In a recording of a recent program with the Hampshire County Bar Association, Robert Plotkin of Blueshift IP shares basic principles and guidelines for making tech serve your law practice.
This program was part of a series we recently offered live as a collaboration with and exclusive to the Hampshire County Bar Association, a service organization composed of attorneys, and is dedicated to improving the quality of the practice of law in this county by providing support to the community, the bench and the bar on relevant local issues. The organization’s purpose is to maintain the honor of the profession, to promote the administration of justice, to advance the science of jurisprudence, and to foster and encourage cooperation and good fellowship among the members of the bar as a non-profit corporation. The Hampshire County Bar Association offers many services and programs to the local community and its members such as the Domestic Relations Program for Children, Hampshire Conciliation Program, Hampshire Elder Law Program, Lawyer Referral Service, Lawyer for the Day (Probate and Housing Court), as well as the parent education programs Parents & Children in Transition (PACT), Only One Childhood (O1C), and For The Children (FTC).
Q&A from the original program is included, edited to exclude individual participants.
This program is presented by Robert Plotkin, a software patent expert and founding partner at Blueshift IP.
For those of you who are here with us right now and for those of you who will be joining the recording later when this is on demand, welcome. Thank you so much for coming today we greatly appreciate your time. To give you an introduction, my name is Laura Keeler I’m one of the law practice advisors at LCL | Mass LOMAP. For those of you who may not know, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is a nonprofit that serves the legal professionals in Massachusetts with free and confidential services. Part of that is our side for LOMAP, which is the Law Office Management Assistance Program. Again, we offer consultations with a range of services, support groups, Webinars for Busy Lawyers, a number of things. If you’d like more information on LCL – LCLMA.org; Mass LOMAP – masslomap.org, or you can also contact me afterwards, happy to tell you more about it. I wanted to let you know about this series. This is the law practice management Speaker Series. This is our third one. We are doing this for the Hampshire County Bar Association, and we are absolutely delighted to have such fantastic speakers. These are both local and national experts for a series of six talks that are designed to help solo and small firms improve practice management sessions will be recorded and available for those who registered and checked to give you a brief background, this program started in January so far we’ve had seen best practices and paperless practices. Today we’re delighted to have Robert Plotkin and I’ll tell you more about him in a moment. We also have three more coming in the series on practice management wellbeing, billing, best practices and benefits of law practice management series. So I know that this is going out to Hampshire County Bar. Please check your email and sign up for the link. If you sign up for one you will sign up for all the sessions at once, which will be great. Now, to tell a little bit more about today. Today, Robert has the great task of telling us about making technology work in your practice.
To give a little bit of background on Robert. Attorney Plotkin is recognized as a leading patent attorney in the US. He is, for example, a recognized leader in the response to Alice Corp v. CLS Bank decision of the United States Supreme Court. He has often been cited as an expert on Alice on the leading patent blog IPWatchdog, where he has been featured with the former chief judge of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals and the former US Commissioner for patents. He has enabled his clients to obtain software patents even after the Alice decision. He is founding partner of Blueshift IP, which has been recognized as a “Go-To Law Firm for Leading Technology Companies by American Lawyer Media. He has nearly two decades of experience as a practicing patent lawyer representing clients worldwide. He is a graduate of MIT and the BU School of Law; is a faculty member at M CLE his annual intellectual property conference, a faculty member of practicing law Institute; was a lecturer for six years at the BU School of Law where he decided to taught and advanced course in Software in the Law. And as we were just talking a little bit before the program, he also has a coming program for MCLE, so incredibly busy man incredibly accomplished. Robert, we are delighted to have you with us today as part of the speaker series, and I will turn it over to you. Thank you for doing this. I just want to note too for people that are watching, if you have questions we’re going to have the presentation first and then questions and answers at the end, so please submit your questions to the chat, and then I will read them at the end. Robert, thank you so much for being with us today.
Thanks for, thanks for having me. I’m really glad to be here. This topic of how to integrate technology into your law practice to make it work for you is something that I’m very passionate about. You know, I don’t just talk about it, I’ve lived it. In the bio you read was a little, little bit outdated now I’ve been a lawyer 25 years, about 20 of those have been as either a solo or small firm practitioner, now in a two-lawyer firm with a partner of mine that worked at a couple of bigger firms in Boston. But then went out on my own in 2000, was solo for 17 years, and then formed Blue Shift IP with my partner in 2017. So, I am one of you, all of you small firm and solo practitioners out there.
I have tried about every type of technology and every configuration, you know, had lots of successes and many failures. And I’m hoping, you know, to help you benefit from the successes and avoid, avoid the failures, it’s so easy to do. You know, and I know from experience that it is possible to integrate technology into law practice successfully.
It can be really liberating; help you save a lot of time, headache; protect against malpractice risk; but it can also be completely maddening when it doesn’t work, when it doesn’t do what you hoped it would do, when it’s more expensive than it should be. And the other thing I really want to stress and stress throughout the presentation, you know what I call making it work within your practice, or integrating law technology into your practice, is that I think that whatever your own practice of law is should be paramount. I’m not asking or suggesting that you change how you practice law. And really, if technology is to be successful for lawyers, that technology should be in service of your practice of law. I’m just going to keep repeating this in many different ways. So as you may already be able to tell, this is going to be a little bit of a different type of presentation than many, you’ve probably seen on law, legal technology.
I’m going to start just for that reason by telling you a little bit about what this presentation is and what it isn’t. So, this is, this is not going to be a presentation where I talk about specific pieces of software, you know, specific technological tools, how to use them. I mean that’s all very valuable information. I have given those types of presentations, too. But this is not going to be one of those. It’s not going to be about how to compare, let’s say, different types of billing software with each other and how to evaluate them. Again critical for you to do if you’re going to adopt billing software, but that’s not what this presentation is. And it’s not going to be, as I said, about how to change the way you practice law in order to accommodate technology.
Instead, this is going to be more of a high level presentation about really how to think about how to integrate technology into your existing law practice in order to save you time, reduce stress, save money, reduce errors is a really big one. And also, enjoy yourself more. Might not be something lawyers think about enjoying themselves, but we do get to do that, you know, and it can be a side benefit of all of the side effect of all these other benefits if you do it right. And again, this is going to be about how to make technology serve you, not the other way around, which is often how it feels, you know that we’re the ones serving the technology or trying to catch up to it. So maybe another way to latch on to a famous phrase, I hope to be here to teach you how to fish, and not to give you a fish, as these are skills that will last you a long time and you’ll be able to apply to your own practices.
I don’t know exactly what type of practice each of you has, might be quite different from mine, so I’m hoping that the general strategy I give will be helpful. And I am going to make the presentation relatively short, so that you can ask lots of questions about the specifics, I’m glad to answer questions about “Okay, what type of software can I use for this?” Or hardware, or something else. It’s not going to be part of the presentation but I’m not trying to dodge that topic. Feel free to ask those kinds of questions so we can talk about them in the Q&A. I’m hoping to go no more than about a half an hour, and then we can make this really conversational.
In terms of overall approach that I’m going to be talking about what I’m going to be promoting is what I call the ‘practice-driven technology approach’. But first let me talk about the downfalls of what people often do, by default, maybe without even thinking about it. It’s what I call the ‘technology-driven technology approach’. Okay, so what is that? I’m sure you’ve all experienced it. I’ve definitely done it. You know, when you, when you engage in the ‘technology-driven technology approach’, you buy some piece of technology first and then you figure out what you’re going to do. You buy it, why? Because it’s been advertised; maybe other people you know have used it and raved about it. Maybe you feel some social pressure to catch up and buy this thing this piece of software or hardware that it’s sitting there, and then you try to figure out “What am I going to do with this thing?” That’s technology-driven. Or you buy something that you do have a legitimate real use for, you know what you want to use it for, but then it’s got 20 other features, and maybe without consciously thinking about it, you start using those other features that it has, even though you don’t really need them. That’s very easy to do. Another thing and again I’ve done this for sure, succumb to the economists maybe in the room, the sunk cost fallacy, which is where you say to yourself, “I just spent a lot of money on this technology, and by gosh, I am going to keep using it until I earned my money back.” So, now of course if it’s not doing anything valuable for you, you’re never going to earn your money back. But it’s very hard to be a bit more serious.
It’s hard to spend a lot of money on something, find that it’s not being valuable, and then cut your losses and say, “I’m getting rid of this thing, I’m selling it, I’m just gonna stop using it.” And that’s a hard thing to do it’s a blow to your ego, even though rationally, we know that the sunk cost fallacy is a fallacy for a reason. The fact that you’ve spent the money on this thing doesn’t mean it’s valuable if it’s not doing anything valuable for you. So, you know, the first thing I would say — and again I admit that I’ve done all of these things, I don’t want to tell you how much money at some points I’ve sunk into technology projects — is to not be hard on yourself, if you’ve done these kinds of things. Maybe you’re in the middle of one of these projects right now or you’ve got a device, a scanner or something else sitting off in the corner, you know, gathering dust. You know these shiny objects can be very attractive, there’s huge amount of marketing that’s put into trying to convince us that we need every new technology tool that’s out there so you know don’t be too hard on yourself. We’re up against a lot of forces pushing us to constantly adopt new technology.
And so I have listed here some of the pitfalls, I probably mentioned them already: wasted time, wasted money, time lost ideas features you don’t need. There can even be malpractice risk if you introduce a new piece of technology that you’re using to, I don’t know generate documents or update data, and it does that in some inaccurate way.
You might be introducing malpractice risk where didn’t exist before. Another example is, let’s say when you’re trying to go paperless to some to any extent. I mean, I went paperless, about 15 years ago which is longer for many people, but one thing I found when I started doing that was, you know, things are, people would talk about paperless, “So you’ll never lose a file, when it’s paperless.” Well that’s true, but files are out of sight when they’re paperless. When they’re on your computer, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that they exist when they’re paperless. When you’ve got a file sitting on your desk, that serves as a visual reminder that it’s there, and there’s something you need to do with it. So there’s there are risks to paperless in terms of forgetting to do things and missing deadlines if you don’t set up those people as systems with a lot of forethought.
And then the other thing, you know, you have to think about is if you encounter these problems repeatedly, you may just lose the motivation to adopt other technology, and say, “Forget it I tried it already. I had this project, it was horrible, I’m just going to keep doing everything manually forever.” And I’d encourage you to not go, just as I’m suggesting not to go to the extreme of buying every new tool, I’d encourage you to not go to the other extreme, and just give up on technology completely because you’ve had some bad experiences.
So what is this practice driven technology approach? It’s gonna sound really simple and obvious when I say it, but in practice are where the challenges are. Here’s the elements. Is that the needs and goals of your law practice should drive your adoption and use of technology, not the other way around. Okay, so you identify the needs and goals of your law practice without thinking about technology. Okay, whatever it may be, you’re doing trusts and estates and your need is to be able to gather information from your clients, completely and efficiently. That might be a need. Now that could be done without technology or with technology. Right.
Then, once you identify the needs and goals, and you might focus specifically or prioritize on pain points. You know, what are the needs that are causing you frustration that are taking up a lot of your time, maybe that you’re finding are prone to error, or that are very expensive, you know? Those are the pain points of the practice, anything that’s keeping you up at night. And then you know identify ways in which your existing systems, I’m an engineer, so as a system, what do I mean by systems, but your existing systems, your people, the tools or methods are falling short in some way, and achieving the needs and goals that you’ve identified. It’s only at that point that you might start evaluating technology, available technologies that might be able to address those shortfalls.
Now I’m talking about technology today but you don’t necessarily have to jump to technology. You might find that training your existing people in a new way, is sufficient for you to address those needs and goals. I’m only mentioning technology because it’s the focus of this talk, but I don’t want to suggest that you have to even jump to technological solutions to those problems in your law practice.
Then you evaluate the technological tools for their ability to address the shortcomings you’ve identified. This is where you do your best not to get sucked in to the attractive features of the software and the 50 things that can do that have nothing to do with your own needs. Evaluate the ability of the tools to address the shortcomings, through your law practice.
Assess your available resources, people you have the time you have the money you have. It can sound simple, but you can easily go over budget, with technology. We know that from so many large corporations from our Commonwealth of Massachusetts, how easy it is to go way over budget, on, on projects. So you’ve got to look at your available resources first, within your time and people budget. And then, you know, at that point, when you’ve gone through that process, only adopt technological tools that are necessary, and to the extent necessary to address your needs within the constraints of your resources. Again sounds simple, in a way, but you’re being driven by what you need. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to people who have bought, I use, I’ll use a scanner again as an example. It’s, it’s fairly low tech these days but so many people I know have bought that scanner, they’re so happy. And now that they never use it but it doesn’t achieve all the dreams that they hoped for it. Okay, I’m just gonna share one, one quick thing on the screen.
I really like this quote from Stephen Covey the productivity guru: “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule but to schedule your priorities.” This is about scheduling time, but it’s the same idea really, you let your goals drive what you choose to do. What he’s saying is, you know, often you’ll see a meeting or something, someone else has put a meeting on your calendar, there’s other things to do, and then you start prioritizing around those. And then by the end of the day, you realize you haven’t done anything that you really wanted or needed to do.
So, this is a mindset, I’m trying to encourage of really being laser focused on what your firm’s needs are. Okay, now I’m going to actually start getting into some things that are practical, I know I’ve stayed at quite a high level, so far, and Laura I know you said you keep questions to the end, I’m glad certainly glad to do that. Okay.
I’m going to give a concrete example and I’ll still say at a fairly high level, but I’m going to go into how this practice oriented approach can play out within a specific example of in the technology world, it’s called document assembly, but think of it as generating documents. This is something that all — no matter what your field of law is big firms, small firm in house, government, nonprofit, private practice — you are generating documents. That’s one reason why I picked this; I also have a lot of experience with this. And so, I’m going to use this as an example, but I’m gonna list out ways of engaging in document generation going from the most manual way of doing it to the most automated.
And one is just to kind of expand your minds a little bit, and also to try to break through what I sometimes see people having is an unconscious assumption that when it comes to technology and automation, you have to be somehow all or nothing. Okay, that either I’ve got to get some document assembly software for a lot of money that’s going to generate all my documents completely, or I have to just stick to doing it completely manual. When in fact it’s not only possible to do many, many things along the continuum in between, it’s far preferable to do something in between and to to implement, gradually over time on that continuum in between. And that’s how I’ve done it for many, many reasons.
So I’m going to list out, just some examples of this continuum. Okay, manually. The most manual end of the spectrum is what? You as the attorney, write every client document from scratch every time. Okay, that’s how lawyers did it for a long time, just every time a client needs a new document, will, contract, for me a patent; you speak to the client, you interview them, you gather information from them. And you sit down with a blank page or a blank word processor screen, and using your expert skill and knowledge, just start writing from scratch, certainly a valid way to do it but we all know there can be problems with that especially for so many reasons. It takes a lot of time, you might not remember everything to do, you might omit things which may be bad for the client, may be malpractice risk for you. So many reasons why there’s a problem with it, but what’s what’s the upside of it? The upside is you, it’s, it’s the way in which you’re kind of most directly bringing that that expertise and personal touch to the documents so let’s not lose sight of that really valuable element of that most manual way of creating a document.
Going just a step further towards automation, which is that you as the attorney, you find, a client comes to you, I’m gonna say for a will, you find the previous document that’s somewhat similar to what this client needs, something from a previous client and you copy it, and then you edit it. You revise it as needed for the current client, and the current situation. So you’re still doing a lot of manual work, but you’re not starting completely from scratch, you’re starting from a previous copy of a similar document. Now, I’m going to add in some delegating here, which is, you could have an assistant, some other person I’m going to use the word secretary, whether it’s secretary, paralegal, intern, I’ll just keep using the word secretary. The secretary could do some of this, find and copy a previous version of the document, make some edits to it, and then provide it to you for review as the attorney — when I say “you” in this presentation, I’m going to mean the attorney, I’m assuming everyone here is an attorney — for review and revision. Next step is that instead of just trying to hunt down some previous version of a document, you start out by storing those documents in some organized way, whether it be in folders, whether it be in a database, so that you can identify a new document of the appropriate type more quickly and easily when you need them. Because as we know, just that alone. How often have you said to yourself, if you don’t have a document assembly database, a client comes to you and you say, “You know, I know I worked on something similar to this for another client a year and a half ago. Who was that and where is that document? If only I could put my hands on it, my life would be a lot easier right now.” So, this implies that you’ve put some upfront work into storing previous documents in whatever way it is that makes them easy for you to find, and I don’t want to suggest that has to be a database or something automated, it could be. I mean, in the paper world, it could be as simple as paper folders that are labeled and organized in some way that makes sense to you and the other people in your, in your law firm on a computer could be in folders but they’re fairly low tech ways, whatever’s easier, that can help a lot.
Okay now, one step further towards towards automation, which is that client comes in, you gather information from them about the will, so what is that who they are, what their assets are. I don’t practice estate law, so I’m not going to try to pretend to say no more than that in terms of what you would gather, but I assume there’s some set of fairly standardized information. And then once you get that instead of using it to edit a document, you enter that information into a database or some document assembly software which inserts that information into document, a document template, produces the document template for you to review and revise manually in some way. And then the delegated version of that, you know, version two, is that it’s someone other than you, personally, secretary/assistant who take maybe even gathers that information from the client or if they don’t gather they’re the one who does the data entry, generates the document maybe does an initial review and then hands it off to you, for final review and revision. And then so we’re getting pretty close to fully automated at this point already. There we go. I was trying to stretch my brain a little bit to think about what would be more automated than this.
Now the last step I would say is we’re even the information gathering and maybe some of you do this right, even the information gathering is at least partially automated. You know, you get a client’s name and social security number, and then there’s software that retrieves related information about the client from publicly available sources like the client’s home address, you know that information can be linked to from other places and imported automatically. And then, then the database generates a document, which then maybe is reviewed, first by someone other than you. And the final step is for you to do just the final review of the document and that’s about as close to full automation as we can get. So again I hope this, this opens your mind a little bit. And, okay, some of these things that are coming up next I’ve already said. So I’m going to talk about how, so I’ve just given examples of ways in which you can do things.
The next thing I’ll talk about is how can you start moving towards some of those ways of doing things from where you are now. It’s one thing to say to do it one of these ways; much, much more challenging to get there, particularly while you’re in the middle of running practice.
So let me give you an example with document assembly. And this is how I did it over the years, which was when I started out with just manually doing everything. This is, adopt a certain mindset, an attitude of being focused on never writing the same document twice. You’ve got to start with that intention, which means that whenever in the course of your day, you find yourself writing a letter, if you find yourself writing one from scratch, stop and ask, “Have I written this type of document before?” And if so, stop yourself and look for a previous copy of it. Okay, that’s one thing. The next thing is if you say “No, I’ve never written it before.” Then you write that document from scratch and save it somewhere in that easily findable way.
So, why am I suggesting this? It’s a very incremental approach that has minimal impact on your law practice. Right because the math, the different way of doing this would be to drop everything you’re doing for a month, and engage in a document template generation project, which none of you has time or money or resources to do, you know. You could do it that way. But this is a way of continuing your law practice as is, but as you’re generating documents, you’re starting to save them, so that the next time around, you can use them, and over the course of some amount of time, lo and behold, you’ll find that you have a library of reusable documents with minimal effort and minimal disruption to your law practice. I can keep going on, I’ll just give one more example of this, which is either while you’re doing this, or once you feel that the library of documents has developed to a good enough extent, you can start a letter that says, “Dear Mr Smith, I was glad to meet you on X date.” Well, Mr Smith, is, is going to change for every client, so you can in your template, replace Mr Smith with brackets client first name. Okay, in the document assembly world we’d call that a field or some variable content. You’re identifying the parts of the document that will vary from client to client or from letter to letter, and you’re inserting a little field or basically it’s like a note to yourself, that’s the part that you need to update each time you use it. And side benefit of that is that if in the future you ever decide to adopt, purchase and use document assembly software, you’ve now got letters that are in a format that’s very close to what you’ll need to set up automated document assembly software, but again you’ve done it in a way that is integrated with your law practice.
To step back, I’m using document assembly but this approach of kind of engaging your law practice, paying attention to what you’re doing, and looking for opportunities to systematize and perhaps eventually automate what you’re doing, it’s just integrated into your day-to-day practice you can apply this to many things other than documents. Okay. When did I start? I think I’ve got time, I want us to roughly stick to my 30 minute mark so probably got about five more minutes, I think, which is good, I think I’ve only got two more slides, I’m going to step back a little bit this is very closely related to technology adoption but it’s a little bit more about about running a business. Sometimes lawyers balk at thinking about their practice as a business they don’t like calling it a business. So we don’t have to call it a business, you know.
In business is often talked about a ‘build versus buy’ decision, which is, you know, a company that makes mousetraps, do we want to build a manufacturing facility, or do we want to buy an existing manufacturing facility that’s down the road, do we want to outsource manufacturing to another company. You know in law practice, I’m going to call this the ‘do-it-myself versus delegated versus automated’ decision. Okay. Now, as a lawyer, I understand that little part of my brain that tells me that only I am capable of doing everything that needs to be done in my life. Saw a hand being raised. Okay, so what I’d suggest is that when you hear that part of yourself, you know, just remember it’s a voice that’s arising from a lot of years of training, it’s not necessarily always right. Just just entertain that possibility. (Related: How to Delegate Effectively in Your Law Practice [Webinar].) It, you know, it has a good instinct, but it’s not always correct. And you know, I’ll just call it, you know, licking the envelopes, is a good metaphor for that kind of thing. I was at a point where I literally licked the envelopes in my lockbox when I start right but I think we can all agree that as good as you may be at licking envelopes, you’re not the only person who’s capable of doing it in your law practice. But we can tend to think that there are things that are not like licking envelopes which really are if you objective look at them, you know, like taking a document template and updating it, highlighting the parts that were updated. You know some lawyers feel like, “No, someone else can’t do that.” You know, I would challenge you to really and I’ve done this over the years, every time I feel I’ve reached the limit of what is it that I really need to do, versus what can I do to challenge myself. And you know, come to your own comfort level I’m just suggesting that you may have somewhat limited. What you can do what you’re required to do and you might benefit from modifying that set of beliefs. Why are you working too many hours, you know when there’s a crunch. Do you find that you don’t have enough time because you’re spending so much time doing things that you could delegate but you don’t have time to do the things that really only you can do, the kind of real lawyers’ work that a lawyer is needed to do. And does that create stress for you? Does that create malpractice risk for you because you are falling behind on the deadline, because you are metaphorically licking the envelopes when you could be spending that time doing sort of true legal work for a client. So, you know, there, there are some real downsides to adhering too strictly to the belief that only you can do certain things within the law practice so I really challenge you to challenge yourself about that.
And, you know, especially for the things that you really don’t enjoy doing. Also, you know, you may find that delegating them or automating them frees you up and gives you a feeling of liberation, that you’re not doing some of these things anymore that you’re not needed to do.
So one of the things I did long ago and I’ll tell you this, it’s not necessarily a failure but it’s a wake up call. When I had already delegated, I had about five years into being a solo practitioner I had a legal secretary. I was very proud of myself that I had gotten very good at delegating and I had her doing all kinds of things that I wasn’t doing anymore. And, you know, she was fantastic, have worked for me for about four years, and then she got another job and gave me two weeks’ notice. And I said to myself, “How am I going to get done everything she was doing for all those hours a week? All of the knowledge of how to do that is in her head, and her head is about to walk out the door. So, you know, so what did I do? I hired someone to shadow her for the remaining time. And I sat there as much as I could as well. And I asked her to do everything that she was doing as much as possible, while the person I had shadowing her and I wrote it all down and try to create a written manual, basically, of secretarial work in the firm. And from then on I made a promise I’d never be in that situation again.
And I’ve kept that kind of operations manual for the firm updated over the years, and it’s something I really recommend to everybody. It’s not fun, but neither is the situation I was in. And if you’ve ever been, probably you’ve been in that situation, it’s much less fun to be be in a situation where you don’t know how the work is going to get done. And you, you’re at risk of malpractice perhaps and of stress and not being able to sleep and everything else. So, when you delegate, you have to document. Also, and you can do that manually. You can do it in Word documents, it doesn’t have to be high tech, but having that firm Operations Manual is critical, and does also help set the stage for automating once you have a description of how you do things in the firm, if you ever want to adopt some software or something else for performing even one of those procedures, having a documented will make it much easier. Alright. My last slide before I take questions is, and this has all been somewhat high level and philosophical in a way, it’s about at a certain attitude and approach to adopting technology.
I will list out a few specific types of technology that I know are like low hanging fruit. If you are in a situation where you haven’t adopted much technology, here’s some things I know that I adopted, early on, that are fairly easy, inexpensive to adopt and that don’t don’t create much disruption in how you practice.
I keep joking about the scanner scanning, you know, scanning documents is one. And in terms of not having to go all or nothing, if you get a scanner doesn’t mean you have to go paperless, you can make lots of choices about how to target your scan, maybe you just scan closed or archived files that you don’t need to access anymore. Think about how much space that might save you. Or maybe you’re just going to scan once a year or twice a year, or certain types of files that again, maybe they’re not closed or archived but that you don’t need to access them frequently. You can be targeting how you use the scanner. It’s relatively inexpensive and it can provide a really significant benefit. A few others, is remote phone answering, there’s a lot of great receptionist services; my firm uses it. You basically forward your phone number to them they pick up the phone they answer with your law firm name, and then they forward the call to you or forwarded to voicemail. Really really great. (Related:
Time capture, you know, lawyers hate recording their time. And even if you don’t want something that’s integrated into your billing, just having any kind of a timer on your phone where you can put a description in and then later transfer over can be fairly, any kind of semi automated time capture is low hanging fruit. (Related: Killing Time or Billing Time? (NCBA CPM, 2020).)
And the last thing I mentioned is all is voice, either for dictating or for commands. I have an iPhone I use it to create reminders create calendar appointments quickly and I was about to say if you’re on the road, none of us are on the road much these days. But if we go back to that voice commands voice features already exist on your phone, they exist on most computers already used to be you had to buy separate software for that. (Related: Low Cost & Practical Tools for Increasing Efficiencies in Law Practice: Dictation, Automation, and More [Webinar] (2021).) Now, not, not really. So, can be really helpful. I’ll stop there. I hope this is been helpful so far, I’m very open to your questions and have asked me.
Robert that was fantastic. Oh my gosh. Well we have time for more people to enter their questions in the chat, I just want to start with a few takeaways from your presentation, because you give us so much wisdom in this. So, your idea first of all about looking for your goals and necessities first rather than falling prey to be marketing of the tech companies, is something that is so key. I’ve seen people do it over and over, and also even though a lot of this was high level it was also very practical because often when people are looking to adopt new technology, it’s the mental resistance first and they become overwhelmed. And this gave a really good example of how it’s not an all or nothing. It can be a continuum, along the spectrum. It doesn’t have to be all manual or all automatic. As you beautifully laid out with document automation, so that was absolutely fantastic. Just want to point out, those were just a few things that I noted down as being extremely, extremely helpful.
So, as we have more people too, our first question is about, for people who are hesitant, of keeping up with technology competence, and maybe aren’t techie like you maybe they don’t have an engineering systems, kind of background, what would you suggest, is a way for them to sort of dip their toe as they’re looking to more systemize their practice and incorporate some technology.
Even in the question, the question asked about systematizing. And I like that word I use it a lot, because you can systematize in fairly low tech ways. I’ll give another example which is going from my own failure. Early in the law practice, I remember a couple of times, trying to implement things in databases. And you know when you get a database, you have to configure it, you have to design the fields, you may have to program it. It’s a fairly tech intensive process, and I found that, you know there can be problems with databases. This isn’t being expensive, they do require you to have technology, or to hire a consultant who has that technology knowledge. But the other problem is, even when they’re working, if you ever want to change or modify something, you gotta have the technology or go back to a consultant in the tech world would call that brittle.
If the system is brittle, it’s not easily adaptable to your needs over time so what often happens when people adopt that database, it works for a while. And then as it stops working, people stop using the database and just fall back on low tech methods, Word documents, you know, sticky notes on the computer, physically or whatever. And so what I started doing, even though I’m a techie, is I adopted this kind of use the least technology possible approach.
Even in my law firm now we kind of use Word documents where that will work. If we need something a little more sophisticated, use an Excel spreadsheet. That doesn’t sound like, we come from a techie field, but I prefer an Excel spreadsheet, over a database if I don’t need a database, because it’s easily adaptable. If you want to add a new column, you just insert the column; you don’t have to program the database. I mean, I’ll admit there’s some financial data, we use a combination of QuickBooks on a specific site. We use QuickBooks, and then we use Tabs3 for Time and Billing, and they integrate. But there’s certain types of financial data, we need to track that those pieces of software don’t track easily. We use a spreadsheet, we’ve been using it for four years, and we keep saying, if it ever stops meeting our needs, we’ll think about using a database instead. But so far it’s still meeting our needs, so don’t go higher tech than you need. So I’m not trying to dodge the question but the answer is, it may not be a problem for you, that you’re not a techie, because for many situations, you don’t need to go very high tech. Please follow up if I didn’t answer your question adequately because I can come back to it.
Yeah that’s terrific. We have comments in, love the advice to simplify when it comes to tech; yes, completely. Another question is a person wanted to share, paying a consultant to assist with software is a very worthwhile investment. They purchased Time Matters 25 years ago, was so intimidated the program sat for years. Sorry, just losing this a bit here. In retrospect, should have retained the consultant to get the program up and running, finally did that and work with the consultant 20 plus years later. That’s a great observation to chime in with. Thank you.
Let me also give a bright spot about hiring consultants. I’ve found that between everything being more remote, not just during COVID but even before that, I’ve used services like Upwork, which is just like a freelance or a website where you can find freelancers mostly to do tech related work like web design. But it used to be that if you wanted to hire a consultant, you’d find like some large consulting company, it’d be extremely expensive, they didn’t put a lot of effort into working with a small firm, it wouldn’t get you’d pay a lot of money, not gonna have a lot of personalized attention. I’ve just found there’s so many individual or small consultancy firms out there now that will pay attention to a solo or small firm will give you individualized attention at a rate that you can afford. And because of everything being remote, you have a lot more options in terms of finding and hiring a consultant you can hire someone in California. And they, for the most part you know can do work on your computer remotely. So it gives you a lot more flexibility to find and retain the right person at the right price than even five years ago.
That is great.
Oh and yes we have another point, great point David agreed that that is super helpful to know about consultant options for small firms, Robert. Yes, and I want to say, too. If you have thoughts on, when finding you consultant for small firms and I know like you mentioned you use Tabs3, great product and they have a lot of certified consultants for their own products, would you suggest that attorneys who are interested, look for a product consultant specializing in what they are adapting, or sort of one that helps with overall like managed service provider for a small firm.
Yeah, it’s a good question. You know, I, I’ve done it both ways. Here’s what I’ve generally done.
When I’m in the product evaluation phase, I want to hire someone who’s not wedded to any particular product. And I will ask people, you know, “Are you do you get a commission from Tabs3 or something?” So, right, because you don’t want their advice to you about which product to purchase to be influenced by their financial relationship with a particular company. So those people can be hard to find, I mean I’m not blaming consultants, but lots of them for their own business, do have financial relationships with specific vendors but I try when possible if I’m trying to evaluate which product to purchase to find an independent consultant who can advise me independently. Just like we lawyers are required to not have financial relationships so that we can be independent when advising our clients.
Then once you purchase something like you know Tabs3 or whatever the software happens to be, then I think perfectly fine, and probably advisable to hire someone who’s got expertise. Tabs3 is a great product but because it’s been around so long, it’s got so many features, you know, it really needs an expert. I mean, my partner and I are both computer scientists we don’t try to dabble in configuring Tabs. But we have a consultant and when we need her for half an hour, she bills us for a half an hour, and it’s not a huge expense there was initial setup, and I don’t remember what we spent, but I don’t think we spent more than $1,000 or something on her fees, it might have been less initially to get everything configured in exactly the way we wanted you know, I don’t want to quote specific prices. But ever since then, maybe a few times a year we contact her for some need here they’re updating a billing template, and it’s very very worthwhile to have that expertise on call.
Those are excellent points just to throw out too for people that may be listening later and wondering, if you’re looking for an independent source to sort of, as you’re navigating the starts before choosing a specific vendor, that’s something that Mass LOMAP can actually help with. We help with law practice management technology so if you let us know, “I’m having pain points with time tracking billing accounting,” or whatever it may be, we can get you set up with some resources to say, here’s some players to look at and again, very independent, no commissions for you so that’s another resource available. (Related: Massachusetts lawyers can schedule a Free & Confidential consultation with a Mass LOMAP advisor — find more here.)
For your next question that people may be wondering about Robert is, what if they’re getting towards retirement, is it still worthwhile for them to adopt this? And I know you’ve talked some about the cost fallacy how there can be, you know wasted time. What do you think if people are on the horizon within five years is still worthwhile on these steps.
I would think one major factor influencing that decision would be whether they are intending or hoping to pass the law practice on to someone, whether it be someone more junior in their practice or transferred to another law firm, you know. If they’re really looking to just wind down and close down the practice entirely, I could see making some strategic decisions about how much to invest now in technology. But if they’re looking to pass it on, then having systems in place can add to the financial value of the law practice if you’re going to sell it. And I’m not an expert in that at all. But, you know, I know that when I was looking to partner few years ago before I parted with my current partner I did retain a lawyer who advises on law firm transitions, people like me looking to partner, looking to merge, looking to acquire, all that. And in talking about this aspect, you know, he confirmed that, “Yep, law firms that have good systems in place, if you’re going to sell a practice off or merge, you’re more attractive and more financially valuable if you’ve got systems in place. (Related: Succession Planning for Solo & Small Law Firms: Identify Your Endgame ASAP.)
Great points and for thinking about not only what is helping your firm at the current moment, but as you said, thinking about long term and making it more valuable, because I can see how someone who doesn’t have very clear systems, wouldn’t be as attractive to come in. So that’s an excellent point there too.
We just talked serious nuts and bolts. I remember what he told me is you know is a law firm looking to acquire you — because so much of the value of a lawyers practice is what’s in their head and in the specific client relationship. Another law firm looking to acquire you practice is going to try to think about, “What continuing revenue will we get as a result of acquire your practice?” And if you’re leaving, personally, and you’re not leaving any systems behind what’s the likelihood that your clients are going to stay on with the new firm that’s acquired you, they’re probably going to, going to go pretty quickly to somebody else, in which case the new firms not going to gain much ongoing revenue from having acquired you at that point. So, the system itself.
Next question is about, what should they do if they’re looking at needs and goals and they’re having a hard time prioritizing. Do you have thoughts on that?
I’m saying this somewhat tongue in cheek, but when you’re woken up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, ask what it is that just woke you up and I will tell you what your needs are. That’s the easy way, you know, When I mentioned pain points, earlier, and you could, you know, pay attention, take notes. And the more serious way of answering this is what, what is taking up a lot of your time, that either you don’t want to take up your time, or that shouldn’t take up your time because someone else can do it.
What are the things in your practice, I mean, are there, errors, of a certain time that are being made frequently? That’s a great opportunity to pinpoint what’s the cause of those errors and can we systematize things in a way that could help reduce those kinds of errors. So this is just what’s costing you a lot of money, I mean are you do you have staff people, and do you think, whether from experience or a gut feeling, “They’re spending too much time on certain projects. Why are they spending so much time? I think they should get stuff done in an hour that they’re doing in two hours.”
This is about paying attention to it during the course of a day, a week, a month, to what the problems are. I know it can be hard to think of the question, to kind of sit back and just identify in the abstract, what you need. It’s much easier to do it in the course of the day, experiencing your practice.
And then, again, if you have other people whether they’re partners or staff, or whatever, ask them. You may find out that people have their own frustrations that you’re not aware of. Just to follow up on that a little bit. That’s a great point to ask your staff and your colleagues as well.
What if the firm is having trouble with buy-in, let’s say one partner wants to tackle things, the other partner doesn’t, some staff on board so much. Do you have to have thoughts on trying to get the firm all on board in recognizing these pain points that they may want to take some incremental steps towards more systemization and technology.
The first thing I’d say is something that can be a downside of law firms, which is that often law firms operate as a fiefdom of separate partners, right, can be an upside in this case, which is your partner disagrees with you, okay, you just start adopting something for yourself. And then success is the best is the best argument right. If you’re being successful and having adopted systems. I’m not saying share it with your partner in a, you know, ‘I told you so’ kind of a way. But in a gentle, “Hey look, I’ve got just document assembly right, look at this, you know, I’ve got documents, I’m able to generate them more quickly, it saves me time I can do other things.
Share the success in some way, that’s often much better than an argument. And if there are ways now going beyond this, but if there are ways in which it can improve the bottom line of the firm, or if you’re part of the practice, that’s an even better at convincing. It’s a whole separate discussion about, you know, as you get more efficient and you spend less time if you’re billing by the hour. How do you deal with the fact that you may be billing less. So my firm does a lot of things at fixed fee, where you have a very different incentive structure for efficiency, or basically you’re incentivized to be more efficient when you charge fixed fees for services but that’s, that’s a whole other discussion. But, you know, if you can become more profitable in a pure dollars and cents way. That may be all you need to convince somebody.
That’s a fantastic point. I know we’re coming up on the hour. Don’t want to take a bunch of your time. This has been absolutely marvelous ,you have such a wealth of knowledge in this, we have loved having you with us, Robert. For everyone that’s in the audience today and watching later, thank you so much to for your time. As I said, this is the Law Practice Management Series put on by Mass LOMAP and the Hampshire County Bar. Our next session will be the wonderful Heidi Alexander, talking on March 4 about practice management and wellbeing. Robert, this has been absolutely marvelous as people are writing in to thank you this was great. Do you have any closing thoughts for us today and again, just thank you so much for your time and your wisdom on this, we really appreciate it.
The main thing I would do is encourage people to take baby steps. And, you know, do your best, to, to not be discouraged. Take, take really small steps that can have immediate positive impact. And just like when you’re losing weight or exercising, you know small gains can can snowball, because they then motivate you to take the next step, to take the next step, to take the next step. And then you find over the course of a year two years three years, you have made big gains and you’ve done it by taking very small incremental steps at a time.
That is a fantastic, excellent point to leave us on. Thank you so much, both inspiring, and a source of wisdom that we can go out with tomorrow and start working on. Thank you so much, Robert. I really appreciate it. And we look forward to, to seeing you again later and the next one in the series and everyone enjoy the rest of your day. Thank you and thank you especially to Robert.
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