Law Technology News
January 2001
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Small & Home Ofice

Is 'Cheap' Really Less?

By Sheryn Bruehl

SO, YOU decided to take the plunge and bring your law office into the 21st century, and now you're suffering a bit of sticker shock? You aren't alone. Most of us who have invested in technology quickly learned how fast a hundred dollars here and another hundred there starts to add up to real money.

Lessons Learned

MY OWN "sub-$5,000" network is a perfect example of how law firms often incur thousands in hidden costs or economic costs that make a computer system far more costly than it needs to be. My partner and I saved a great deal of money by ordering stripped down PCs from wholesale outlets, and I installed parts and software myself. I would conservatively estimate that I have spent more than $50,000 in billable time (and another $3,000 in poor software purchases that never even got successfully installed) installing, troubleshooting, upgrading, and repairing them in the three years that I spent building our "bargain" network as we grew.

Much of that time was endless nights, weekends and holidays spent away from my family and friends, fighting to make sure that our office was up and running when the first body walked in the door the next business day-because if nothing else, I recognized the cost of down-time to my firm. It was a long time before we fully realized the actual costs of our lack of training, and my lost own time.

At the time, we thought we were saving money, even though our billing wasn't going out timely because the software never got installed, and my partner wasn't using her computer at all because it had a defective motherboard that made it frustratingly slow.

These days our technology purchases have higher price tags but far lower actual costs than our early ones. My partner no longer balks at technology decisions that have a good cost justifications, and our office still uses only one secretary to serve four busy attorneys, at a savings of at least $20,000 per year in staff costs alone.

But penny-pinching actually can be a mistake when buying technology -- and it's how inexperienced technology buyers often make their most expensive mistakes. They'll proudly announce that they've saved $100 by buying all their network cards at a warehouse store, and then spend six months and several thousand dollars in lost time, technical support calls and consulting fees trying to find the source of mysterious problems with their software. They'll save money by not paying for staff training, then wonder why half the office won't use the new software. They'll take advice from clerks at discount PC-clone shops, and discover too late that the company has disappeared and its warranty is worthless.

Legal-Specific Software

Law office software is a specialized market. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of software tools specifically designed to make the practice of law easier. And many that integrate with other practice tools to create an even more efficient and effective practice.

But most computer shops (and people who call themselves technology vendors) have never even heard of them, and are not qualified to advise as to the hardware configurations necessary to use them well. More often than not, these vendors will push packages of generic software more suitable for managing construction projects than the practice of law. The result: decreased productivity for you and your staff.

Second, law offices have specialized ethical concerns with regard to the safety and confidentiality of data that other businesses and professions do not have. The stakes are high. Failure to take proper precautions with regard to data backup, network access and Internet security, among other things, can have potentially career-ending disciplinary results (as can any system, paper or electronic, that is unreliable or insufficient to properly and confidentially handle dates, facts, documents and other critical information).

It is the rare individual without legal training or law firm working experience, who fully understands the scope and implications of these concerns. It's even more rare to find a practicing lawyer with sufficient technological skill and market knowledge to make an informed assessment of his or her own firm's risks and how best to address them.

Even if it isn't your fault that poor quality components failed, or an ill-designed network ate your data, the malpractice and disciplinary consequences will still be yours to bear.

Third, the cost of time is significantly higher in the legal profession than almost anywhere in business and industry. This is a factor that generic technology vendors are most likely to overlook in their customer service.

In an average small firm, downtime that keeps the office from working costs just under $900 per hour. So "24 hour response time" to a major network failure has a lost opportunity cost of more than $7,500. Sending a single PC in for a few days for service without a replacement can literally cost $3,000 or more in lost billables, and can keep a normally productive lawyer from being able to churn out necessary documents and review data effectively.

Even a network that has to be rebooted every day because it is unstable can drain away as much as $3,500 (or more) each month in lost time spent logging off and waiting for the network to come back up -- not to mention recreating work lost to system crashes.

These are all arguments why it is cheaper, in the long run, and much wiser, to use an experienced legal technologist when you are buying technology for your small firm.

They are sensitive to the economic realities of law practice, and will spend time planning system implementation, installation and training to minimize disruption and economic impact on your firm.

Hardware

Finally, your long-term cost of ownership can be substantially higher if you purchase off-brand components from lowest-bid vendors. There is very little profit margin in hardware, regardless of who supplies it. So if there is a substantial difference in price, there's usually a difference in what you are getting.

If a deal on a PC looks to good to be true, it is. Common-sense goes a long way in PC product selection and especially in separating the capable vendor from the incapable. Sure you may save perhaps a hundred dollars per PC at the outset and maybe a bit on the installation costs. But you will likely find that every software installation, operating system upgrade, and service call thereafter costs more than it should.

Buying brand-name computers and components means that when technology advances (as it will continue to do at its current remarkable rate), you are far more likely to be able to obtain updated drivers, fixes and patches to address incompatibilities that arise as technology changes.

Worse, you may end up with several PCs that have the same "on paper specifications" but opening the cases reveals entirely different motherboards, video cards and sound card. What happens when you try to use one of the biggest productivity enhancers today -- voice recognition products -- only to find your lawyers have little or no success and write off the technology. Why? Because your new bargain PCs had off-brand sound cards not certified by your voice recognition software publisher-and your low-end computer vendor never thought to even consider this. All of this means a dramatic increase in the cost and hassle of setting up your PCs and, likely, nightmarish support for them later.

Buy Identical

Buying identically configured computers (I mean "identically" in terms of the internal parts and pieces) also means that a competent consultant can spend the time to set up just one machine, then quickly copy the work to the other machines, saving you time and money on the initial installation, as well as on every upgrade thereafter. And you end up with completely consistent PCs that are all substitutes for each other -- a very desirable thing if you aim to self-maintain most of the time. Even "do-it-yourselfers" quickly find that they spend hours less time troubleshooting and dealing with installation problems with identically configured machines and quality components.

Unfortunately, they usually discover it only after they have suffered all of the miseries of their prior mistakes.

One of the most insidious things that law firms fall for from bargain vendors borders on a scam. On a PC quote, and even on quotes for networked PCs, there will be a single line item that says "complete installation included."

Where's the lawyer in you? This phrase should immediately jump out as being highly suspect for utter vagueness. What does "complete" mean? It's entirely open to interpretation. Chances are, your version of "complete" will include far more than the vendor's version. Perhaps the single biggest difference between a network of PCs that let a small firm pump out work every day and a firm where everyone struggles with a recalcitrant, ornery network that works maybe half the time, is how the system is designed, configured and installed.

An experienced network designer and installer might cost you a few more dollars up front but the savings in sheer aggravation and downtime later can be staggering. Do yourself a favor and insist on a comprehensive and detailed listing of exactly what services related to a complete installation will be included.

Is 'Cheap' Really Less?

More is More

The bottom line: Spend the necessary money to buy a good quality system, consistently configured, and big enough to meet your needs for the next two to three years. Understand that no matter what you do, you'll probably have to replace your computers in a few years in order to keep up with current advances in technology, and factor that into your plans.

If you are using the technology the way you should be, it will have earned its cost many times over by then, and the upgrade will be just as wise as the original purchase.

If you think you can't afford to shell out what it costs to do it right today, then investigate leasing plans or low-interest financing, to spread the costs out over a time frame that is more comfortable for you.

Once you start to realize the benefits of good technology decisions, you'll soon realize that you couldn't afford not to. You just didn't know it yet.

"Time not saved" is a hard concept to quantify and explain. Except in extreme circumstances, people often hardly notice when an upgrade makes their computers work a little faster. But hear them yell if they have to use a machine that slows them back down to previous levels! It is only then that they realize not having that speed actually did cost them time.

Using software inefficiently is just as sneaky. Your staff may be convinced that the computer is a little faster than the "old way," until a competent trainer shows them all the tips and tricks. Then it's "Wow! I didn't know it could do that!"

Working with a consultant qualified to train your staff properly will maximize your investment in technology, and will pay for itself over and over again.

In fact, it's a really good idea to use an experienced legal technologist to advise you not just on training, but on the whole kit-and-caboodle. Find someone who either is a lawyer, or has extensive law office experience as a paralegal or legal assistant, and who is familiar with the current technology marketplace-(both where it is now, and where it is going). They can help keep you from making short-term mistakes with long-term financial implications. Chances are, the consultation and recommendations will cost you less than your own billable rate for the same amount of time, and the advice will ultimately save (or even make) your firm much more time and money than it will cost.

Sheryn Bruehl is managing partner of Bruehl & Chapman, P.C., based in Norman, Ok.

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