Choosing a Tech Partner
By Michael Bates
YOU'RE CAUGHT in a vicious cycle. You know that you need to have an e-mail system, DSL (digital subscriber line) and Web site because these are marketing and productivity tools used by your competition. But you're too busy practicing law to devote the energy necessary to maintain your technology or expand the firm's marketing.
If this sounds familiar, outsourcing Internet services may be the answer to your productivity and marketing objectives. How do you decide if outsourcing Internet services is right for your law firm?
First, ask yourself five questions:
1. Do we need to control all aspects of Internet applications in-house?.
2. Can we meet the challenge and cost of keeping up with the demands for new technology?
3. Can we hire the IT employees we need to build and manage our system, especially with the shortage of legal IT workers?
4. Is it more cost effective to outsource Internet services than to support them internally?
5. Do these issues take away valuable time and resources from our practice of law?
If the answers to those questions trigger an exploration of outsourcing, here are some tips to help you evaluate your options:
1. Understand Your Goals
First, understand your own firm, and its goals and culture. This will help you decide which technology alternatives your firm needs to compete in today?s legal marketplace. For example, will your partners really be doing a lot of research on the Internet and downloading lots of big files? If not, you might be able to get by with individual dial-in modems with each person's PC.
But if there is a need for speed and if downloading large files will be a common occurrence, you should look at some sort of broadband access to the Internet, such as digital subscriber line (DSL) service.
2. Size and flexibility
Look for a provider that fits your size of operation and your needs. For example, if you are a small- to mid-size firm, an Internet service provider that solely focuses on your market segment is your best fit. If you are a growing law firm, find a service provider that can grow with you.
Look for technology plans that fit your law firm's needs, rather than changing your firm to fit the supplier's canned plans. Technology service providers that have the flexibility to bundle the specific services you need, like high-speed broadband Internet access, Web-hosting and outsourced e-mail. They will become part of your firm's marketing team and contribute to your success. And make sure that this supplier has the ability to quickly increase your capabiities as your firm grows.
3. Research the Reputation
Clients hire lawyers because of their reputation and experience. Take the same approach in hiring an Internet company. Do your homework. Find out about the background of the company, its history, the expertise of its staff, and check out its reputation among your colleagues and friends. Go to its Web site and research the breath of capabilities the company offers.
Also, ask yourself how user-friendly the Web site is. If you can navigate easily and effectively through the provider's Web site, then chances are pretty good that the service provider cares about customer relationships and will place the proper emphasis on support and service.
4. Financial stability
Because today's technology tools may be obsolete in less than a year, your Internet service provider must be willing -- and financially able -- to keep pace with the demand for new applications. How long has the company been in business? What is its track record? Who has invested in it? If the company is publicly traded, you could review its annual report to determine its financial stability. Check out the investor relations page or news section on the company's Web site. You should be able to find what the company is saying to the SEC and the media about its financial situation.
Analyze the training commitments before you sign the contract. Everyone in the firm must be trained on the new systems, not just the obvious end-users. What about follow-up training? New employees? Of course, the scope of the training requirements will impact your ultimate price.
6. Product line
Choose an Internet service provider that can supply multiple I.T. products and services. You may only need e-mail today, but you should plan for future needs. Identifying a service provider that can implement and manage several services such as DSL (digital subscriber line), Web hosting, e-mail and e-commerce products will save you valuable time and financial resources in the long run. Be sure the service provider has a track record for being able to put all the pieces together in a coherent plan. For example, you want your Web site and e-commerce tools to work together and complement each other.
Technology always fails after 5 p.m. and on weekends. Choose an outsource provider that monitors and manages your services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with knowledgeable staff who can be reached via an 800 number. Ask the service provider how often regular maintenance is done on its hardware and software. And find out if this maintenance will have any effect on your operations.
8. Check References
Check references. This is so important and so easy to do. If a vendor won't provide references, chalk that name off the list of your candidates.
9. Us versus Them
To select an Internet service provider for your law firm at the right price, you must first understand what it would cost to implement and manage the system internally. These costs would include buying hardware and software, but, perhaps more importantly, they would also include the ongoing cost of dedicated IT staff people to make sure all the equipment keeps running.
You'll also have follow-on costs for upgrades to your technology and possibly training expenses to keep your people up-to-speed on the latest Internet technologies. Once you have all these costs, you can compare the per-user cost for providing the services internally versus the per-user cost of an external service provider.
Michael Bates is group product manager, small business markets, for Verizon Online.