Software Overload: Issues with Technology or Processes?

Smaller law firms have all sorts of challenges when it comes to technology. They need software that works well with a minimum of fuss, and it must be compatible with the other software programs the firm uses. Small firms also generally lack the financial resources and IT staff that larger firms have. As a result, they have more stringent budget constraints and search out software that is intuitive and doesn't require extensive training.

Many vendors will be happy to explain why small firms need to install their particular products, if the firm hopes to run more efficiently and cost effectively. Of course, taking vendors at their word can end up costing law firms plenty in terms of time and money. Installing a new software program usually requires a significant investment. Deciding to change software in the future can be expensive. Besides purchasing new software, the firm will have to invest in training for staff and attorneys and force everyone to abandon methods that have worked in the past.

What if the answer to some software dilemmas was much simpler? Rather than looking for a technology solution, what if it turns out the problem lies within processes and mindsets? What if the firm already has the most efficient, appropriate software out there and just isn't utilizing its full capabilities?

Before small firms rush out to purchase time, billing, collections and other types of new software, they should take a long, hard look at their current tools, processes and solutions. They may already have the solution to their problems under their noses. After all, a software tool is just a tool. There are many tools, but not nearly as many solutions.

Identifying the Right Solution to the Right Problem

When problems arise, it's natural to look first for a software solution. After all, it makes sense that if the software isn't doing what the firm wants it to, then the problem must be a technological one. However, software will only do what it's told to do. The problem may be people-related.

Consider, for example, if partners are frustrated with their current collections software. It doesn't seem like collections have improved much since the firm invested in the system. So, the partners think it's time to look at new software. This may not be the right answer.

Instead, those at the firm need to carefully consider what they want from a collections system. That will help determine whether the problems lie within the system itself or in how it's being used. Obviously, the firm initially began using the system because clients weren't paying their bills; software alone won't get clients to pay. The problem may be with how staff and attorneys are using the system.

When staff and attorneys enter data, are they entering it correctly? Some of the problems may be as simple as spell-checking errors. Are they entering the correct information? Is the data being entered in a consistent and timely way? If partners are entering billing data a month late, then even the most conscientious clients will pay the bills a month late.

With many different people involved, an error at any point in the process can cause delays in collections. Different people have different perceptions of errors. A major error to one person may be perceived as a minor error to others. How a person perceives an error impacts the way and the time in which he responds to the error in the process. The best software won't change that.

When software is working decently but not spectacularly, firms may also consider ditching their current system to try something new. However, if they want a new system that will produce the exact same type of report with the same information, perhaps they should reconsider their current system. Or they should keep an open mind when looking at a different system, so that they can fully leverage it to gain new insights.

Fresh Eyes on Old Problems

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Often law firm staff and attorneys are too close to their own processes to see where problems lie or where situations can be improved. It may be politically treacherous to criticize how partners are doing their jobs. Staff and attorneys may also have trouble stepping back from their day-to-day jobs. It takes time and effort to clear off calendars and do a thorough review.

In some situations, it may be easier to bring in someone from outside to conduct the review. Fresh eyes can bring fresh insights. This doesn't mean that firms can't undertake the process internally, however. Once the partnership sees the advantages of redoing processes rather than purchasing new software, they are usually easily sold.

Improving efficiency and cost-effectiveness is always a good idea, but it's particularly important now. As the economy begins to show signs of life, smaller firms may be considering new software purchases they have been delaying over the last few years when times were so tough.

But firms should first consider how they can spend their money more intelligently. After undergoing a thorough review of their software and systems, firms may realize they can save money by investing in their people, rather than in software and training. Or, after a careful review, firms may decide it makes sense to purchase new software after all. But they will be able to make the right software choices and leverage new software to its greatest advantage.