Lawyers don't like technology much. Perhaps they are just not wired that way. It's a pity though, since if one looks back at the events that reshaped the legal profession throughout history, nearly all of these have been around new technology.
For example, the telephone. The typewriter. Photocopying and faxing. The personal computer, introducing word processing, networking, and email. The laser printer. And of course, various types of law firm software - conveyancing, accounting, and electronic law libraries. Each of these not only re-shaped the profession, but saved the profession a fortune in costs. But despite the irrefutable proof that technology saves money, I still think that law firms don't appreciate the power of technology!
Maybe it is because the economy has been so good for so long, and lawyers have been doing so well that they didn't really need to cut costs. But with the economy biting, maybe now is the time for lawyers to start demanding more from technology. The question is, how? Most firms will argue that they are already using computers, that they have a file server, are on the Internet - and they even have a web page. They'll tell you they have email, and accounting software, and conveyancing software. So what more could they possibly need?
The answer to that lies in two key elements of any business. Increasing earnings, and decreasing costs. So law firms should use technology to help them improve those aspects. Let's begin with looking at increasing earnings. Sure, you could go out and spend a fortune on advertising, and this could help to position your firm as an industry leader. But what if you're not in that league? One way to use technology to achieve the same purpose is to build a client database, so you can stay in touch with clients. You see, people deal with people. So if you stay in touch with your clients, they are likely to come back to your firm next time they need a lawyer, and they might even refer their friends to you. Now I'm not talking about a hugely expensive CRM ("Customer Relationship Management") installation. You can create a client database for next to nothing. You could even put it together using Word and Excel to do a mailmerge. But the surest way to lose clients is not to stay in touch with them!
You may also want to explore if there are opportunities to increase fees by making better use of your legal accounting system. Such as direct debiting, for example. And if you don't have a firm website, now would be a good time to put one together. You don't have to create an ever changing, interesting, work of art - although your site does need to look professional or it has the opposite effect. In my experience, a website for law firms is simply an electronic brochure. It should talk about the type of work the firm does, the firm's pedigree, and the expertise and experience of the partners. Provide contact details so that online prospects can get in touch with you, and make sure that someone responds to enquirers as quickly as possible - since a slow response will have a negative effect on your prospective client! That's about all your website needs. Websites aren't likely to bring you a whole lot of new clients, but they are a way to make potential clients feel comfortable about using your firm for their matter.
Another area where technology can assist you is to keep clients updated on the progress of their matter. I'm not just talking about conveyancing, although even on property transfers most practices are particularly bad at keeping clients updated. I have always believed that over communication is better than under communication (duh), yet firms are either too busy to do this, or they just don't see the benefit in it. Besides, if you update your client on progress before they have to call you, it is not only good service, but you limit the interruptions to your day caused by ad-hoc client calls. And keeping in touch is easy - simple emails will do, but many of the software systems nowadays are equipped to do this for you - all you have to do is to spend some time understanding how to use the functionality.
"Clients vote with their feet." What this means is that if a client is unhappy with your firm's service, they simply move on, to another firm - usually without saying a thing to you. Given that it is so hard to find new clients, it seems ridiculous that law firms don't do all they can to hold onto clients once they have them. And technology can help to keep your clients happy. I recently instructed a small law firm to do a property transfer as I had been told their service was good. So far, no letter or email thanking me for the instruction (and all of the conveyancing software programs can do that in their sleep). And no progress update at all, except where I had to call them once to find out what was going on. Guess what - I won't be using that firm again, or recommending them to anyone else. Maybe now is a good time to review the documentation and communications that your practice sends out?
It is argued that advertising has little effect on people nowadays, since they have become jaded after years of being bombarded by ads. I was amazed at how many new clients a building contractor won when he placed his signboard on the verge after he had completed a project. So simple! And there is nothing stopping law firms from doing the same - for example sending an email to clients thanking them for their business as they take transfer of their new home, or after the successful conclusion of a matter. (I do realise that sometimes your client might not want to hear from you ever again, and vice-versa - but that's a different discussion!)
Document management systems (DMS) have a long history of failed implementation, largely because firms don't have the discipline (or the time) to use them properly. However there are now search programmes that can search for documents even if they aren't stored in a DMS. By using this functionality, lawyers can re-use agreements rather than having to redraft contracts from scratch each time. (Have a look at Google Desktop Search - it's free.)
Firms could also consider document assembly/automation, another technology that has never found much popularity despite its huge value to law firms. This allows secretaries to fill document templates, which speeds up the production of repetitive documents. Since GhostFill is no longer available for purchase, industry leader HotDocs from Lexis-Nexis is currently the only alternative for ad-hoc document automation in South Africa. (Having said that, local software house O2Smart (which owns AJS), is set to launch a document automation system called XpressDocs early next year, and some of the accounting and case management systems also contain document automation for use in their programs.)
Then, there are many ways firms can use technology to reduce costs. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) might sound like a high-tech buzzword, but it really is quite simple. Once installed, your phone costs will reduce substantially. And installing VoIP is not as expensive as you might expect. Skype can also cut costs of international calls substantially.
You can also reduce printing costs through various measures, or maybe consider a per-copy rental agreement with your copier and printer vendor. Another way to reduce costs is to implement an electronic faxing solution.
Document management and document assembly not only increase fees, they also decrease costs. And email remains one of the biggest cost-cutters for law firms.
Technology is a key part of practicing law, and firms that embrace it will almost always do better than the firms that don't. So how does your firm stack up? Why not let us know by posting your opinion on our forum?