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Getting Your Firm to Actually Use Your Practice Management System

I frequently talk to firms that already own Practice Management software but can’t get their partner, or their attorneys, or their staff, or whoever, to take the software seriously and use it. As such, I often field, “Do you have any suggestions on how to make it easy for a non-motivated partner to begin to use the system?”

If you ask 100 consultants they will all likely answer the question by saying you should provide “training” on the system. I’ve said this a million times myself. And it’s true, because you can’t use what you don’t know how to use. But I’ve learned that there is a requisite step to implementing training in order for it to be effective.

Framing the Question

Let’s start by framing the question: “Do you have any suggestions on how to make it easy for a non-motivated partner to begin to use the system?” They’re not asking how to use the software, they are asking how to get someone to use the software.

As such, we ask, “What makes someone use any software?” Hint: it’s not training.

Training will, in fact, teach someone how to use the features, and it’s those features that constitute the value of the system, but we’ve all put firm members through training and got the same result or a small variance: they’ll dapple with the software for a few hours, or few days, after training, and then again return to not using it. So though the training should teach someone the why use the software, it often doesn’t. And I’ve figured out why.

Training is Step 2 (not Step 1)

I’ve got the question a million times in a million ways. And though it baits you to answer with “training”, the fact is the first step is understanding the ROI of a PM investment, not training.

Waaaaait a minute…this guy is trying to sell me something!

Whenever I use the phrase ROI in a discussion on PM software, the knee-jerk response is almost always, “I know the ROI, let’s move on, I just need to see what this system can do.”

But if that were true, all firms would own a PM system. And those firms that already own one wouldn’t be underutilizing it. If firms really knew where the ROI was coming from, they’d be leveraging the system competently. As such, firms that don’t leverage the system competently can be assumed to be ignorant of the value proposition.

So why teach a lesson in ROI prior to formal system training? Think about it this way: if I wanted you to practice mindfulness for 10 minutes a day, I wouldn’t start by teaching you how to practice mindfulness, I’d start by teaching you why to practice mindfulness. As such, if I wanted you to begin using PM software, I wouldn’t start by teaching you how to use the software, I’d start by teaching you why to use the software, which is a treatise on ROI, not on the product.

Return on Investment

Nothing motivates someone to take action like money does (anthropological considerations aside). And we buy PM software to make more money. But the firms that either don’t use PM software or underutilize the software they do use, usually predicate their non-use on the “fact” that it’s not cost-effective from a time or money perspective. That a pen and paper is somehow more cost-effective.

As such, prior to training, and ideally prior to the PM software purchase, a good consultant needs to thoroughly explain the ROI-proposition to each firm member, large and small. As you’ll see, every person at the firm is vested and every person earns returns proper to their role at the firm (i.e., revenue growth doesn’t usually matter to the legal secretary). So the advantages of PM software need to be articulated in two ways: one for staff and attorneys, one for partners and key stakeholders.

Here’s a good start towards that end:

The Advantage for Partners

A firm stands to earn ROI on a Practice Management software investment in the same way they earn ROI on their other technology purchases. Insofar as the value is inherent in technologies like electricity, crude oil, automobiles, etc., it is also inherent in PM software. Whereas the printing press, the radio and electricity improved upon the first generation of their kind, i.e., writing, talking, candlelight, PM software improves upon the pen and paper. More simply, it improves overall firm efficiency. Take any 10, or 50, or 100 person law firm with a solid technology backbone in place, including PM software, and compare them to the same firm with no technology backbone; which firm do you think will outlast or out-earn the other?

So imagine you walk into the leading area hospital for your heart transplant and the surgeon can’t find your paper case file. You look around and see that there are no servers, no computers, and certainly no electronic health records. Nervous yet? The reality is that complex professional services, such as those rendered by a surgeon, require a level of efficiency, expertise, and specialization that can only be possible by implementing software systems of some kind; that’s partially why the medical field has been mandated to implement EHR’s by 2014 (Dept. of HHS, 2012).

This same concept, while not mandated by the government yet, applies to your legal practice. You render complex services that involve tons of moving parts, so managing all those parts effectively has become a business imperative for your practice. Just like your doctor needs his tools (i.e., x-ray machines, EMR software, etc.), you need yours, and PM software is one of those indispensable tools for the 21st Century firm.

Time

Economics studies the use of scare resources among competing alternatives. The first rule of economics is that there is never enough of anything to satisfy all who want it. As such, time and capital are scarce and need to employed towards their most productive ends. PM software allows all firm members to save time on each thing they do resulting in economization and reallocation of newly created time (time that was saved) to be employed towards more productive ends, i.e., taking on a new case, extra face time with clients, brainstorming on improving the business, or simply going home early.

Failure demand

Failure demand is a common type of waste associated with the service sector’s inability to do something right on the first try (Sheffrin, 2003). The occupational psychologist John Seddon created the term when realizing that up to 80% of total call center demand in certain organizations was created by, among other things, the failure to service the client’s needs on the first phone call, resulting in multiple phone calls, or an increase in call center demand. It’s important for a law firm to understand how automation via PM software can eliminate waste in production that comes from human error and redundancies, and this can reduce the costs to operate the firm which, in turn, drives profits.

Allow me to demonstrate – the attorney that I used to open my first LLC made two typos on the operating agreement he created for me. Thus, he had to redo the agreement and redeliver, all at the same cost. Thus, his cost to produce the operating agreement was unnecessarily wasteful, which is money he took out of his own pocket and, more than likely, is money inherent in the cost of operating agreement itself. Despite being a transactional, flat-rate firm, he used no PM software or document automation. Both could have prevented the mistakes if implemented and used.

Standardization

Standardization eliminates the number of ways of doing something down to one or a few, which reduces the margin for error. Standardizing your client intake process, or the way you produce a will, or the process by which you manage a domestic case will result in advantages created by learning by doing which just goes to state that as we do the same things over and over again, we learn how to do them better and more quickly.

Here’s and example. Standardization of shipping containers in the 20th Century created a global boom among international shipping companies who relied heavily on containers stacked on large ships or barges. When all ports implemented the new standards there was a dramatic economization in global shipping and this spurred forward all economies and further integrated the world economies, companies, and capitals.

Automation

A PM software is, in part, an automation software. It standardizes and then eliminates through automation redundant parts of your business. So in a PM software, the unified contacts lists means twenty other people don’t waste their time entering the same contact – a reduction in redundancy and an economization of your labor costs. Automation can be both simple (i.e., contacts list) and extraordinarily complex (i.e., automation the docket process, including creating self-management of that process).

Generally, the more complex an automation system you employ, the more standardized your business is, and accordingly the more efficient it is. We can automate anything – literally – but it comes down to at what cost, since there will be specialized consulting services required. Don’t be intimidated by that though. You should always see how much it’ll cost. If the ROI isn’t there, don’t build it. That is precisely the very nature and purpose of the price system in market economics. The price of something is your indicator for if you should or should not employ your capital in that capacity.

Example: Automation incorporates the ability for software to execute into action dedicated actions based upon the inputs entered by the user. If one of your attorneys tells the PM software that the hearing was moved to August, the system needs to know to push the scheduling of the TRIAL DATE since the system knows this hearing must be accomplished first. Automation chains like these will automatically assign and schedule events and to-do’s on firm calendars, it’ll send email notification to each affected party, it’ll create the necessary forms and documentation needed for the hearing, and it’ll deliver a report proving the actions were successful. All automatically, with zero human input, meaning at no cost to your firms total available labor for that period. Thus, spend $1000 to automate something, and if it saves you 15 minutes a week, it’ll pay for itself in less than six months. That’s 200% ROI year one.

The Assembly Line

From 1923 to 1929, Henry Ford doubled his production of the Model T while reducing its retail price by 40% (1). He did this by, among other things, streamlining the assembly line, buying up suppliers and relentless reinvestment of company profits back into company capital (Shlaes, 2007). Sales exploded. A modern firm needs to do the same – standardizing and automating core workplace operations to reduce costs; smarter employee utilization, scheduling and assignment; assembling the workforce in a way that streamlines operations.

All of these things start with the company’s PM system which is, for all intents and purposes, the foundation of your modern assembly line in the business of law. Once a PM system is well-established at the firm, you add other pieces and parts to your technology backbone, including document management and automation, e-discovery (if applicable), and accounting to name a few. These other efficiency-hubs simply “connect”, so to speak, with your PM system via “establishing a link”; once established, data flows between the systems to eliminate redundancies and failure points.

These various hubs, working in concert, eventually become the machinery and mechanization which your workforce leverages to do their job more efficiently and cost-effectively.

Risk Mitigation

For a legal practice, risk comes in all kinds of flavors such as how much cash you keep on hand, what happens in instances of disaster or Acts of God, how you manage professional conflicts, employee discrimination and wrongful termination, maintenance of personally identifiable information (PII), and so on. Mess up somewhere and it could cost you.

There are many ways a PM system reduces risk for your practice. For instance, as you inject automation into your business you can shrink the total number of employees needed to maintain and grow operations; this subjects you to lower risk of workplace-related lawsuits since less total people can file suit. So on and so forth.

Moving forward, a PM system is vital to whether or not you can adequately perform a valid conflict check when taking on a new client. Imagine that you don’t have a single place to check for conflicts, so you send a firm-wide email asking all employees to check if they’ve worked with Prospective Client A. Did that email go to any previous employees who no longer work for you? What about the idea of relying on your employees to remember a vague name they might have seen somewhere a handful of years ago? A PM system is designed to eliminate these unknowns and replace them with a valid, definitive yes or no.

Finally, when you work harder not smarter, you’re prone to make more errors and mistakes. When you rely on humans to not make mistakes, versus reliance upon automation to not make mistakes, you increase opportunity for error. Additionally, when you work inefficiently, you work with smaller margins and less profits, and accordingly you lose insulation against risk. These are all things that get addressed in part with the acquisition of a PM system.

The Advantage for Staff & Attorneys

Tools

PM Software allows personnel to focus on adding value to the company rather than focusing on how to get the job done without the necessary tools. When my company bought our first rental property, it took us six months to rehab it – way too long. The next time around, we sacked up and bought the right tools for the job, rather than focusing on saving money by implementing shoestring and duct tape solutions. Not only did we flip our next house in 1/6th the time, but we spent less total money, including the tools.

Happiness

Naturally, when you don’t have the tools you need to do your job efficiently and professionally, you’re not happy (CISCO, 2011). Rather than painting the exterior of a house with a paintbrush, spend the extra couple bucks and get the paint gun. Not only will it take literally 1/50th the time, it’ll look far better. Compare happiness among the two options.

It’s the same with your law firm. Tell half your research assistants they can’t use Lexis Research, a computer, or internet – that they can only refer to hardcover legal texts found in the law library. (Note: this is a great recipe for violence). Compare happiness among the two halves.

Turnover

Naturally, happy employees means less turnover and unhappy employees means more turnover. But turnover is nastier than that; unhappy employees steal more, don’t work as hard, cause more trouble, and are hugely disruptive to the firm in a myriad of capacities. Most importantly, turnover costs the firm huge money.

Specialization

One of the advantages of automating a large portion of the low-skill tasks at your firm is that it reallocates time in such a way that allows managers, attorneys, and staff to further specialize in their respective practice areas and firm roles, which is a driver of efficiency and expertise, and which itself differentiates the firm from its competitors and creates an additional layer of value to prospective clients.

Here’s an example: A PM system will easily economize many hours a month, meaning the firm members have additional time in a given month that they normally don’t have. Instead of going home early, maybe this extra time would be perfect to send a few of your promising attorneys to tradeshows on gaming law or some other practice area that “makes sense” for the firm to adopt and specialize in.
 

All of these things, and many more which have gone unmentioned (i.e., real-time decision making, cost predictability, economies of scale achieved via PM software), do one thing: they improve resource allocation and, as such, they improve your bottom line.

The Answer

If you want to get your partner to use the software you both bought, get them to understand the Return on Investment. If they tell you they already know it, then ask why they aren’t using the software. When they see how much money is actually on the line, they’ll order up that training right quick, guaranteed.

Sources:

“Health Information Technology: Standards, Implementation Specifications, and Certification Criteria for Electronic Health Record Technology, 2014 Edition; Revisions to the Permanent Certification Program for Health Information Technology; Proposed Rule.” Department of Health & Human Services, 7-MAR-2012, found at: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-03-07/pdf/2012-4430.pdf.
“2011 Cisco Connected World Technology Report.” CISCO, 2011. Found at: http://www.cisco.com/en/US/solutions/ns341/ns525/ns537/ns705/ns1120/2011-CCWTR-Chapter-3-All-Finding.pdf.
“Economics: Principles in Action.” Sheffrin, Steven M. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2003. ISBN 0-13-063085-3.
“The Forgotten Man.” Shlaes, Amity. 1 New York, Harper Collins, 2007. Print. ISBN 9780066211701.
 
Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill
As the Client Development Manager, Michael manages all new and existing business opportunities while ensuring a well-coordinated implementation effort and ensuring client satisfaction for all of Accellis’ products and services. He is highly experienced with Worldox®, Time Matters®, Amicus Attorney® and the N-able® IT network management platform. Michael has an Associate Degree in Criminal Justice from Cuyahoga Community College and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Akron.
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