

Larry tried to keep up with the changing practice of law. He reluctantly took out an ad in the Yellow Pages. When other firms in town invested in technology, Larry invested in technology. He was one of the first on lawyers' row to get word processors. When PCs came along, Larry complained about having to ditch the old Wangs, but he invested in new PCs.

Larry tried to keep up by acquiring faster processors, Windows, a networked environment, and Internet access. Larry even learned how to spout the computer jargon ("We need better thruput on these docs.")

Dirty Little Secret

The dirty little truth was that Larry didn't know squat about technology. He bought when someone he knew in another firm bought first, or when the staff complained that the secretaries down the street could do something with technology they couldn't. He spent his money uncritically and ultimately unwisely. A local computer consultant was more than glad to advise Larry on what to do, because Larry didn't have a clue what the consultant was talking about. Moreover, Larry would never let on that he was ignorant by asking a question. The consultant knew.

Larry barked to the staff that they needed to use the technology at their disposal to work more efficiently. When they asked him how they should implement new automated systems, however, he replied that it reflected poorly on them if they were not willing to show some initiative and learn to use technology. The staff knew who was unwilling to learn.

Larry asked the office manager to set up an internal e-mail system, but Larry never used it. He continued to hand deliver communications to staff members, and if e-mail came up, he pretended to have read their missives. The firm also had a computer calendar system, but staff members were required to write all appointments into his desk calendar as well as to record them electronically.

Despite the exhortations of the office manager, Larry insisted on writing out all his time records, and having a secretary transcribe them in the computer system.

As for the drafting of documents, Larry insisted on dictating legal documents to secretaries to make sure they were correct. In short, although he surrounded himself with the trappings of technology, Larry continued to practice law the way he had in 1975. His concept of role differentiation drove him to view computers as tools to help the support staff. In Larry's mind, computers were just faster, more expensive typewriters. Like answering the phone, working with computers was just not in a lawyer's job description.

False Embraces

There are more than a few Larrys in the practice of law. They act like they embrace technology; they believe they embrace technology. They just do not get it. They are worse than the true Luddites, who reject technology.

The Larrys of the world undermine the viability of technology in the office by giving lip service to change, while in reality digging in their heels against it. They frustrate those who work with them and around them. They find themselves in stagnant or declining practices, but do not understand that they are the major impediment to change in their office.

If you or someone you know is a Larry, you cannot continue with business as usual. Larry has to change.

The first step is for Larry to admit that he is in denial -- he is getting in the way of progress. Second, Larry needs to change some assumptions. Computers are tools to help practice more effectively; lawyers have as much use for computers as support staff do. Lawyers cannot survive in the practice of law without exercising personal leadership in using computers.

Third, Larry needs to stop trying to keep up with the Joneses in making technology decisions, and do his own homework. He needs to learn enough about his office applications and hardware to be able to teach his staff how use the systems personally. Larry also needs to know what questions to ask his consultant to get the right answers for his firm.

Fourth, Larry has to understand that redundant systems are ultimately inefficient and that he needs to get rid of the old manual systems when the two overlap.

Finally, Larry must recognize that technology has changed the practice of law. He cannot practice law the way his mentor did in the '60s and '70s. The logic and configurations of computer-based systems are often different than manual systems.

The first step-- recognizing the problem -- is the most difficult one for Larry. Some people think that you can't teach an old dog new tricks; but they are wrong. It is not easy to change but it is not impossible. Read about technology; talk to others about technology; go on-line; practice technology; admit that you are a dunce.

The alternative is not a pretty one. If you do not change your ways, you will probably be out of business in five years. Even if you keep your practice alive, you will continue to struggle, make less money and feel more burned out. In this light, there really isn't any choice. Change or else. You can't let them whisper, "There's something about Larry," anymore.

Gary A. Munneke is professor at Pace University School of Law, and immediate past chair of the American Bar Association Law Practice Management section. He is a member of LTN's Editorial Advisory Board.

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