In today’s highly competitive market, law firms are under ever-increasing pressure to cut costs and boost efficiency. For many firms, this means turning to technology. When it comes to cost-saving technologies, however, is it better for firms to build their own solutions and applications in-house or turn to existing products?
Despite the wide range of software offerings from reputable third-party suppliers, some firms continue to keep some or all of their solutions in-house. According to the 2018 ILTA Technology Survey, this is particularly common in the area of document template management, with nearly a quarter (23 percent) of the survey participants still using a custom, in-house-developed macro for template automation.
While in-house solutions may offer the benefit of complete customization, opting to create solutions and applications internally casts a law firm in the role of a software company, which is often a cost-prohibitive proposition.
When making the decision to look inside or outside for technology solutions, law firms should analyze the benefits they hope to achieve from their solutions, as well as the firm’s internal technology capabilities.
The Upside of In-House Applications
Developing technology solutions in-house can certainly have its advantages. By far, the largest of those is that internally developed solutions are completely customized to your staff’s individual needs and perfectly suited for your firm. The firm can determine everything from the level of simplicity or complexity of the application to the technology platform on which the solution is developed. There is a strong argument to be made that no one can understand the needs of your firm better than your own internal developers.
One major impetus for developing solutions in-house is the notion that doing so will save money. Whether or not that is true, however, depends on the amount of time, resources and effort put into development. A handful of firms manage to develop highly sophisticated products, but typically only with hundreds of hours of work and a team of highly skilled individuals dedicated to the project. In contrast, most firms end up developing very basic solutions that lack any real automation, largely because they don’t have the resources to develop more sophisticated products. Still, others develop templates devoid of automation or valuable integration.
When thinking about developing solutions in-house as a cost-saving measure, it’s important to remember that you get what you pay for. Internal development may cost less in the short term, but if the product fails to add value or save time for the end user or lacks the necessary integrations to work properly within your larger systems, you won’t see benefits or increased efficiencies in the long term.
Before your firm decides to undertake the development of in-house solutions, it’s crucial to determine if you have the internal technological capabilities to create a product that will meet your needs today and keep doing so far into the future.
The Benefits of Looking to Outside Partners
Developing technology solutions in-house requires a firm to specialize in the practice of law and also software development. As your desktop applications are upgraded, you will need to pay constant attention to your solution to ensure it continues to be compatible, making adjustments as and when necessary. That level of undertaking, for each potential technology solution required, is expensive and time-consuming for any firm.
Outside software companies, in contrast, are invested in creating solutions that benefit a wide range of customers in the market and therefore have dozens of individuals focused on developing the best possible products. Outside providers have both customer service and development teams to support the product, and another major benefit is that you can always hold external providers accountable for development and upkeep of their software—and they offer round-the-clock support to ensure those happen.
Unlike law firms, software companies are highly motivated to grow and enhance products and solutions as technology continues to evolve. Law firms aren’t typically in the business of technology, so they’re less attuned to watching out for developments in the field. Moreover, because a product developed in-house only benefits one firm, there’s less motivation to constantly upgrade it to take advantage of the most recent advancements.
Take, for example, template management technology. This type of software has to integrate with several other desktop applications such as address books, document management, and contact or practice management systems. When a product is developed in-house, the firm must write each of those integrations from scratch, and if any of the other applications change, the integrations will need to be rewritten. Third-party providers, on the other hand, already have all the potential integrations written for popular applications, which means that when things change, there’s nothing additional to develop or purchase—your solution will continue to work as usual.
Another thing to consider is how dependent your firm becomes on the person or team developing a software solution in-house. If your developer(s) leave, are on vacation or are unavailable for any reason, you are stranded with no way of resolving any issues that arise. Consider also what will happen when your template developer retires. It may be tempting to hire another internal developer to take over and retain the nuances of the existing product, but bringing that new developer up to speed is a time-intensive proposition. In contrast, many firms in this scenario investigate their outside options, only to find that commercially available products offer integrations with their existing workflows that are scalable and configurable. These outside solutions can be configured without having to know how to write code and eliminate the need to rely on a single person for technical support and product maintenance.
Simply put, software companies are in the business of developing software, while law firms are in the business of practicing law. When it comes to expertise, if it looks like your law firm is becoming more of a software company, something isn’t right.
If you are looking for technology that provides real improvements in efficiency, work processes and workflows for all end users across your firm, you are most likely to find it through a reputable third-party provider. It is the provider’s livelihood to become trusted experts and offer a level of support, maintenance, and upgrades that is difficult, if not impossible, to replicate internally.