Law Technology News
January 2000
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System Upgrades

Painless Software Conversions

Just like painting a house, preparation is 90 percent of the battle when you upgrade your systems.

By Richard J. Herron

UPGRADING software is challenging, at best, for most firms. One of the most hazardous steps is the process of converting existing data from your old system to the replacement system. But careful preparation of data, proper training of staff, and choosing the right hardware and software can streamline the conversion process.

Components

Virtually all firms must convert data from old to new systems when they upgrade software. Typically, that means converting system and user-defined codes; client and matter records; unbilled time and disbursements; bill formats; billing history; accounts receivable; general ledger; and conflict of interest.

Conversion costs vary depending on the amount of data the firm decides to convert. (This is a really good time to purge old files and establish a record-keeping policy, if you don1t already have one).

Historical data, such as billing history and general ledger information, can be converted from inception to a specific date, or for a selected number of years, depending on the amount of information the firm wants available online with the new system.

The conversion process usually requires at least one test run, to check both the integrity of the firm1s data as well as the programming code written by the vendor. Essentially a dress rehearsal, the test conversion should take about two weeks and should include all steps inherent in the final conversion.

The test phase is repeated until the firm and the vendor agree that the desired results have been obtained. It can be conducted either at the firm or at the vendor's offices. Working out problems through one or more test conversions assures a successful final conversion, and almost always eliminates the need to run "parallel" (i.e., maintaining both the old and new systems for at least a month).

Typical Chronology

Here's a typical conversion chronology:

  • The firm decides which data to convert, based on the cost parameters furnished by the new system vendor.

  • The firm and (or) vendor arrange for the services of an "extractor" to pull the data from the old system in a format compatible with the vendor1s software.

  • The firm and vendor agree on a timeline of events for both the test and final conversion; select a cutoff date for data extracts; allocate resources; review responsibilities of both parties, etc. These dates and related tasks should be compiled into a "project plan" used by both the vendor and the firm to assure via weekly meetings that milestones are being met throughout the entire process.

    The firm and vendor meet to identify the data to be converted and map where the old data will reside in the new system. The map is then used by the vendor to develop software code to convert the data to the new system.

  • The firm selects reports to use from the old and new systems to verify and balance converted data.

  • Test conversion occurs. Vendor (or independent consultant) uses software such as SQL to test the validity and accuracy of the converted data. The results determine whether a second test is needed. The goal of the test is to identify and resolve all problems so that the final conversion is virtually error-free.

  • Final conversion occurs, with follow-up testing and validation. If successful, the firm goes "live" on the new system.

Data Preparation

Once you1ve earmarked the data to be converted, the next step is cleanup. Just as a well-pruned rose blossoms best, this is the time to identify and purge old or inactive data, duplicate entries and garbage that can accumulate in databases. It1s also the time to standardize information on client and matter records, such as zip codes, state codes, etc.

Staff Preparation

Carefully select your leaders, and be sure to delegate effectively. Pick one person to be the project manager, responsible for overseeing the process and providing direct communication with the vendor/programmers on behalf of the firm. This may mean hiring new personnel, or outsourcing, or contracting with individuals who offer a proven history/expertise in data conversions.

Schedule regular meetings to monitor progress of the project, and keep the entire staff informed of progress on the project.

These investments will pay off in faster implementation and better morale.

Firm Preparation

For tests and final conversion, you must have the right equipment. Upgrading software often means upgrading hardware as well. Some new software won1t run, or at least, won1t run efficiently, on older machines.

During the conversion, be sure to allocate enough (and appropriate) space for the team, including any temporary employees. They will need a quiet, secluded workplace; adequate telephones and printers; and access to the firm during off-hours.

To avoid costly downtime and inevitable system interruptions, you may want to rent an additional, secondary computer system to perform all the conversion-related activities, such as extracts. That can allow the old system to continue functioning smoothly through the entire process.

Key firm personnel must be accessible throughout the entire test and final conversion, to answer questions and validate converted data through the "front end" (user screens) of the new system.

With careful planning, thoughtful staffing, and continuing communication with firm employees, you can minimize the stress of a software upgrade for your firm, and maximize the rewards of the new technology.

Richard J. Herron is a law office consultant with Jeannette Russell Systems Group, Inc.

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