By Jordan McQuown, CIO

Law firms routinely come to us with a specific pain point: an outdated document management system, an aging server, a cyber security issue or a myriad of other challenges.  They eagerly await the resolution of the problem so they can get back to focusing on work.  But I have a concern.

In nearly every situation where we’ve encountered outdated technology, a single fix will not actually fix the problem.  Why?  Because technology is an ecosystem.  Like all ecosystems, changes in one area impact other areas.  An improved document management system might require a new server which might require new network systems which will definitely impact cyber security.  How do you afford it all?  How do you anticipate an expensive upgrade chain reaction? 

It appears to me that most small-to-mid-sized law firms have accepted, as a reality of modern business, that they cannot keep their entire technology ecosystem upgraded and on the cutting-edge.   I do not accept this premise.  To realize break-throughs in productivity and profits, you need a better approach to managing technology obsolescence.  Here is my advice about how to do this. 

 

THE 5 MOST VISIBLE PROLEMS RELATING TO OBSOLECENCE

We are all familiar with the pace of technological change over the past few decades: the Internet, smartphones, digital music and photography, brain scans, self-driving cars, and so much more.  But there is a downside to the productivity enhancements these technologies bring us.  The very tools we come to rely on quickly become outdated—or stop functioning entirely—in what seems to be ever-shorter periods of time. 

Consider five of the most visible problems, relating to technological obsolescence at law firms, that we see every day:

  1. Outdated hardware, from firm servers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones
  2. Document management systems that won’t scale or are hopelessly outdated
  3. Remote connectivity challenges with speed, ease of use and security
  4. Cyber security challenges of many types (see my recent article)
  5. Database Integration for time and billing, case management, document management, and other firm-wide database systems that won’t integrate, won’t scale or both

And these five are just the tip of the iceberg. Typically, when we are given the opportunity to take a law firm through our deep-dive technology discovery process, we uncover literally hundreds of issues relating to technology obsolescence.

Key Insight

The CIO’s role is to anticipate the technology needs of a law firm and to martial financial, human and technology resources so the firm realizes its business goals.  

 

5 ROOT CAUSES

After analyzing the technology management practices of more than 100 mid-size law firms, I have come to identify what I believe to be the five root causes of technology obsolescence and associated productivity problems:

  1. Absence of effective technology leadership
  2. A lack of understanding of technology as an ecosystem
  3. Sacred cows that should have been sacrificed long ago
  4. Technology as a constant afterthought
  5. All of the above resulting in accidental technology policy creation

The first root cause is that most small and mid-size law firms do not have, and often cannot afford, a Chief Information Officer (CIO).  The result is that the leadership of the firm, often attorneys, are tasked with creating technology strategy and policy.    

Even when a Director of IT is involved, their role is usually to keep the wheels on the bus of the existing environment.  This means that almost no one is looking five to seven years out and asking the question – what technology ecosystem do we need to run our business profitably?

This is the root cause of nearly every technology obsolescence issue we see at LOGICFORCE.  The role of the CIO is to anticipate the technology needs of a law firm and to martial financial, human and technological resources to ensure the firm realizes its business strategy and achieves its full potential. 

Without this leadership, attorneys are often tasked with creating technology policy.  This usually doesn’t work because most attorneys are not technology experts.  They tend to make sub-optimal (and occasionally truly damaging) decisions in the heat of the moment, after something has gone wrong.   

The second root cause is an under-appreciation of technology as an ecosystem of interconnected devices, applications, and technologies.  Put simply, everything from storage and backup to security to network connectivity to applications are now connected to and affect each other.

A lack of understanding of technology as an ecosystem usually creates two problems: lopsided refresh and surprise technology upgrade expenses.  Lopsided technology refresh occurs when one part of an ecosystem is upgraded but not others.  For instance, a law firm might upgrade a server but not desktops.  Yes, the server is now faster, but if the desktops are old and slow, they might not realize the value of the faster server which calls the entire expenditure into question.   

Another common scenario we encounter is a chain reaction of expenses from upgrades that spiral out of control.  I noted a moment ago how an improved document management system might require a new server and network upgrades. Law firms might budget for the license fees of the document management system, but they often do not anticipate the server and network upgrade expenses.  This leads to very unhappy budget discussions and tough decisions.

The third root cause is sacred cows.  When busy attorneys set technology policy, the path of least resistance is the most attractive.  We see this in software programs designed to manage specific processes, such as time and billing, that lack integration features.  Some law firms chose a piece of software that looked good at a moment in time.  But now, that software won’t connect to other applications that promise much better integration and productivity. 

The old software is a sacred cow that everyone knows how to use.  Should it be replaced?  Yes.  Is it holding the firm back?  Yes.  But sometimes, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. So the old technology stays and the firm suffers.

The fourth root cause is technology as a constant afterthought.  Many law firms will wait until a computer or server dies or attorneys can no longer do their work.  There is a reactive mindset, one that waits until after the next problem or crisis hits, rather than thinking things through in a proactive way and then acting accordingly.

The first four root causes produce the fifth root cause: accident technology policy creation.  When no one is responsible to create technology policy, but a law firm relies heavily on technology, policy will be created in an ad hoc manner.  Not only is ad hoc policy more expensive and less efficient, it misses the mark on producing the high-performance technology ecosystem that you’ll need in the future.

There are two ways to be successful in business: accidentally or on purpose.  I want you to be successful on purpose and to take control of realizing the full potential of your law firm.  This is why I want to share with you a much better way of addressing technology obsolescence. 

 

THE MUCH BETTER WAY

If you want to realize the benefits of a high-performance technology ecosystem, I’d like to recommend four clear steps:

  1. Create a future-state business-and-technology vision
  2. Perform a deep dive assessment on your current-state
  3. Develop a blueprint to go from current-to-future-state
  4. Execute the blueprint

First, create the overall vision of the future-state of your law firm—where you want it to be in 5 to 7 years.  To do this, ask yourself what technology ecosystem you will need to make your vision a reality.  At a high level, what kind of technology ecosystem will you need to support a certain type of clientele or expand certain practice areas?  What ecosystem will tomorrow’s work-force require? 

Second, perform a deep dive assessment of your current-state technology ecosystem.  Create an inventory of your current systems and analyze the performance of:

  • Document management systems
  • Email systems
  • Company issued computers
  • Company issued mobile computing devices (phones, tablets, phablets, PDAs)
  • Servers
  • On-premise enterprise applications, including time and billing systems
  • Cloud-based applications of all types
  • Storage systems (including network storage, off-site, and cloud-based systems)
  • Backup and archive systems
  • Network hardware (switches, routers, internet access, WIFI and threat management systems)
  • Remote access systems (connectivity, security)
  • All cyber-security systems, hardware and software

Third, map out a technology blueprint to go from current-state to future-state.  This should include a plan to afford, acquire, deploy and maintain all the technology you’ll need to realize your firm’s business goals.  This should also include human skillsets.  I recommend that you focus on key initiatives that are most likely to deliver returns in the time horizons you need, such as short-term (1 year), mid-term (2-4 years) and longer-term (5+ years).

Fourth, execute the plan, which brings us right back to the need for technology leadership.  A competent and experienced technology leader will manage to plan and budget and show you the results of your expenditures.  They will also update the plan as needed to keep you on track with your changing business goals. 

 

CONCLUSION

If the 5 visible problems and 5 root causes sound familiar to you, but you’re not sure where to go next, I have a solution.  I’ve co-written an Ebook called Ten Strategies To Add Ten Million Dollars To Your Law Firm that I know will really help you.  The Ebook also goes into much greater detail about how to conduct your current-state to future-state blueprint process.  You can download the Ebook for free right now.