Helping To Ensure The Success Of A Legal Department's Technology Solutions

Friday, September 1, 2006 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Afshin Behnia, President & CEO, Mitratech; Cathi Collins, Vice President - Sales Operations, Bridgeway Software, Inc.; Joe Fantuzzi, CEO and President, Workshare, Inc.; Eric Korb, Managing Partner, LawyerLinks; Jeff Lipsman, founder of Dataflight Software; Cole Morgan, Director of Sales Engineering, DataCert, Inc.; James A. Veraldi, Executive Vice President, Micro Strategies, Inc.; and Debra E. Weaver, Vice President, Marketing and Sales, TrialNet, Incorporated.

Editor: What strategies do you recommend when a legal department is considering whether to extend its existing technology or to acquire new systems?

Behnia: Assessing your existing solution is critical to your legal technology strategy. If your current technology is home-grown, chances are it is at least a few years old. In that case, there are a couple of essential questions you need to consider: First, is your technology still current and innovative, and does it continue to deliver the value you require? Second, is its cost of ownership in check, or has it increased to unreasonable proportions?

Solutions purchased from software vendors also need to be reassessed. I recommend evaluating your vendor's past performance as well as his future outlook. Vendors need to demonstrate a true partnership approach in their relationship with you, and there are several key questions you can ask to determine whether this is the case: Do your vendors listen to you? Do they improve their products and services based on your feedback? Do they turn around support issues in a timely manner and provide quality services in the time-frame agreed upon? What value have you received from your engagement?

Your vendors' future outlook is equally important for your peace-of-mind. Clients need to feel confident that they will continue to receive future innovations, support, and services, in the long-term, from a mature and well-established organization. In order to protect your technology investment, you should validate your vendors' companies' health. Are they around today; are they likely to be there for you in the future? Have they gone through one or more acquisitions? What is their financial viability and their long-term strategy? Is their product roadmap in line with your future needs? What is the maturity of their engineering organization and processes? These questions will help you determine whether it makes sense to continue investing in your existing solution or to start looking at alternatives.

Collins: I would recommend a thorough review of the existing processes. Interviewing each member of the department is the best way to uncover undocumented processes that should be considered regardless of whether the department extends its current system or acquires a new one. Documenting all the current (As Is) processes makes it easier to compare industry best practices and establish baselines. The next step is determining the long term goals of the department and whether the existing technology can meet those goals efficiently. The final consideration is the cost of extending vs. acquiring over the long term.

Fantuzzi: I think three strategies are essential for any IT solution consideration in a legal department:  

  • Learn from law firms  
  • Access analyst and press reviews   
  • Study competitor legal departments

Learn from law firms. Law firms and legal departments have similar business scenarios and technology needs. Many of their needs are your needs in areas of litigation support, data privacy protection, document management and information archival and retrieval. Your GC's law firm Partner will gladly give you the name of his or her IT Directors to keep you happy.

Access analyst and press reviews. Many legal-centric, application-centric and broader IT media regularly review software and systems products that are needed for legal departments. Major media include Law Technology News, Legal Week, EContent Magazine, Sarbanes-Oxley Journal, Secure Computing Magazine, Information Week and InfoWorld.

Study competitor legal departments. It is not necessarily easy, but learning what your competitors are doing is not only a defensive move, but can also be an offensive one. Ask around and you will find what other law firms are and are not doing. Use this knowledge to determine what is best for your organization both internally and in a competitive world.

Korb: Through my experiences in helping legal departments evaluate their technological strategies, particularly when it comes to their methods of research, I would have to say the answer to this predicament lies within the answers to these simple questions: "Is our existing technology reliable?"; "Is it scalable?"; "Is it extensive?"; "Is it measurable?"; "Is it replicable?" If your answer is "No" to any of these questions, then you need to evaluate your existing technology versus buying new technology and ultimately consider the costs of getting "Yes" to all questions. Also, when considering new technology, don't forget to add in the costs for transitioning and training.

Another consideration should be deciding if your existing technology affects the core part of your business, like billing and word processing. If not, consider outsourcing the technology and service. The legal department's resources should focus on what they know best or what mission is critical to the firm.

For example, legal research for corporate attorneys is LawyerLinks' core business, while case research is Lexis' and Westlaw's core business. Research plays a big part in the day-to-day transactions of information between corporate counsel and clients, and the more a firm or department is technologically advanced in this respect, the better the lawyers can service their clients. If a firm attempted to build the systems and content that we maintain on a daily basis, the costs would be extremely prohibitive.

So, as it often does, the answer comes down to economics. If your existing technology is critical to your business, make sure it passes the "Yes Test" above. Any "No" can be very expensive in the long run. Make sure you consider all the costs related to getting to each "Yes," including alternate paths, like outsourcing, and then you'll have your answer.

Lipsman: Questions should be asked about pricing. Is an enterprise-wide license available? Does it offer both flexibility and cost-per-user savings?

Next, ask about scalability. Will the proposed solution be able to handle future, exponentially larger, projects as well as small ones?

Also ask whether there is a broad user community. Is the proposed solution used in many law firms or in-house legal departments? Are paralegals and legal assistants familiar with its use?

The cost of training for any new technology is always an issue. How long does it take an average user to become adept in using the proposed solution?

Consider implementation and operation. Is an informed and responsive technology support team always available to help?

Don't forget to ask about ease of administration. For example, Dataflight Software's FYI 3.0 provides access to a powerful central repository which clearly displays databases, case relationships and user access rights, while making overall management easy and visual.

Assess the system's security features. Is the system "invisible" to hackers? Is a firewall incorporated? Does the system have robust user security that includes client configuration settings to control how authorized users log in and to limit what they can view?

Finally, think about the future. Does the proposed solution build on proven technology while anticipating the ever changing needs of your enterprise?

Morgan: The decision to extend an existing investment in current technology versus seeking out a new system is never an easy one. Cost conscious organizations certainly want to derive the most value possible from their technology purchases, and extending the life of an incumbent technology can very often minimize costs over the long term. Issues like implementation effort, training and general disruption of business often motivate legal departments to continue to invest in existing systems. However, accurately estimating these costs and trade-offs is essential to making the right decision for your organization.

In some instances, the actual costs associated with continued investment in an existing system far outweigh the costs of acquiring a new system to replace it. Both technology solutions and the business environments in which they operate are continuously evolving. Oftentimes this evolution results in the use of systems that are simply no longer a compatible fit for the organization. Correctly estimating the true costs and benefits of re-investing in an existing system is an essential part of the decision-making process.

Veraldi: The roadmap should reflect any new or upgraded enterprise applications to be deployed on the desktop. For example, Microsoft will soon be releasing a new desktop operating system (Vista) and a new office suite (Office 2007). Any legal department with a matter management system and a document management system should evaluate whether extensions or upgrades are needed to be compatible with the new Microsoft products, or if the Microsoft products have the features or functions that displace the need for specialized application software.

A hybrid approach might be appropriate. For example, a document management system, like Interwoven or Hummingbird, requires remote web access to the users' document repositories. In the past, the web modules would need to be purchased from the system's vendor. Today, a standard web access portal (like Microsoft SharePoint) can provide the web front end to a document management system. With this solution, the legal department can continue to use the legal specific document management software, while conforming to the enterprise standards for web access.

Weaver: The decision to upgrade existing technology or purchase something new typically stems from individuals who feel the current system is not meeting their needs. You should first assess how much of your current technology is being used.

Most people do not make full use of the technology already in place. By not utilizing a system to its fullest potential, your department may get the false impression that it does not meet the department's needs. You should also survey the individuals who use the technology to determine their goals.

I suggest asking your current vendor for a list of features for the product you are currently using, and a list of features for the product's latest release. If the new features will not meet your department's needs, then research will need to be done to find a product that is a better fit.

Survey your peers at similarly-sized law departments or those with similar needs for solutions they may have in place.

Enlist your IT department for assistance, but keep in mind that they will need to know the specific goals you want to achieve with the new technology. Providing them with a list of features you need and want will help narrow the search for a replacement product.

And, in considering any new product, you should assess its potential to integrate with other systems currently in place.

Will the new product truly increase your department's efficiency, enhance your workflow and the value of other technology you currently have, or will it only add another layer of complication?

Finally, keep in mind that in this technology-driven world, some features that seem cutting edge may not be very useful or add any efficiency. Stick to your list and objectives as much as possible, and don't be swayed by "cool" features.

Editor: How can you help a legal department determine what it wants from its technology and whether it has received the quality needed?

Collins: Bridgeway always brings industry best practice processes to the table. We work with each client to evaluate its current (As Is) processes against those in the industry to help shape the client's desired best practice processes (To Be). Once those processes are clarified, Key Performance Indicators (KPI) are established. For both existing and new technology, it is very important to build in the KPIs so that results can be regularly assessed. These evaluations will reveal if desired objectives have been achieved and if quality and ROI targets have been met.

Fantuzzi: Determining what a legal department wants from its technology can be achieved in many ways. Most often it includes a combination of assessing internal business requirements and discovering external best practices. Internal surveys of what is working and what is not working are essentials. The above media write about case studies and often cover major trends in technology that will give you glimpses to the possible.

Determining whether it has received the quality needed is more difficult to quantify. When in doubt, a good measure is to ask your customers. You are law firm customers. Your customers include the entire organization and, since Sarbox days, the Board of Directors. A simple online survey before and after deployment is always a good practice.

Morgan: Any new technology venture must first start with realistic and measurable goals. From a legal department's perspective, these goals usually seek to positively impact case/matter outcome (increase quality of work), to improve process efficiency (lower costs) or (in many cases) both.

To understand what your organization needs from its technology investment, you must first define and prioritize the relevant business goals. Once these goals have been defined and prioritized, each should be tied to a quantifiable desired outcome. Only after these goals and metrics have been established can a legal department understand its technology needs and define quality outcomes. Technologies should be selected on their ability to contribute to the highest priority business goals in the most significant and quantifiable way.

Veraldi: The liaison function between the department and the IT team is critical. The IT staff must be knowledgeable about the business objectives and the specific solutions targeted for legal professionals. If the corporate IT department does not have the needed expertise, then an outside consultant specializing in the legal industry - ideally with corporate legal departments - should be considered. You will get better results if it is a paid engagement!

Once the requirements and solution has been defined, the implementation process begins. Don't neglect the project management component. A good project manager (whether internal or external) will ensure that the project meets the objectives and is done on time and within budget.

After the project is implemented, the project should be checked quarterly to ensure the desired results and expected return on investment are being achieved.