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No. 33,  Winter 2007


A Contrarian View: Do You Really Want to Upgrade?

Note:  A version of the following article originally appeared as a “Technofeature” in the 23 January issue of Technolawyer list serv.

When the question of upgrading and making better use of technology is raised, a common response is: "our systems are working OK as it is, we don't need to/can't afford to upgrade." Historically, this has most frequently been an excuse for a "head in the sand" approach to the real world. However, as vendors increasingly move toward yearly releases in order to increase profits, "upgrades" tend to have fewer new features and be buggier (due to lack of development time) than previous versions. In addition, new releases increasingly focus on "eye candy" (cf. the new Windows Vista operating system: Q.E.D.) and mind-numbing "wizards." So more and more people are having legitimate second thoughts about upgrading.

Whatever the merits of upgrading to the latest and greatest may be, the pressure to upgrade overlooks a key fact, which is that hardly any firms are using the technology they already have even close to as efficiently as they might. Many people readily admit this: "we aren't making as much use of Program X as we might."

There are many ways a firm can expand and improve its use of existing technology without going to the effort and expense of a full-blown software implementation/upgrade. Expanding the use of existing features may prove much more effective than routine upgrades. What is the point in upgrading only to fail to make use of new features? (Of course, if the new version includes features that have been on your wish list for years, that is another question).

In the crush of needing to "get the work out" it may seem difficult to find the extra 10 minutes (or much more!) to figure out how to do something better, faster or more efficiently. However, it is precisely the people who "don't have time" to figure out ways to work more efficiently who will derive the greatest benefit from doing so. So you need to start by fighting inertia, lethargy, and resignation (remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the granddaddy of Moore's Law).

Start By Making a Plan

Figure out what you want to do. Make a list of all the things you (and most importantly, your staff) would like to do but can't, or don't have time to, figure out. The chances are that one of the following approaches will let you do what you would like to, save time and make people a lot less frustrated with their computers. In addition, people are frequently unaware of features or best practices that could save them a lot of time: you should start with a technology review of your current system. It will be well worth the money to hire a consultant: by definition if you are not aware of features that would be significant for you then you can't decide you want to use them! You can then implement, some, all, or none of the following suggestions, but at least you will have a better idea of what is possible.


If you are using a Practice Management program such as Amicus Attorney or Time Matters, put some time into developing custom fields for different types of law. This can be done at relatively little expense and serves two functions:

•  The information is available right there at your fingertips: the amount of time spent hunting for the physical file (either by the attorney or assistant/paralegal) can be reduced dramatically - various clients have told me that the need to consult a physical file is reduced by as much as 70%.

•  The information is also available to be pulled into document assembly routines (about which more below).

Expand The Features You Use

Most firms do not use all the available features in various programs. It is a commonplace that most people use only 20% or so of the features of their word processor and the same holds true for other programs. Make a list of things you would like the program to do: chances are that many, if not most, of them can be implemented at limited cost without having to upgrade to a new version or different software. Implementing a half-dozen "little" features can make a big difference. You can take advantage of the "Wow, I didn't know you could do that" response to gain acceptance by users.

Document Assembly

Implementing some form of document assembly probably generates a greater Return on Investment than any other single automation feature. Document assembly routines can range from standardized Word/WordPerfect templates to merge forms, to specialized document assembly programs such as HotDocs. The basic principles remain the same, only the degree of complexity changes.

You develop a standard form, and then "fill in" information drawn from a variety of sources: manual input, automated fill-ins from your practice management program, databases (or even Outlook addresses), or programs such as HotDocs. In addition to saving time, this serves two other important functions:

•  It reduces the number of errors generated when people copy old documents and then replace or update the old information, and

•  It lets you make sure that everyone is always using the best or most appropriate language that the firm has developed over time for a given type of letter, retainer agreement, form, etc.

While transactional practices may make the greatest use of form letters, every practice uses retainer letters and similar types of documents that are generated repetitively over time. If you do not already use electronically generated letterhead, you can save a considerable amount of money in printing costs by developing electronic letterhead that closely mimics your pre-printed letterhead – and you won't have to reprint letterhead when new attorneys join the firm or old ones leave, just change the electronic form. This is an area where you might get the “biggest bank for the buck” from using a consultant.

Brief Bank/Form Bank

If you are using a document management program you owe it to yourself to create a Brief Bank/Form Bank. This takes commonly used documents and saves them with a special designation so that they can be readily found and copied. Again, this makes sure that the firm always produces the "best" version of documents and forms. It eliminates the accidental use of outdated or outmoded language that has been improved on. It is also a great way to train new attorneys: "this is the way we do it here, and this is why."

Tips & Tricks/Brown Bag Lunches

Left to themselves, people's skills diminish over time: they forget how to perform less-frequently used features; they "give up" on complex functions, and so on. Sponsor one or more "Brown Bag Lunches." The firm pays for lunch and a "power user" or consultant presents a "tips & tricks" session and answers questions. This has the advantage of getting people up to speed on various features while serving as a forum for people to ask questions about things they want to do but haven't been able to figure out how or things that have been bothering them. And you can bet that the answer to one person's question will be of use to several other people as well.

In short, in many cases you will be better off spending money on improving and expanding the systems you currently have than upgrading to new versions that you will continue to not use effectively. A consultant may be able to help you much more efficiently than you can do it yourself. As Red Adair said, “if you think hiring a professional is expensive, try hiring an amateur.”.


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