Up until the emergence of the first generation of cloud-based platforms for law practice management about a decade ago, many solos — even those like myself who were relatively tech savvy — simply didn’t use the practice management systems like TABS, Amicus, PCLaw, Needles or others then available on the market. That’s not to say that I or my similarly situated colleagues went completely bare; many of us relied on a combination of tools: personal digital assistants (PDAs) for calendaring cases, Excel for creating invoices, Quickbooks for managing trust accounts and later Microsoft Outlook or Basecamp to tie various functions together.
These cobbled-together, cutting-edge systems of yore weren’t necessarily superior, but they served as necessary triage since but back then, many practice management systems were prohibitively expensive (starting around $800 for the lower-priced and ranging up to several thousand dollars) and had to be paid for upfront. Moreover, because the available practice management tools were so complicated, lawyers expected to shell out another thousand dollars or more to hire a tech consultant to set the system up properly.
Fortunately, with the cloud, lawyers were able to say good bye to all that . The cloud’s subscription-based business model enabled lawyers to procure the service on a pay-as-you-go basis instead of coming up with a large lump sum payment upfront. Even better, cloud-based LPM platforms were far easier and more intuitive than the clunky-desktop based predecessors so lawyers could be up and running in a matter of hours, rather than a matter of weeks. Finally, with the cloud, lawyers could readily and easily collaborate with staff without the need to set up shared servers and remote dial-in procedures. Not surprisingly, many tech consultants dissed the cloud-based products for a long time not only because the very early generation of tools weren’t fully ready for prime time (no longer an issue) but more critically, because cloud-based were perceived as taking away work from consultants.
Fast forward to 2016 and more solos than ever have taken advantage of the cloud and are using practice management systems. Which is a good thing. Yet as effective as the cloud-based practice management tools are, at their core and by necessity, the lead LPM systems are largely generic, built to handle the majority of tasks, right out of the box, that the majority of law firms demand. For lawyers with specialized practices who want to create more complex or bespoke systems with extensive document automation or workflows, they may need to come up with workarounds to these system’s default settings, work with the provider’s in-house tech support or potentially hire consultants to get the system they want.
So all of this raises the question: is technology back where we started before the cloud? In other words, if lawyers want to take advantage of industry trends like predictive data analytics and document automation, do we still need tech consultants to help select a product from the many available or maximize the system’s capabilities?
This thought occurred to me in reading a recent New Normal article by Darth Vaughn and Casey Flaherty entitled Sorry, technology isn’t easy — you take the time or you lose . Vaughn and Flaherty take the position that to get the most out of today’s technology, users need to take the time to learn how to use it, or invest in training. Moreover, when technology doesn’t work as we think it should, we must ask whether it’s the user who’s to blame rather than the platform, given “our pervasive belief that training should be unnecessary—technology is supposed to be easy.”
Vaughn and Flaherty are right about one thing: the “Google-ization” of design and function, which makes it easy enough for a four-year old to research Barbie dolls online or turn in papers via Google docs (as my daughters did over the years) has lead many of us to expect, and assume that setting up tech tools will be as easy as turning on the ignition in a car. And just as an Indy 500 driver wouldn’t race in a standard-issue Prius, or a billionaire hires sophisticated accountants for tax planning rather than using Turbo-Tax, is it reasonable for those of us who want to use tech for more complicated tasks rely on out of the box tools?
On the other hand, tech changes faster than many consumer products, and with machine learning and AI advancements, it also becomes easier for tech to train itself…doesn’t it? In other words, although some of today’s tech may require user tinkering or tech consultants to produce a desired result, will that always be true? Moreover, is it too much for users to demand products to be designed so that they’re intuitive but powerful at the same time?
Do you find that today’s tech tools are sufficient for your needs? Or is it still necessary to hire tech consultants and invest in training to do what you need to do? Please share your comments below.