Law Technology News
October 2000
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Planning Upgrades

First, Identify Business Goals

By Thomas Baldwin

First, Identify Business Goals WHILE EVERY firm has a budget for technology, the real question that confronts IT directors is, "Do the firm have a plan for technology." We're not talking about adding RAM to servers. We're talking about strategic business goals implemented through technology.

And if your firm does have a business plan, you may face a different problem: a reluctance to share that plan with you or your staff. So even if you want to put together a technology plan, you aren't armed with the necessary background to anticipate the technological needs of the firm. Then you find yourself the target of comments such as "Our firm's IT staff is too reactive, and isn't pro-active."

So how do you break through these roadblocks? As the firm's IT director, you must be both a teacher and a salesperson. To put it bluntly, to succeed, you will have to change the firm's culture. You must catalyst some radical changes in perceptions.

You must educate all of the firm's employees -- from lawyers to secretaries -- that the investment in technology is just not to buy new toys for the firm's techno-nerds, but to purchase tools that will fuel the firm's business and development plans. It's not an easy task, and you are likely to encounter no small amount of resistance. But it's essential if the firm is going to succeed.As the firm's IT director, you must be both a teacher and a salesperson.

Reality Check

When developing a technology plan, first look at the past. Where has the firm been -- as a business. Then look to the future: where does it want to go? Are you growing? Adding a practice group? Feeling competition from new firms? Opening a new office? Winding down? Planning to phase into retirement? It's absolutely vital that you uncover and articulate the issues your firm is facing.

Let's take a look at a real life example. I met with the managing partner of a 35-attorney firm. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss where the firm should be positioned with regards to its technology. He started by asking what other firms were doing that were his size and practiced a similar type of law. While this is important to keep in mind, I was more interested in understanding what business issues he was facing. Here's what we found:

The firm was running out of space in its existing facility, but didn't want to move. It had several young associates who planned to leave the firm, motivated by their desire to start families. A senior partner was moving across the country and planned to work from home. The firm was growing, and absorbing a small boutique firm in the city to enhance one of its practice groups.

While we came up with many ideas, one of the most costly proposals was a new remote access system that would cost about $30,000. It would allow the firm to retain the otherwise-exiting associates (because they could work from home), and also free up precious office space for new hires.

At first, there was major resistance to this recommendation, mostly based on expense and some cultural concerns about working from home. But instead of focusing on how much it would cost to do this, I asked him how much it would cost to replace the associates and move to a larger space. Obviously, that figure was much greater.

The remote access system also proved to be an excellent recruitment tool, because the firm couldn't compete with some of the larger firms' salary offers. Looked upon under this light, the technology was easily justified. But, we would have never gotten to that point had we not first uncovered the business issues that would ultimately drive the need for new technology.

Developing a Plan

Step 1: Ask the firm's management committee for a copy of the firm's business plan.

If they don't have one, see if they have an executive summary from their last annual partner's retreat. Depending on your firm, you may get some resistance to this, as a worst-case scenario, ask them to give you some basic outline for the year. You must have a roadmap from which to base your plan.

Step 2: Interview a cross section of partners, associates, paralegals, secretaries, accounting and administrative staff.

While feedback from the rainmakers will probably give you the best ideas, it's very important to include a few people from all departments. If you decide to propose some radical changes, you'll find that your entire staff will be more inclined to support you if they feel they were part of the process. Consider which partners you select for the interviews. While the "techno partners" will probably be the ones talking the loudest, it's vital to hear what the rainmakers think. Be careful to avoid discussing technology and focus on business concerns.

Step 3: Interview the firm's top clients. This may reap the greatest feedback for your plan. Many technology decision are driven by clients. (Why do you think so many firms are switching to Microsoft Word?) You'll find less resistance to technology changes if they are requested by your clients.

Step 4: Review your interview notes with your IT staff, and the firm's third party technology providers.

They will be able to assist you in bridging the gap between the business issues and technology.

Step 5: Develop the plan.

Project your timeline by quarters, to allow flexibility if you have to postpone certain projects. Use a graphics to illustrate where the firm is now, and where it needs to be. This will help your technology-challenged partners understand what's going on, as well as offer a quick, accessible snapshot that a partner can review easily (even on a plane).

Once the plan is completed and approved, recommend that a summary be included in the firm's business plan and that progress should be monitored and discussed in bi-annual meetings.

Step 6: Share the plan.

Now that you've created your plan, let everybody know what you are doing. Sharing your ideas will ease the anxieties over transitions and generateenthusiasm about new opportunities that will be created through the use of the new tools. It also reinforces a basic principle: that everybody in the firm is involved in the process.

Tom Baldwin is a principal with Cyber-CIO, L.L.C., based in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

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