‘Best-of-breed’ trumps ‘jack-of-all-trades’

Business transformation is one of the biggest buzzes in the legal market – but is it a goal attainable by only large law?  How can small and medium law firms transform their practices to get the benefits of this approach?

A good place to start business transformation is a review of the IT systems and applications currently in use.  Without the need for a crystal ball, I can predict that conversations with staff and clients will quickly highlight frustrations over the way they interact and communicate – which in a law firm relates to documents and emails.

Make improvements here, and firms will secure quick and highly rewarding wins by way of both staff and customer satisfaction.  The business will become more productive and efficient.

Choice of technology has always been abundant in the legal sector given the variety of functionality that law firms require to conduct their business – practice management, CRM, case and matter management, document management and so on.  Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that small to medium sized law firms desperately try to limit the number of systems they deploy.  This has given rise to a longstanding debate on the efficacy of best-of-breed systems versus jack-of-all-trades applications in the legal sector.

Adopting better systems can also help them attract the best talent and compete more cost effectively in a highly competitive market.

While initially the jack-of-all-trades solutions appear adequate, and address limitations of budget and IT resource, there comes a time when systems offering multiple functionality via multiple modules are simply unable to serve the business effectively.  Although the core module, usually the practice management component, may still be suitable, the secondary but still important elements can start to show weaknesses.

Eventually, firms find they need the advanced and comprehensive functionality of best-of-breed software solutions to help them transform and differentiate their business. Adopting better systems can also help them attract the best talent and compete more cost effectively in a highly competitive market.

Best-of-breed solutions provide growing firms with a steadier footing to achieve their strategic business objectives and compete in a level playing field solution an operational expenditure rather than a capital one.

For instance, firms commonly use the document management modules within their practice management systems for records and information management. However, often the functionality offered by these modules isn’t sufficient. Some systems have little or no integration with email; several place restrictions on the number of documents that can be saved to a single folder; and many provide little or no search functionality.

In today’s smart, hi-tech world, very few of the jack-of all-trades applications provide any true mobile solutions that allow lawyers to use devices such as smartphones, tablets and iPads meaningfully when working remotely or on the move. The fact is that these multi-purpose systems aren’t designed to be functionally rich in every area. They are light touch applications that do a ‘bit of everything’.

Furthermore, if it takes lawyers extra time and mouse clicks to save a document or an email into a system, they are unlikely to undertake the operation. This hinders the establishment of a complete electronic matter file, which is the foundation of a digital/business transformation initiative. The consequence of not having a best-of-breed, intuitive and user friendly system can be that documents get stored elsewhere – for example, on users’ local C: drives or somewhere on the network where individuals have their own unique hierarchal folder structure using their own naming conventions.   This can have significant and possibly very costly implications for firm-wide security, risk mitigation and compliance, not to mention contradicting the requirement of a single, central, collaborative working environment in which knowledge can be shared and re-used for posterity.

The email system then becomes the accidental collaboration tool, but isn’t fit for that purpose.

Without a relevant email and document management system in place, users will undoubtedly devise their own individual mechanisms to save and reference records.  Different filing systems, naming conventions and forms of version control create work for individuals, but offer very little reusable knowledge or value to the firm.  Important information is locked away on users’ local hard disks or buried deep within disparate and illogical hierarchal filing structures across multiple network file shares.

The email system then becomes the accidental collaboration tool, but isn’t fit for that purpose. This exacerbates data loss and integrity and security issues.  Studies show that knowledge workers can spend 15-35% of their time searching for information.  The rewards for making this process efficient can be substantial.

technology has evolved to become truly mainstream and accessible to all sizes of organisations as well as individuals.

In fact, these ‘handyman’ style applications are undeniably holding back business transformation in many law firms.  They are almost as bad as having no system at all.  This is especially true in small to medium sized organisations, who mistakenly believe that best-of breed systems are out of reach due to the cost of purchase, ownership and maintenance.  This leads them to assume that rudimentary, all-inclusive applications are their only resort.

The reality is the contrary.  Law firms can and should work with their software providers to remove these typical obstacles for growing firms. For example, document management best of-breed solutions may be difficult to deploy on-premise for some firms, but they are immensely affordable via a privately hosted model. This addresses firms’ archetypal security, cost of ownership and lack of IT resource concerns, making the solution an operational expenditure rather than a capital one.

Firms can also encourage technology suppliers to devise alternative pricing and licensing models to help lower the cost of technology ownership. Today, usage based, on-demand licensing options are growing and in many industries, they are beginning to replace the traditional perpetual and subscription models. There’s no reason why the same approach cannot be adopted in the legal sector.

For firms embarking on this route, it’s advisable to work with a systems integrator to ensure successful migration of data from the existing system or network file share to the new solution. Also, the importance of a comprehensive data migration strategy should never be underestimated.  It should be regarded as a key sub-project within the implementation of a new system.  It must also be supported with the right level of investment.

The objective should be t o have every matter-related document and email filed and managed within the new document management system as quickly as possible. The more complete this repository is, the more valuable it will be to fee earners, helping them save precious minutes, if not hours, across the course of a day for billable work.

It’s worth noting that data migration doesn’t simply entail transferring files, but also moving the ‘contextual’ information around those documents (known as metadata), including associated emails, matters, contact details of various parties involved on the case and financial information. There’s definitely an art to identifying what precious information can be mined from the location of the documents, the naming conventions used and the references that the existing systems make to those documents.

The best ‘tools of the trade’ are no longer a privilege of the larger law firms with deep pockets and substantial resources. Technology has evolved to become truly mainstream and accessible to all sizes of organisations as well as individuals. Consequently, clients today don’t just expect their law firm to be IT savvy – they demand it.

Take external collaboration for instance. Many clients, including private individuals and/or the largest of corporates, expect the ability to exchange matter-related information quickly and securely via simple-to use tools. As best-of-breed email and document management systems are now affordable, there’s no reason why a small to medium sized firm can’t enhance its client satisfaction by providing the same customer-facing technology solutions that the large firms offer.

There’s a business rationale for adopting best-of-breed solutions.

It’s a myth that jack-of-all-trades applications offer sufficient functionality to growing firms. There’s a business rationale for adopting best-of-breed solutions: they provide growing firms with a steadier footing to achieve their strategic business objectives and compete on a level playing field. Truly viable options exist and the opportunity is there for the taking.

Roy Russell has over 30 years’ experience in consulting, implementing and supporting software technologies in European and North American legal markets. In 2000 he founded Ascertus, a UK-based specialist in document lifecycle technology consulting and software solutions.


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