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September 16, 2015

Legal project management software (Part 2 of 2)

By Jim Hassett, Steve Barrett, and Jonathan Groner


In Part 1 of this series, we argued that when it comes to LPM, lawyers should start by using the software they already have.

However, there is a growing sub-group of technically sophisticated firms who would like to learn what other firms have found in using LPM and pricing software (as opposed to what sales people say when they demo them).  In some cases, lawyers may legitimately conclude that new project management software would be helpful, especially in large complex matters, where most of the day-to-day software work can be handled by staff members rather than by lawyers.

Jason Ross, a consultant at PLA put it this way:

In general, software can help a law firm formulate and present a competitive price in an RFP or similar situation.  Software can also be very useful in tracking budgets to stay on target, in creating experiential data that is invaluable in arriving at a fixed fee or similar alternative fee arrangement, in figuring out the best possible staffing for a matter, in tracking dates and milestones, and in many other ways.

As the demand for LPM has grown, new options are constantly being developed and improved by major legal accounting software vendors and others.  There are also a large number of software programs available on the web that could be of use to lawyers, some of them free to anyone who knows how to use Google.

Which of these many programs should your law firm choose?  The answer depends on many factors, and today’s answer may be different from the one you will get six months from now, since the market is changing so rapidly.  That’s one main reason we formed a strategic alliance with PLA.  Their business is technology, and when firms ask us what technology is best, instead of saying “technology is not our specialty,” we now say “call ___ at PLA.”

While we cannot recommend a “one-size-fits all” software solution in a blog post like this, we can offer this general observation:   Proceed with caution.

In his book Smarter Pricing, Smarter Profit (p. 215)Stuart J.T. Dodds, Director of Global Pricing and LPM at Baker & McKenzie noted that:

Many of the initial LPM efforts failed … due [in part] to an initial focus on technology… [LPM software] was frequently difficult to learn and then apply to matters at hand, leading to lawyer frustration and limited adoption.

The kinds of problems that law firms have had with software are not surprising to IT professionals.  In other businesses, large and ambitious systems – such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software – have such a spotty history that a number of publications and bloggers have taken to compiling annual lists of the biggest ERP failures of the year.  (For example, see this list, and this one, and this one.)

An article in Information Week offered this explanation for the frequency of software failures:

No matter how you look at them, ERP and most other big application deployments are risky, difficult, and expensive. But much of the analysis on why these projects go awry misses the point. These are not technology projects; they're business transformation projects.

Similarly, an article focused on the failure of some CRM (Customer Management Relationship) software noted that one of the most common types of failure is that people simply don’t use the system.  Their proposed solution is quite similar to many of the ideas we have proposed for LPM:

Identify champions in each group, advertise success, and constantly reinforce your message in a long term campaign that doesn’t end when [the software] “goes live” in your company.

Still another article suggested that the best way to ensure success is to:  “Get users to focus on the What's In It For Me factor.”

These recommendations sound like common sense, but are often ignored.  Why?  I am reminded of what an editor told me decades ago when I was writing a psychology textbook.  I aimed it at students, but the editor said I needed to aim it at their professors:  “Textbook publishing is like selling dog food,” my editor told me.  “It doesn’t matter what the dog wants.  All that matters is what the dog owner wants.”  According to another article, similar cynicism is common among those who sell large software systems:  

Enterprise software still doesn't care about users. Its focus continues to be serving executives, rather than employees, because executives make buying decisions. 

So our advice to law firms on buying new software systems is simple:  take your time. 

For those who have already made a commitment to a new software system, according to another article, working with pilot groups to build acceptance is key:

Engage users early and often during the system planning and implementation phases, so they understand what's in it for them. When users do not adopt a system as planned, seek their honest feedback on how to make it more usable, helpful, and valuable.

Said another expert:

If you can't make your goal processes work with a test group of a few attorneys, secretaries and billing people, you clearly won't be able to make it work with the whole firm.

And once the pilot test is complete, consider this advice:

User education and training is necessary to overcome fear of change and prepare future users to take advantage of all the new system has to offer. Double your education and training budget (and make sure to spend it all)—it’s the best investment you will make in project success.

So if you are thinking about purchasing a new LPM software system but have not yet made a decision, first make sure that you are fully using the power of all the software the firm already owns, from advanced features of your accounting system to simple tools like Outlook.  Then proceed cautiously and spend time determining what your lawyers want and need. 

A law firm that invests in new software before partners ask for it is like a college that spends millions on a radical new type of gym equipment before learning what types of exercises students are most interested in, or even whether their students are likely to use the gym at all. 

Many software vendors are currently focused on developing new and better software for LPM and profitability analysis.  Every day that you delay the decision, your options will improve.

As PLA’s Jason Ross summed it up: 

You must put your needs before the software. You must first figure out what you need to do, and then ask, ‘What software fits this need?’ You will make a mistake if you go ahead and buy software and then try to force it into what you’re doing.

This post will be adapted for the fourth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide, which will be published next year.



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