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Legal Tech Implementation Projects: They're a Cultural Thing

In analysis / By Charles Christian / 24 January 2020

One of the aspects of the legal industry that has always intrigued me is how some law firms can enjoy huge success with an implementation of legal technology process and rollout, whilst an almost identical firm finds itself bogged-down with problems, missing deadlines, over-running budgets and complaining that “it’s a computer disaster”. What makes this phenomenon even more fascinating is when this involves the same type of software application – usually case/matter management systems – from the same software supplier.

Why do some law firms swear by the software, whereas others swear at it?

Now my own theory, based on my observations over the last 20 years (which is about when legal software started to become more standardized and based on the same Microsoft SQL Server database and Windows end-user interface) is that it has NOTHING to do with the technology. Instead it has everything to do with not just the people element, but the overall law firm culture – and by “culture” I mean the way a particular law firm operates. Let me explain…

Law Firm Culture and Change Management

The formula I use to describe this phenomenon is: People + Culture + Process + Change THEN Technology (or PCTx2).

With the firms that suffer “computer disasters”, they typically start with the technology solution and then impose it upon their end-users - both fee-earners and administrative staff. Frequently, “change management” involves little more than warning people they’ll be switching to a new system next month and here is the training schedule.

Then, lo and behold, there is uproar because the new system doesn’t operate the way they are used to working. Furthermore, far from improving productivity, it also proves to be less efficient because so much work is having to be manually amended. All in all a disaster and certainly not what the partnership was hoping for when they signed up for the new system.

People and Culture

Now let’s look at the firms where this is a success and I had the great benefit about 10 years ago of preparing a case study on this topic for a firm that had recently merged with another practice. Both firms had large conveyancing departments and couldn’t understand why the original firm was enjoying success with the new conveyancing case management system, while the merged firm was struggling. It was all down to People and Culture.

The lawyers at the original firm had already grasped that conveyancing is a commodity business and qualified staff should be focusing their billable time on handling the difficult non-standard stuff AND supervising the other staff, to whom the conduct of routine aspects of conveyancing matters had been delegated. Indeed, for standard residential conveyancing work, this is the only way a law firm can return a decent profit margin.

The merged firm however was a traditional practice (which probably explains why it had had to merge) where the lawyers were far more hands-on in all aspects of the work and still using their staff as little more than secretaries, rather than as non-qualified fee-earners. The firm even discovered that although the new conveyancing software contained a perfectly adequate library of document and correspondence precedents, lawyers in the merged firm were dictating amendments to the standard-form letters, which their secretaries then implemented because this is how they had always operated.

It was the right system but in the hands of the wrong people with an outmoded work culture. All of which brings us neatly to the final two elements namely: Process and Change.

Process and Change

If you have an outmoded culture, then you need to identify the problematic processes and review how they can be changed. With case management, the key is very often don’t sweat over the routine stuff; if it can be safely delegated to non-qualified (and therefore cheaper to employ) staff, then do it and leave the qualified staff to concentrate on the complicated aspects of matters where their lawyering skills can be used to good advantage.

Of course, this does frequently prompt the old response “But we want a computer system that works 100 percent the way we’ve always worked. We don’t want a system that forces us to change the way we work so it fits in better with the computer system!”

It’s a valid point of view, albeit a stupid point of view, because if you are not prepared to change the way you work then what is the purpose of going to all the expense and disruption of implementing a new computer system when you are only going to use it as a glorified typewriter?

People, Culture, Process, Change – and then focus on the Technology. Address the first four points and the technology implementation stage will follow on far more smoothly and efficiently.

If you’d like to speak to someone at Nasstar about your current legal tech systems and technology implementation, contact us today.

Charles Christian

Charles Christian

Charles is a former barrister and Reuters correspondent turned writer and the founder of the Legal IT Insider newsletter, website and resource.

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