Setting the Conditions for Success in Law Firm Tech Implementations

Tech Implementations

Setting the Conditions for Success in Law Firm Tech Implementations

I’d estimate the average person uses just 15% or so of the capability available in a conventional word processor, spreadsheet or presentation software. This means upwards of 85% of the available functionality in desktop tools found in the typical productivity suite goes unused, oftentimes needlessly complicating tasks and confusing users.

This happens in legal technology sectors as well.  In product management, we refer to this as feature bloat. We lose sight of the business objective and the problem the software was engineered to solve.  In place, we just start adding features and the product becomes difficult to maintain for the vendor, and difficult to use for an end-user because there are far too many options.

“Across the many hundreds of projects with which we’ve helped law firms, one lesson stands out in my mind: the seeds of success are planted long before any switch is flipped, giving a user access to new technology tools.”

Consequently, the business case and cost for the product comes into question.  In fact, management pushback, risk aversion and lack of vision are among the biggest barriers to implementation according to research as reported by the technology trade publication CIO Insight: How a Skills Gap Impedes the Use of New Tech.

This a classic illustration of losing sight of the business goals and implementing technology for technology’s sake. These lessons have taught product management teams, like my team here at Aderant, to really observe and listen to the end-user before establishing new product requirements and priorities for development.

We literally sit down with our end-users – partners, associates and the finance team– and just observe how they work.  We’ll ask probing questions to understand where their challenges really are, and analyze this information to define a business problem to solve for law firms long before any of our developers start writing code.

Seven Tips for Law Firms for New Implementations

We strive to set the conditions for successful new products and capabilities even before building them – and this same philosophy can help law firms better prepare their organizations for new technology implementations.

Across the many hundreds of projects with which we’ve helped law firms, one lesson stands out in my mind:  the seeds of success are planted long before any switch is flipped, giving a user access to new technology tools.  Here are some of the ways we have found, based on our experience, that law firms can set conditions for successful implementations:

1) Nest technology to business objectives

Software implementations don’t solve business problems; the software solves the problem.  This means any implementation project must be tied back to business objectives. Before picking a product it’s important to really understand the true challenges for the law firm, and define these clearly.  Where is the pain?  Is it growth?  Greater profitability?  Efficiency? Collaboration? Risk mitigation? Is it a higher level of client service?

Whatever the goal the firm decides, the implementation must trace back.  The purpose of an implementation isn’t to get a law firm to use new software; it’s to get attorneys and staff to use software to benefit the firm in some way.

2) Set reasonable expectations

One of the single largest problems we see is aiming for a big bang.  Firms are tempted to view new implementations as a chance to re-engineer the entire business.

“We want to do everything” we hear some law firms say, but this carries risks.  This is because while such ideas look good on paper, in reality these grandiose plans make change management much harder.

Focus instead on how you will earn incremental, but steady, improvements over time.  Plan to capitalize on early or quick wins to build momentum for success. Instead of aiming for 100% in 3-5 years, aim for 80% in a year.  Setting a strong foundation allows for quick wins and future successes.

3) Build executive support

Building executive support is the hallmark of new technology roll-outs.  From our perspective, this has become easier in recent years.  This is because firms see peers using technologies – so there’s precedent that lawyers are trained to look for – and vendors have learned to better communicate value.

This is an important point because, from a law firm leader perspective, they need to understand the value a new technology brings to the business.  If they don’t, or can’t, then technology looks like a cost.  For many law firms, such costs are literally out-of-pocket.

For example, the value of a modern time and billing system isn’t limited to the finance team but extends to the fee-earners.  Such systems help attorneys analyze and manage their book of business and that, in turn, helps grow the law firm more profitably.

4) What’s in it for the attorney

Similar to executive support, new implementations require preparation to earn the support of attorneys at all levels within the firm.  It isn’t enough for an attorney to understand that the clerk in accounts payable can do a better job if they use a new billing system – they have to understand what’s in it for them.

From a timekeeper’s perspective, this means understanding that the new system provides mobility options that enable them to be more productive, or to better understand how they are progressing on a matter.  The value for the attorney is the simplicity of insight and the ability to better communicate with a client.

Wherever possible, bring those attorneys into the process, from problem definition, to solution identification and evaluation.  Some firms have established technology committees for this reason, but it’s important to ensure these remain representative of the population that the firm intends to use a new tool.

5) Examine the implementation team

More than just technology, law firms need to evaluate the individual team members that a proposed vendor is putting forward to help get an IT project off the ground. There is no mistaking that experience matters and laws firms should look for a track record of success with projects specific to the solution they are considering implementing. These teams should bring best practices based on previous experiences in addition to knowledge of what works and what doesn’t inside a law firm.

It’s useful as well to speak with multiple teams from multiple vendors to focus the perspective. These conversations will allow a law firm to better tailor their requests for proposals (RFPs).  By our observation, RFPs that are clear, concise and specific pave the path for smoother implementations.

6) Plan for communication

The importance of communications in law firm technology implementations cannot be overemphasized.  New technology often requires change management and the management of that change is facilitated by sound communications before, during and even after implementation.

Firms have realized communications require an effort far beyond the “build it and they will come” approach.  However, a series of lunch-and-learn sessions, while helpful, are not independently enough either.  New implementations require what is, in essence, an internal marketing plan complete with materials that articulate both the benefits and “how-to” information.

7) Access to immediate help

Few things are more frustrating for an attorney, who is trying to complete work for a client and has to pause to fiddle around looking for a button to click on a new system.  Sure, vendors have put greater emphasis on user experience (UX) and training programs can help mitigate this sort of issue, but these won’t catch every misunderstanding.  Before an implementation is undertaken, successful firms develop plans to provide immediate support for users.

One technique we’ve seen work well is the concept of “floorwalkers.”  When a firm begins the initial roll-out, a floorwalker is present to help staff with a question or challenge immediately.  This does not require a support ticket request and it’s not a help desk function, rather it’s literally providing a dedicated subject matter expert (SME) on the floor during implementation.

Implementations are a Journey, not a Destination

A successful technology implementation never really ends.  This brings us back to the notion that implementations are undertaken not merely to be completed – they are done to provide a tool to solve a problem.

Modern systems begin collecting data to help solve problems almost immediately.  Law firms are able to understand how long a pre-bill sat on a fee-earner’s desk, how much time it took in the review and how many times the narrative was edited.

This is all information a firm can analyze and benchmark for continuous process improvement. It’s also a means to ensure a law firm can avoid investing the time and resources into a product and only wind up using a small fraction of the capabilities available.

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