The technical proficiency imperative for firm profitability & client satisfaction.

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014 | Technology Management, Technology Management, Uncategorized | Scott Randall

2015 budget planning is just around the corner and preparation of next year’s IT initiatives and spending is going to take some serious reflection and soul searching. If not, then you’re doing it wrong.

Most firms will start with a review of how last year’s budget played out, maybe even the past three years as well as IT goals and emergencies that might have come up. Few firms though are taking an honest look at their attorney and staff’s technical proficiency. It’s uncomfortable, unpopular and it is costing the firm, and your clients, lots of money.

Last year Law Technology News and ABAJournal.com published many articles about a controversial technical competency audit speared by D. Casey Flaherty, corporate counsel for Kia Motors America. It was a small anecdotal skill test that revealed how attorneys he was hiring as outside counsel were not able to perform basic tasks in Microsoft Word and Excel. This revelation was painful for the firms involved as Flaherty used it to negotiate their rates down to make up for the attorney’s “inefficiency” performing tasks for Kia Motors. His solution is the AFA which insures that firms are not paid for the technical inefficiency of attorneys or staff. The result, as you can probably guess, is a firm bleeding out profitability despite investments in IT infrastructure and software. The ILTA 2013 Technology Survey highlights the challenge. “Technology trainers at law firms have always had to balance training hours with attorney billable hours, and the Flaherty/Suffolk audit brings this tension into sharper focus.”

I suggest that for 2015 you don’t want to make a new mess before you have cleaned up an old one. Chances are very high that many of your attorneys and staff do not know how to use Microsoft Word efficiently. Start with that premise and know that all of the other firm-wide applications are in a similar state – especially many case management implementations. We run into this a lot when we work with firms to make ProLaw Software really hum, there is an ongoing need, after the initial implementation, for both training and development to make the most of the firm’s investment. If you do not believe it or need proof to get management buy in, then conduct a little audit of your own. UK Legal IT consultant Neil Cameron published an excellent article in June with reasons for the skills gap and tactics to improve effectiveness of training in law firms.

The struggles and tactics he outlines are exactly the same challenges we run into when working with our clients – sufficient training at the end of an implementation is pushed off or avoided all together. He asks with emphasis, “What is the point of a law firm buying and implementing costly technology if they do not invest in the (relatively small) amount of time and money it takes to train lawyers how to use it effectively?” I couldn’t agree more. Attorneys can no longer be above the IT process and must be held accountable for their effective use of technology and its impact on firm profitability and client satisfaction.

This is where the 2015 IT budget comes into the conversation. In your planning process consider the following tips outlined by Cameron: (I would add that this should be applied to all staff, secretaries and paralegals too, not just attorneys)

  • Firstly; define the required core IT competencies, the base technology capabilities that they expect lawyers of different grades and seniority to be able to undertake effectively – in order to be able to do their jobs properly.
  • Secondly; undertake a skills gap analysis to define – for every lawyer – what training they need to be able to meet those defined level of skills.
  • Thirdly; define a set of training courses designed to bridge the most common gaps
  • Fourthly; execute a series of mandatory training courses, over a sensible period, designed to get everybody up to their required level of skill.
  • Fifthly; enshrine evaluation against their required core competencies in lawyers’ annual appraisal process.

So in 2015 place the IT budget lines for training in a new frame – one of an imperative for firm profitability & client satisfaction.

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