Features - Building Bridges Between Law Firm Managers: Technology is the Key

Linda Sedloff Orton is President of Intelligent Marketing Solutions, Inc.  She is also President of the New York Metropolitan Chapter of NALMA (Marketing Association).  Linda is a marketing consultant and recruits and places marketing professionals in professional service firms.  She has worked in New York and London for top law firms as the first marketing director for four firms, a recruitment manager and initially as a litigation paralegal and case manager.  She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago.

(Archived April 1, 1998)


A Brief History

Law firms are placing increasing importance on their internal professionals who, although are frequently non-lawyers, have growing responsibilities that influence the success or failure of their firms’ from both a practice perspective and from a business development one. These legions of experts in their respective areas including: library science, marketing, recruiting, finance and administration have, at times, faced challenges in relation to their respective roles within law firms.

The situations that have led to these conflicts are usually political, frequently territorial and always, at best, complicated. At many firms, both large and small, senior management has not always seen the need to encourage regular meetings or open communications between support staff. Set-up similarly to practice areas, each support area may have a champion, usually a partner or executive director, entrusted with the effective management of that department. The open flow of information has rarely been fostered and oftentimes even discouraged depending upon the political climate of the moment.

Many firms believe that a librarian may have little need to understand how and what the recruitment department is doing to attract new recruits, while the accounting department may have no involvement with the marketer and his staff, unless they meet to discuss the database that may affect both departments. The Chief Information Officer may not even be introduced to the Human Resources Team, other than during an initial orientation and most often, in my 12 years of law firm experiences, management truly believes that the departments are best run on a "need to know" only basis. This is clearly not the case. An effective manager will usually benefit from understanding the "larger picture" and by relating the objectives of her department into this greater whole. While this is certainly not a revelatory concept, for law firms it is sadly not the norm.

With the advent of technology however, this group of support staff underdogs has the best reason in the history of law firms to unite. Their understanding and use of technology, and their ability to teach the lawyers how technology can assist them, will become the strongest competitive advantage each law firm has, without spending any additional capital expenditure. The technical knowledge that these support groups possess are not just useful for a librarian or a marketer. Lawyers will need to understand the tools and resources now available in their firms to make better informed business decisions about a myriad of areas they were perhaps only tangentially involved with before. In order to achieve this however there will be a new level of effective communications needed between internal "support" functions and between the support groups and the attorneys.

 

Technology as the Great Unifier

The role that technology is playing is not only growing in magnitude, it is also changing the way in which law firms compete in the marketplace to maintain existing and grow new business. As a result, none of the "back-office" functions in law firms are exempt from the reach of new software and hardware, the Internet or from the vast increases in communications due to Intranets, Extranets and sophisticated Email and Vmail programs.

The following is a brief list that just scratches the surface of the types of "specialized knowledge" that each (non-MIS) department in a law firm may possess through their own technology. Each of the following examples provides a piece of information usually housed in that department, but suggests how another area could benefit by having access to or knowledge of parts of that department’s technological resources. I would bet that each department has a minimum of ten gems like this that would be useful to any other support area in the firm.

 

Pockets of Knowledge

Accounting:
Client information including contact data, billing and payment history and information about parent companies and/or subsidiaries for cross-selling purposes often exists in a variety of forms in accounting. Marketing could use this information when determining how to best cross-sell services and gain entry into related companies even if there is no firm-wide relational database.
Human Resources:
Information about personnel, frequently gleaned when staff and lawyers first start, could include additional information useful to other departments such as additional languages spoken, additional areas of interest (for internal transfers i.e., a secretary who has some marketing or special events experience), or contacts in other law firms. Virtually every other department could benefit by knowing additional information about the firm’s most valuable resource, their people.
 
Library:
The library, as I don’t need to tell most LLRX readers, can be far more than a passive bastion of static information. The disparity between firms that have proactive libraries and more conservative, traditional ones, is enormous. The library is no longer only a resource for legal needs. It should be utilized as a true communications center working in conjunction with marketing to provide timely business information that can enable the lawyers to walk into any client situation better prepared to pitch for new work or deal with a client’s concerns.
Marketing:
In many marketing departments there are graphics experts or presentation capabilities that do not yet exist in other areas of the firm. If marketing could work with the other departments to improve the internal presentations that were done by recruiting or accounting for example, the partners would be educated about the technology and would, ideally, receive the information in an enhanced framework. Additionally, the other departments could then incorporate these software programs into their areas and utilize them for their primary functions.
Office Services:
Frequently new systems, such as voicemail, will be installed firm wide and after the technical aspects of the installation are complete, the manuals will be distributed and the lawyers and staff will rarely be given guidance as to how to best use this new technology. Oftentimes the "experts" for a new software product do not reside in MIS, or in word processing, but in a different area of the firm. Communicating who can help the users best leverage the technology is a commonly ignored detail in law firms. Office services could create a pocket guide, if one does not come with the equipment, and coupled with a script from marketing about client communications, this could be a powerful mini-tool to be utilized by lawyers and staff.
Recruiting:
Many recruitment departments track where lawyers go when they leave the firm. Some create sophisticated Alumni Books that include rich information including undergraduate and graduate institutions, current job, hobbies, years at the firm etc. Frequently this tool is used as a subtle marketing tool; however, its power could be trebled if this information was cross-referenced with any existing data in marketing and accounting to determine where pockets of contacts already existed.
 
Word Processing:
I wish I had a dollar for every time I was woIrking late, I walked past word processing and I heard "I’ve been waiting three hours for this darn document to come in on the modem for Partner X. It finally came in and we couldn’t read it – I don’t know if our systems aren’t compatible or what but I know Partner X is going to go crazy when he finds out. I’ve called up MIS and they said they would get to it as soon as possible but client Y already left for the day. What am I going to do?"

This is not a computer problem. This is a communications issue and we can solve this by helping the lawyers ask the right questions when communicating with their clients. If our lawyers are going to send information electronically, they have to understand their own firm’s systems first and then how to request or send information so that the transfer is seamless.

Think about how each of the other areas in your firm could benefit from the technical knowledge you have in your department, and think about how your increased knowledge of the other areas could sync with the work you are already doing. I know there are only 24 hours in a day, but think about the combined power of the information that currently exists in your firm in different places. This is the unleashed power of technology and you hold part of this power.

 

Profit Center vs. Cost Center

Having worked in different areas of support (library, litigation as a paralegal, recruitment and marketing) in law firms over the years, I have found that there is always one overriding consistent theme. Unless you can be billed back to a client, you are overhead. And if you are overhead, you better be prepared to solidly contribute to the most effective use of your time. Law firms are in business to make the partners money. This is a fair statement of fact. Being a cost center rather than a profit center is not advantageous. Technology will change how these disparate, albeit necessary, cost centers in law firms work.

I believe law firm technology will enable these cost centers to offer increased value to the partnerships by enabling each area of support to function as a communication or business development adjunct for the firm. Marketing will no longer be limited to the marketing department, it will become, through technology, an integral part of each department’s role and will not be viewed as the nasty M word. Acceptance is the first step and together technology and marketing is changing the way lawyers deliver their services, as well as develop new business.

 

Building the Bridge

Don’t wait for your firms to stand up and start building this proverbial bridge. Don’t expect your executive director to be the Howard Roarke of internal law firm architecture. Take matters into your own hands because increased knowledge will enable all of you to contribute more to your firms and allow you to do your respective jobs better. Get to know the managers in other areas, share information with them and develop a relationship based on trust. Understand that you have information that could be useful to someone else.

Our lawyers struggle with this challenge continually and they have frequently created staff environments that mirror their own. Closed, uncommunicative fiefdoms of power bases that foster dishonesty, competitiveness and ill will – all in all a pretty unhealthy place to be.

Be able to take a step back and learn from their mistakes. The time is now. The firms that share information will be the firms that flourish in the next millenium. You can help by building a bridge to your internal resources. Your fellow underdog understands you and your struggles better than you may realize. We are unified by our roles. We are professionals but not necessarily lawyers. We have chosen this industry because of the challenges, the intellectual stimulation and the people. Don’t reject your peers before you realize the mutual benefit you may provide to one another.

Your have your excuse. Go share your technology and your knowledge with your neighbor upstairs. Grab a cup of coffee or sit in on a demo together. You can get over the water. Technology is your bridge and the time to build it is now.