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February 2001
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Practice Management

Two Plus Two Makes Five

By Sheryn Bruehl

Two Plus Two Makes Five INVESTMENT in technology is supposed to save you time and money, right? So now that everyone has a computer and lots of software, why is your office still manually entering data in a dozen different places? Old habits developed in the days of paper cost money. It's time to break away and integrate your systems to use information more efficiently.

With all the systems and software available, it is amazing how many law offices still use several unrelated programs to handle exactly the same data ­ and still use costly human labor to enter that data over and over again. Typing a few extra lines here and there may not seem that much hassle, but a few minutes added to a even handful of tasks adds up to real money very quickly.

Caveat Emptor

THERE ARE wide differences in "integration" between products. Integration often is referred to as a "link" or "synchronization." The link between two programs can be a one-way export or import of information, or a "bi-directional" link that exchanges information between two programs. Sometimes the exchange of information is automatic, happening anytime information is entered into either or both of the programs, and sometimes it must be triggered by the user. Sometimes, the products don't exchange information at all ­ they actually share access to each others' databases, so that all of the relevant information can be accessed from either program.

There's a big difference in efficiency and accuracy (and a corresponding cost savings) between having a one-way, manually triggered exchange of information, that can only happen when both products are running and a user remembers to do it, versus automatic, shared access to a database, regardless of which programs are open. So, make sure you are comparing apples to apples when you look at those products. -- S.B.

Think about it: if your staff spends even 15 minutes a day manually entering time, typing bills, duplicating client names and addresses in multiple programs, making multiple records of accounting entries, etc., that is anywhere from $500 to $10,000 or more, depending on your billable rates, in lost time per person, every year. If you have just two attorneys and two secretaries in your firm, each wasting an hour a week at $150 and $40 billable rates, you've lost nearly $3 in the time it will take you to read this article.

The financial impact of this "efficiency bleed" cuts equally across small and large firms. Smaller firms often find technology investments to be the most daunting, even though the price tag is substantially lower. They justify avoiding the issue by arguing that they "can't afford it," yet hire employees to do the work, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year more than simply streamlining their existing practices. Large firms will spend far more on software and hardware to address similar problems, but the cost of not doing it is equally magnified.

Solos have the most insidious justification of all: it's easy to argue that they have more time than money, and can just work a few extra hours more easily than buying new software or hardware. Meanwhile, many postpone appointments with paying clients, fail to take calls, and turn away work -- because they don't have time to do everything already on their plates. Then they can't figure out why they have trouble making a decent living.

So how can you integrate your software and stop the flow of time and money out of your firm?

1. Evaluate your existing systems.

What software are you using now? What information is being entered in multiple places or by multiple people? How can you handle that information more efficiently? Talk to your staff and attorneys, solicit opinions and ideas. Identify areas where your firm is bleeding time. Ask them to suggest remedies, even "fantasy" responses that they aren't sure exist. (They might exist.)

2. Do your homework

As you choose software, think about how the pieces fit together.

-Sheryn Bruehl

What software is available? Start with the software you have now: Does it have relevant features you aren't using? Are there upgrades with features you need? What other programs does it integrate with? Do some products integrate more tightly than others? Look at alternatives: Are there programs available that combine many of the features you are looking for? For example, case management programs often include time/billing and document management functions, or vice versa. Are there better products available? If a feature is important to your practice, you may want to invest in a product designed exclusively for that function, but be sure it's compatible with your other programs.

3. Enlist help

Like pro se litigants who don't even know what rights they might have to defend, you probably don't have a clue how much you don't know about what options are available to you. There are really powerful, (and often legal-specific) tools for case management, time-and-billing, document assembly, document management, specific practice area software, voice recognition technology, and more. Consider working with a legal technology consultant. Check with your favorite bar association or malpractice insurance carrier -- many have practice management advisors who can give you advice. Subscribe to legal technology publications, and to legal technology listservs where you can get advice from other lawyers.

4. Plan your strategy

Think about how all the pieces fit together as you choose your software. If you are starting from scratch, you'll have more options. If you are already committed to specific software, let that be your starting point, but don't be too inflexible: you may find that changing one piece of the puzzle makes everything work better.

Look first at how your case management system, time-and-billing, and accounting are integrated. Do you have a strong preference for a particular case management system or billing system? If so, look for remaining programs that work best with them.

If your firm is entrenched in a particular billing system, but doesn't yet have case management, look closely at the links to that program in any case managers you evaluate, and let that be part of your decision. On the other hand, if you find a case manager that works well for your firm, but doesn't integrate well with your billing system, you might want to change billing programs.

Once you have an idea what you like in time/billing and case management, look at the balance of your accounting (trust accounting, bill payment, accounts receivable, etc.) and at your word processing, document assembly and document management needs to see how they relate to your those choices. If you are reluctant to change something, at least take a realistic look at the cost of changing versus the cost of not changing. Again, inefficiency costs you money. Is it more or less money than correcting that inefficiency will cost you? Only you can decide,but this is one area where getting some expert help early in the process can be a solid investment.

5. Execute

The cost of the software itself is only part of the equation. You must invest in appropriate training to minimize the short-term negative impact of the changes you make, and to maximize your investment in the software. There is no way around it. Failure to train will cost you money. Plan on spending just about as much on training as you did on software and installation, and you'll benefit much more from your technology investment than simply dumping new software on your staff.

A few extra dollars spent on professional customization of the program to fit your practice is money well spent. If you can't afford all of that in one chunk, look at leasing options, business loans, and even low-interest credit cards as a way to amortize the expense into more affordable monthly payments. You'll find those little payments even more palatable as you begin to realize the returns on your technology investment!

Sheryn Bruehl is a partner at Bruehl & Chapman, P.C., and is based in Norman, OK.

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