Small firms are constantly urged to go paperless, synchronize their practice management, and store everything in the cloud so they can access their files remotely from a tablet or phone. The upsides sound great in theory: higher efficiency, lower staff costs, integrated case management, fewer lost files, and lower malpractice risks.
But the specifics of pulling this off can be dizzying for firms that haven't evolved as new technologies developed over the past decade or two. As a result, consultants say, many small firms stick with a hodgepodge of old systems, often clinging to Microsoft Outlook to manage their practices. They typically just attach a billing system, a file management system, and other software - all purchased ad hoc over a decade or longer.
"Some attorneys are still tracking time with a yellow pad ... and [they] have a secretary who types the time into a billing system," says Kim Appleby, a law firm management consultant in Oakland and Encino.
Not only does that make it harder for attorneys to capture all their billable time, it duplicates effort. And a system that's cobbled together can allow a digital chasm to open between a small firm and its competitors, whereas efficient case management translates into better customer service that elevates a firm in clients' eyes.
"As legal [services] start to look like a commodity, and the buyer can choose from among 50 different family lawyers, firms need to adapt," says Paolo Broggi of 2b1 Inc., a practice management consulting firm in San Francisco.
The first step in adopting a new practice management system is to overcome inertia. "People marry their software," says Norman Calderon of Greentree Solutions in El Segundo. "They more willingly give up a spouse than give up a piece of software they're comfortable with." Although a system may cause frustration in their daily lives, it's still the system they know, says Broggi.
"Often it is a generational issue," says Appleby. "When partners have done things a certain way for a long time and they're profitable doing it that way, they are comfortable."
Consultants - and attorneys who have had technology updates - say the expense can pay off quickly, but an upgrade also should be seen as an investment. The Amicus Attorney practice management software website offers a "return on investment calculator" that assumes the software will enable each biller to capture two additional tasks per day. For a theoretical firm purchasing a license for three attorneys and two assistants with an average billing rate of $200 per person per hour, the calculator estimates that the firm would recoup the software cost ($2,095 for the small-firm version, not including implementation and training) in less than 20 days.
Kathy Campbell, a family law sole practitioner in Sunnyvale, estimates that her switch to Amicus paid for itself in three months because the software reminds her to account for all billable tasks, reduces repetitive activities, and lets her create standard processes for common tasks like answering discovery requests.
To interest the firm in updating practice management, Appleby advises bringing staff members into the discussion as early as possible: Office managers and legal secretaries often are the first to understand how much time can be saved on administrative tasks like calendaring, so they may be in a unique position to help assess how useful a new system will be. Making sure everyone is prepared for change is critical.
"If half of the attorneys aren't using [the new system], or the staff won't use it," then the switch won't work, Appleby warns. On the other hand, Broggi says he's seen successful upgrades where some lawyers use 90 percent of the system and others use 20 percent to 30 percent. And firms don't have to throw out the entire system they have. "We rarely take everything out and start from scratch," says Broggi. "We see what [the firm] has, where communication breaks down, and how to make information more readily accessible to the whole team."
Waiting for a "perfect" solution is not productive, says Ann Guinn, a practice management consultant who specializes in serving solos and small firms. She suggests that firms start by making a list of their tasks. Then, among those, they should identify the most time-intensive, the nonbillable, and the ones that get put aside because there's never enough time. Focus on solving those problems, Guinn says, and work in stages. "Learn enough to keep your practice running; then, later, you can dig down deeper," she says. A firm might start by opening all new cases in the new system, then add other active cases as time allows.
Attorney Campbell says it was important for her to be willing to have a negative experience. When one new billing program she tried wasn't sufficiently intuitive, she switched back. "You just have to bite the bullet," she says. "I had a negative experience with one try, but a positive experience with the next."
Matthew L. Eanet, a partner at business litigation firm Eanet McCreary in Los Angeles, says he tries out new software for a couple of months to minimize disruptions to the firm as a whole (taking advantage of free trials and avoiding publishers that limit the functions or the data he can use). If training videos are available, he watches them. But consultants advise law firms not to do too much research on their own. "Researching practice management software yourself is like representing yourself at trial," warns Broggi. "There are technical issues such as backup and storage that a firm may not identify before it's too late."
Ease the Transition
Whether firms choose to work through a consultant or not, professionals advise scheduling the transition for a time when the firm is less busy and arranging for a lot of support - even if it's pricey (as much as $160 an hour for consultants, or $300 for a two-hour individualized webinar training from Amicus, for instance). For Campbell, the most difficult part was inputting data and customizing forms. "It was a double bind," she says: She couldn't bill clients for the time she spent getting up to speed, but getting up to speed precluded her from working on billable tasks.
"Nothing is ever painless," cautions Appleby. But if a small firm learns to use technology to its best advantage, eventually it can be more agile and responsive to clients than a behemoth.
Celia McGuinness is managing attorney at the Law Office of Paul Rein, a small firm practicing disability rights law in Oakland.