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Making your technology investment pay off.

You've finally automated your law firm. All lawyers and staff have computers on their desks that are linked in a local area network (LAN), and the staff has had some initial training. (See Paul Bernstein, Investing in Training Makes Technology Worthwhile, TRIAL, Sept. 2000, at 80.) You have investigated, selected, and installed a case-management software program.

But even with all this, you don't see any significant increase in productivity. Why hasn't your investment in technology paid off? Here are some suggestions on getting more bang for your bucks.

Planning data entry

Your firm must have a written plan for using the case-management program--plan your work, then work your plan.

Create a schedule for inputting data. Schedule a date by which all basic client-and case-related information--such as names, addresses, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses; opposing counsel; case number; and future court dates--will be entered in the program.

Decide who will be responsible for getting this information into the computer. If you break the work into several parts, define who is to do what and by when. Make sure that your expectations are reasonable and that staff members have participated in decision-making so they have a sense of responsibility for carrying out the tasks.

Monitor the inputting to ensure it is on schedule. You might hold brown-bag lunches on Fridays (paid for by the office) so that staff and lawyers can compare notes and see how the project is moving along.

Your staff already have a lot to do, and putting data into a new system takes time and effort. Lawyers need to recognize that the data-input project is no less important than working on client files. Plan for "quiet time" when staff members can devote their full attention to the task.

A lawyer should be assigned to troubleshoot the process, spotting problems as they pop up and proofreading every entry. No one can accurately proofread his or her own typing; it's a lousy job, but someone has to ensure that the data are correct. You may have expected computers to reduce the number of hours you have to work, but at this stage of your automation efforts, you will be working harder then ever. But remember, as in bodybuilding, no pain means no gain. The same applies to implementing your case-management program properly.

Stick to your deadlines. When your goal is achieved, have a celebration. You and your staff will deserve it.

Putting lawyers in charge

Lawyers may be the most computerphobic people in the office. They say, "I don't know how to type" or "I don't have the time--I'm in trial."

But the lawyers in the firm are the leaders. If you don't "walk the talk," your staff will get the message that you do not really mean what you say or tell them to do.

From a business-management and leadership standpoint, you must set the standard: You must be the model all others look to for guidance. And if a staff person runs into a problem, you can build a good relationship and instill confidence by saying, "Oh, yes, I had a similar problem, and Sarah showed me how to do that; here's what you do," instead of looking angry and sending him or her to talk to someone else.

If you are the lawyer who runs the firm, you must set the technology example. If you don't type well, practice. Find the time to "learn computers." It's a skill you need now and will have to use in the future.

Here are some other areas you should be supervising as a business manager:

Passwords. You must be the master of passwords. While PCs may be set up to allow the user to create a password, I think it is essential for the boss--the lawyer--to create passwords for all staff members. That way, the firm can protect itself against outside tampering with the system and control internal changes. You should change those passwords regularly, perhaps monthly, and keep them confidential. That way, you are the captain of your ship--your computer systems--and an angry staff member or ex-employee cannot adversely affect your systems.

Backup. It's not uncommon for lawyers to have rush jobs at the end of the day, and the person expected to back up the data on your file server may get caught up in emergency work, then race out to catch the 6:12 train. That may leave the daily backup undone. You should know how to back up the firm's files and see that it is done. You should also be responsible for taking the backup data off-site each day.

In-house users group. These groups can be an important way for office staff and lawyers to stay abreast of changing technology. (See Paul Bernstein, The Evolution of Computer Users Groups, TRIAL, Oct. 2001, at 76.) Once you have finished entering data in your case-management program, why not continue those Friday brown-bag lunches as in-house users group meetings? You could discuss, among other things, continued data-input efforts, problems that have popped up and how to solve them, and the next steps you will take with office computer technology.

New technology investigations. Full automation of a law firm does not stop with case management. You need to learn more about how technology can make your firm more productive, efficient, and profitable. Reading law office technology articles, attending educational programs, and joining online discussion groups will teach you which computer applications other lawyers are using and how they work.

Managing your business

Gone are the days when lawyers could just try cases. We must run our practices as businesses. It's not an easy task and it may not be much fun, but it is necessary. Good business management will ensure that you have an efficient, more profitable practice. When the work in your office is handled more efficiently, you and your staff will face less stress.

Among other benefits:

* Staff will learn new skills that will enhance their value to the firm.

* Happier and more "family"-oriented relationships will develop among firm employees. In my experience, most staff will even accept lower pay than is available elsewhere if there is a feeling of community in the office.

* If the firm is making more money, so should the staff. Good businesspeople in every type of business have some form of profit sharing--if you have a good year, so does your staff. If the boss is perceived as working not only to earn money for himself or herself but also for everyone else in the office, staff will work more like owners than like hired hands.

Learning how to make good use of technology and how to be a better law-firm manager will take time and energy. But an efficient and productive business will ultimately result in more time to spend on family and leisure activities.

Paul Bernstein is an attorney and law-office automation consultant in Chicago. He can be reached by e-mail at paulbern@interaccess.com. The views expressed in this column are the author's and do not constitute an endorsement of any product by TRIAL or ATLA.
COPYRIGHT 2002 American Association for Justice
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Bernstein, Paul
Publication:Trial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
Words:1178
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