Assessing Your Law Firm's Technology
Note: This article first appeared in Law Office Computing, February/March 2002 Issue.
It seems this past year I've seen a significant increase in consulting requests for "Technology Assessments." Most law firms, law departments, and law schools I've consulted with recently have asked to assess their current technology environment, and in particular, their Information Technology (IT) staffing resources. There are many reasons for this sudden increase in awareness, but perhaps the greatest is a trend in law firms to recognize they may have too much technology (spelled "software") and they are not able to take advantage of what exists.
There are no easy answers, but conducting a technology assessment is a very good exercise. What I hope to share with you in this article is what should be involved and how to accomplish the assessment. Several "rules" before we start. First, this is not a one-man (or woman) show there should be several different individuals involved. Second, this exercise should follow some guidelines and processes one piece of information may lead to additional information. And third, you don't necessarily need a consultant to do the assessment. But, you may find that an outsider may provide you with an objective viewpoint that can help address some technology issues.
It's strange, but I often find that when I conduct technology assessments for law firms and law departments, I'm pretty much telling management the same story as IT or the technology committee, but for some reason management would rather believe someone who's paid for their advice; go figure. I do, as many good consultants do, follow the philosophy that "Success Comes From Within," meaning that many of the issues and ideas come from the IT staff, techno.attorneys, or techno.staff. My job is to collectively present the information, the recommendations, and the costs and help to foster these technologies within the firm.
I have found more times than not, many IT staff within a law firm "know" the system inside and out, but because they system has grown over the years, they may not have the "big picture." Often, the systems are configured the way they are because "that's the way it's always been." And the old adage, "if it ain't broke don't fix it," is still very true. However, it is very much worth the effort to conduct this assessment you will uncover several issues, problems and answers you didn't know existed.
is a Technology Assessment?
An assessment is just that a review and evaluation of your current technology environment. What you do with that information later is up to the firm, but this gives you a start. In my experience, the initial assessment leads to immediate recommendations, such as standardizing on software applications or hardware platforms. The next logical step is to develop your firm's strategic technology plan, but even then, you'll need the baseline information gathered during this assessment.
Lay out a spreadsheet or a table indicating the computer software and licensing (yes, there are still some firms that are not completely licensed for all the software they have). Break out those applications that run from the server and those that run from the desktop. You can use off the shelf tools to help you gather information. Larger firms with hundreds of computer workstations cannot afford to manually gather the information. Yet, automated tools may not be totally accurate. Check the final list before preparing the assessment.
I usually use the following categories, because it helps to organize the software into meaningful functions: Desktop Operating System(s); Core Software Applications; Accounting Applications; Substantive Software Applications; Legal Research Applications; and Utility Applications.
The whole purpose of gathering software information is to determine what your firm currently uses. You'll probably find there are several versions of the same product. For example, you may have several versions of Microsoft Word or several versions of Corel WordPerfect. That may be OK - you don't need to worry about that right now. After all, this is an assessment of the software.
You may also find there are several products that do the same function. For example, you may have copies of Microsoft Office Suite on several computers, and several copies of Corel WordPerfect Office Suite on others. That means you have both Word and WordPerfect, both Excel and QuattroPro, both PowerPoint and Presentations, etc. Again, this is an assessment; you'll figure out later if your firm can or should support both.
Skill sets are basically functions within particular applications that users know, or should know. For example, you may want to have support staff know various functions within Word or WordPerfect. There may be a different set of skills for attorneys using word processing. There is no "correct" answer. What works is what works best for your firm. Skill sets also provide a correlation with the firm's training.
Most important, include the purchase date. A Pentium/200 with 256 MB of RAM memory may have been plenty of horsepower five years ago, but now it's a dog and wastes staff and attorney time because it is so slow. Many times, IT staff will find one server may be slow compared to others and this exercise will help lay out the various other potential configurations, including load balancing, or better yet, server upgrades. This helps to give justification as to why the firm may want to replace particular file servers.
How often should servers be upgraded? Again, it depends on the use of the server. For example, a server purchased five years ago that handle the firm's email (and nothing but the email) may continue to work fine today. But loaded with a few "newer" applications over the years, because there's "room," the server may be overloaded causing a slowdown for the firm's email, causing the firm's users to complain. There is no "perfect" rotation period for servers. Many IT staff look to replace or upgrade servers every two years, but then again, it depends on the applications run from the server. At a bare minimum, evaluate the server performance every two years and replace at least every three or four years. The idea here is to keep a steady technology budget in place. That last thing you want to do is have a server crash with no replacement or no backups because you've waited too long to upgrade.
Assessment Computers, Notebooks, Printers
From this assessment of desktop computers, you can easily determine your current minimum desktop configuration. You can then determine if this minimum configuration will handle the needs of the firm. For example, if your firm intends to run the Microsoft Office 2000 Suite, you may determine that the older Pentium II/200 MHz systems with 32 MB of RAM will need to be replaced.
Most software applications are 32-bit which require a faster processor, more RAM memory, and a larger and faster hard disk drive. When multiple programs are simultaneously open, the end user often experiences a drop in desktop performance such as slow downs during peak periods or even lock ups. This is a common problem and while there may be numerous technical issues, these problems usually boil down to one of three areas: desktop workstation CPU speed, amount of RAM, and hard disk capacity. Slow downs and lock ups are probably experienced more by the users having the older desktop workstations. These will become apparent in the desktop assessment.
Notebook computers are a different story. Many firms choose to purchase notebook computers instead of desktop computers because "the attorneys want them." What is typically missed in this decision is that notebook computers require additional training for the end user. File transfers to and from the server, dialing into the firm's system or connecting to the Internet are all additional training requirements. And, what about security? How many notebook computers has your firm lost over the last year? The cost of the notebook computer is not important what is most important is the cost of the attorney's time or worse, the proprietary and confidential client information that is on that computer. Yes, additional training should be required for those lawyers requesting portable computers.
Let me give you an example of an unstable network. You receive a "broadcast" message several times a day indicating "Emergency Reboot: The network will be shut down in 5 minutes." We're not talking several times a month; we're talking several times a day. If that happens in your firm, you need to do some serious evaluation of your technology. A stable and reliable network is one that rarely goes down (all networks go down periodically; the better maintained ones are shut down for maintenance on a predetermined and scheduled maintenance.
Assessing the computer network usually means reviewing how the servers are setup and connected, how the cabling and wiring are configured and run, hubs and/or switches, and wiring closets. Many firms use "passive" hubs that simply route the signal on the computer network. One assessment may be determining how much time IT spends troubleshooting cable problems. Using "managed" hubs, IT can better troubleshoot wiring and switch problems from a central location - they don't have to spend hours figuring out which cable or which hub is causing the problem. Again, the key is to determine what is currently in place and should there be a change.
The end user typically only sees the computer on their desk, the printer, and cables. Most users know there is a "big" computer system called a server and somehow information gets to their computers over network cable. However, there is much more to moving information through a law firm than cables. The network infrastructure typically consists of several servers, high-speed switches, hubs, routers, and a nest of cabling tucked away in closets, walls, and ceilings. It is this infrastructure that is the "glue" to a law firm network.
There are literally thousands of ways to build a network infrastructure. An assessment typically covers the necessary equipment and determines whether the end user performance can be enhanced by upgrading the infrastructure. Most law firms implement a 100 mbps Ethernet topology (100BaseT), the current defacto standard in networking. This means information travels through the network at about 100 million bits per second. Network cable is specified as "Category 5" or "Cat5" and is the size of regular telephone cable. Older 10 mbps networks were cabled using coax cable (similar to cable TV).
This may be one of those assessments that should involve someone from the firm management. The reason is that it is important for management to understand wiring and network problems from a technology perspective. No one expects management to get down on their hands and knees to route cables, but when you can show them an unsecure wiring closet and explain to them the reason the network went down last week was because an air conditioning maintenance man accidentally bumped into the network hub and disconnected the power, they'll get the picture.
Law firms are growing outside the traditional brick and mortar buildings. Attorneys travel and work at home and need access to electronic information stored on the firm's computers. You have to provide them that access in order for them to be productive, increase the bottom line, and help the firm grow (all those things we learned in Business 101). The communications assessment deals with the current situation and issues. From this exercise, you'll probably find the most "holes" in the system, whether they are problems and frustrations with access or security concerns. Communications is something you can't "touch or feel"; it's an intangible and sometimes that is harder to understand.
What most firms experience in communications issues is computer viruses. Very few firms are "hacked." Usually the firm will catch a virus (either email or other) and hopefully the virus protection software will catch it before it becomes rampant within the firm. Most firms implement a solid virus protection scheme the ones that work best are the ones that are automatically implemented. That is, the IT department puts the virus data definition file in the login script. That way, every time a user logs into the network, s/he always has the latest virus data definitions.
Intranet, and Extranet Assessments
Size doesn't necessarily mean much here. Small firms that rely on business from the Internet may be able to justify a full-time WebMaster. Mid-size and large firms may have the internal resources to do it themselves, or they may out source their design and maintenance. Again, the use of the Internet is so varied from firm to firm, you have to review what your firm does on the Internet. I often suggest having the firm form a "task force" of firm members as well as a few clients to review the site internally as well externally. Do this annually. You'll get some valuable feedback.
Job descriptions for WebMasters also vary. WebMasters typically handle a variety of tasks, including HTML coding or using a Web Editor. The WebMaster may implement a data-base type Internet with Cold Fusion, allowing the firm a more dynamic and easier to maintain site. The WebMaster may also have the capabilities to create graphics for the site. The WebMaster may be part of the Marketing Department, and assist with other types of marketing materials. These are just a few ideas of what a WebMaster does.
Intranets do not "make money" for the firm. Intranets are a way of "saving money" for the firm. For example, I'm working with a mid-size firm that is contemplating developing an Intranet. The firm's "management committee" wants to know how much it will cost and how much the firm will save, neither of which are unreasonable requests. The exercise is to determine potential cost saving in areas that are paper intensive. Start with the Human Resources and Firm Administration areas: manuals (how much paper can be saved if we don't have to reprint the 50 page Personnel Manual for 250 people every year?).
Extranets are a way of "making money" for the firm as well as "saving money." It's beyond the scope of this article to go into too much detail about Extranets, but think of an Extranet as a way of sharing work product and matter information with clients in a secure and authorized environment. Many firms are looking at implementing an Extranet to "grow a stronger relationship with their clients." Not a bad goal, especially if your firm is leading the way. The big issue with Extranets is should the firm host the Extranet internally or out source the Extranet to a third party? There is no easy answer to this, but depending upon what the firm wants to provide (work product or direct access to matter information), access to clients will drive the decision to develop internally or externally.
One trend I've noted, however, is that successful training classes are shortened, usually to one or two hours at the most. Trainers concentrate on specific functions within applications. It may be generating tables in word processors or functions within spreadsheets. Lawyers and staff can usually get away for an hour, but not a day (or half day). This puts a burden on the training department and law firms are starting to "get it." By increasing their training resources and providing incentives to get attorneys to training, law firms can provide the necessary training to become more efficient and more productive.
A good training department will have manuals, custom designed for their firm, and reference books. Training is often paired with the Help Desk and trainers often rotate through the Help Desk. This helps the firm understand the coordination between what is being taught and what problems may exist. Of course, if the same person in the law firm keeps the Help Desk busy with the same problems, but refuses to attend training well, that's a decision for firm management.
"Behind the Walls" support usually consists of network administration, cabling infrastructure, and server maintenance. These activities take place at the server level, not at the desktop level. These guys are rarely seen, but the firm must realize that they are there and help to support the firm's technology infrastructure. Is the firm's network reliable? That's usually maintained by the guys "Behind the Walls." Does the network ever go down or do you have wiring problems? That's also taken care of by the guys "Behind the Walls."
"Desktop Support" usually consists of those folks within the IT department that set up and configure individual users' computers. They usually coordinate with the Help Desk (and often are the Help Desk) to troubleshoot problems and answer end user problems. They also assist with personal attention to specific issues, such as laptop checkouts, litigation support, case management administration, or word processing questions.
How many staff should be in the IT department? That's a question everyone asks and there is not a definitive answer. Law firm management usually has a tough time justifying additional "non-billable" resources, but it's because they often don't understand the technology resource requirements. There are several resources most law firms turn to: LawNet (www.peertopeer.org), Altman Weil (www.altmanweil.com), and Hildebrandt (www.hildebrandt.com) to name a few. LawNet's recent IT salary survey (October 2000) indicates that in both large firms and small firms there should be one full-time IT staff person for every 20 end users. Consultants often indicate there should be at least one full-time employee for every 35 - 40 end users. While the numbers may vary, the ranges are what is important and should be considered a baseline.
The numbers typically depend on what you determine is IT. For example, if you only include the techies who take care of the computer systems (software, hardware, and networking) then you would use the higher number. If you include Litigation Support or WebMasters as IT you'd use the lower number. Other issues that would drive the number lower (more IT staff), would be if your firm implemented several large database systems, such as case management, document management, or SQL servers. In addition, telecommunications (such as Citrix, Wide Area Networks, or remote dial in) require additional resources.
You must also keep in mind that there are three types of techies: one is the pure techie, such as the one who sits in the corner of the IT office programming in some strange assembly language code and can actually mimic a modem connect tone by humming. Another is the "communicator," one who can "talk the talk" and understand what an attorney means when she says "it just doesn't work." S/he may not be as technical as the first example. The third techie is the rarest of all one who has outstanding communications skills and can also take apart the file server's hard drive and lubricate the heads and have it back up before breakfast all the while explaining in layman's terms the reasons why this exercise will help increase the firm's bottom line.
The point is, computer IT staff have strengths and weaknesses, just like lawyers. Some can handle multiple tasks and duties, while others have a single strength. The IT manager must understand these personalities and make the entire IT department work like a well-oiled machine. You may find a super duper IT staff that can handle both hardware and software, and one that can communicate well with all types of users. IT staff are people too they need to be recognized and appreciated, not yelled at for things they have no control over. I can't tell you the number of times I've listened to attorneys scream at an IT person only to find out their problems are not related at all to their job or their technology. We are all grown-ups and we all work in the firm. When we work well together, we all benefit.
Assessing an IT department usually begins with discussions about individual responsibilities within the IT department and the overall role of IT. The firm should have job descriptions for each position in the IT department. Discussions within the IT department as well as others in the firm should provide a good indication of how the IT department serves the firm. If there is mention of many of the same problems by various individuals within the firm, then attention needs to be placed in those areas. For example, if the Help Desk is not responsive in solving problems, then the firm needs to evaluate the process and procedures. It may be that the Help Desk serves as an "operator" to take messages and pass them along to the more technical folks within the IT department. If it's broke, fix it.
I've also run into many problems with technology priorities within a law firm. If the firm does not have a technology plan or a strategic business plan, then most likely there are no priorities and spending is out of control. This is not the fault of the IT department the responsibility lies with the firm's management. The firm's IT department mission is to assist, procure, and implement systems for the firm's law practice - period! It's beyond the scope of this article to address the details of a technology plan, but rest assured, if your firm doesn't have one, you're probably experiencing many of these frustrations.
Once the firm has completed this exercise, it's probably worth reviewing what it would take to develop a technology plan for the firm. The assessment can provide you with valuable information about the current technology environment. It will help you understand the immediate goals and requirements for the firm.
There are many reasons for developing a strategic technology plan, but perhaps the most compelling is that the plan follows the firm's strategic business plan and puts in place both a budget and an implementation schedule for major projects, major upgrades, and procedures for technology choices. The plan also provides some justification for issues such as desktop workstations versus notebook computers with docking stations, Palm PDAs versus Blackberry PDAs, and rotation of desktop systems and file servers.
The plan helps to determine when major projects are planned, as opposed to knee-jerk reactions. "We need an Extranet because the Smith Law Firm has one," or "we've just received this large litigation case and have to have a litigation support system." Those are some examples of knee-jerk reactions. When this law firm purchased the litigation support system, they found out during the install they needed to upgrade their file server for SQL, they needed to purchase licenses for every user in the firm, they needed to implement Microsoft Windows 2000 professional, which included replacing dozens of older computer systems. Did I mention the word "Plan" anywhere here?
There are plenty of tools to assist the firm with a technology assessment.
The most important piece of advice I can provide is this: include
all technologies in the firm, including the people resources. The
"soft" issues are often overlooked and can lead to many
problems within a firm. Keep the people issues up front and the rest
will fall in place.
Andrew Z. Adkins III is a nationally recognized expert in law office technology. He is the director of the Legal Technology Institute at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He is a founding member of The Legal Consulting Group, an association of independent computer consulting firms working with the legal profession. He is also the author of "Computerized Case Management Systems: Choosing and Implementing the Right Software for You," published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section.