I’m going to rip off the bandage upfront. Ask any software vendor or IT consultant what the biggest problem is in implementing new technology in a law firm and you’ll get the same answer: the back office administrator.
For years, I thought this was a problem that we at Rocket Matter faced alone when implementing our time and billing system at law firms. I was wary to discuss it openly for fear of offending people, and I wondered if maybe we were just doing something wrong. However, now that we’ve seen this roadblock at countless firms, I believe it is imperative to raise it to the attention of managing partners so that they are aware of the problem and how to deal with it.
The more we looked into troubled implementations, the more we realized that they had one element in common: the person running the books for the law firm stonewalled the software implementation and brought the entire transition to its knees. The cost to the law firms was huge, from both an economic and morale perspective. Firms lost tens of thousands of dollars in software investments. In one instance, a firm used its new systems for six months only to revert back to the old one because of one back-office admin. Lawyers and paralegals, who loved using our cloud software on smartphones and Macs, had to revert to the old Windows-only tools.
The universality of this experience when implementing legal technology was surprising to me. When we started discussing this subject with IT consultants and other technology companies, we were shocked by how almost no one hesitated to name back-office personnel as the biggest offenders in delaying or outright blocking new software implementations.
To be fair, not all back-office and administrative personnel derail technology projects. Some of them are true champions who suffer the opposite fate: despite their pleading and best efforts, they cannot convince their managing partners to invest in a tech upgrade. In other words, it’s not fair to paint all of these staff members with the same brush. I’m also not suggesting that back-office personnel are anything other than hard-working employees with the best of intentions.
Here’s the core problem: No two software systems work exactly the same. Reports and screens will be different. Consequently, law firms, which tend to use the same systems for ten years or more, have developed entrenched processes and habits based on those legacy systems. When you move from one back-end system to another, procedures and checklists need to be reinvented. Not only does this threaten people who are resistant to change, but it also might make them worry that if their knowledge becomes irrelevant, they too might become irrelevant. Software often gets derailed because of job security concerns.
Make it clear that you’re committed to switching software.
At the outset of your software research, make sure your back-office staff knows that staying with the same system isn’t an option. Moving forward with a software implementation, then reverting to the old system, simply will not happen. Allay your staff’s concerns that you are not looking to replace them, but that it’s time to modernize the firm’s tools and take advantage of powerful new revenue-boosting and automation technology.
Involve your staff in the decision-making process, and make sure they ask questions.
Make sure that your back-office staff gets to see a demo of every product you’re considering, and then genuinely listen to their feedback. Have them come up with a list of their most critical reports and functions and ensure that they are satisfied that the new system can provide the same information (though it may not be in the exact same form.) And watch out for silence: When people involved in the software selection are quiet, they often make their complaints known during the implementation phase.
Invest in training. Really! It’s important.
Legal software, especially time and billing software, is complex, no matter how simple the vendors say it is. You’re sending invoices, tracking payments (often involving trust accounts) and running reports. If you use the software wrong, you can really mess things up. Avoid a catastrophe by making sure your staff is trained and uses the software in the way it’s intended. When they screw up, you can guarantee they won’t be accountable and will instead blame us. Things can get tricky at this point between firm and vendor, so it’s best to avoid these situations altogether through training.
Monitor your staff’s responsiveness to the software vendor or consultant.
We recently faced a situation where over a nine-month period, we called one back-office administrator, in particular, more than 40 times and received only four calls back. When we met with the managing partner to explain why the implementation was not on track, we had to lay out the facts which, in turn, was an uncomfortable situation for everyone and a waste of tens of thousands of subscription dollars for the law firm. Ensure that projects are staying on track by making sure your point-people are responding to the vendor or IT consultant in a timely fashion.
If you run into major resistance, consider a personnel change.
Ultimately, your administrative and back-office staff work for the good of the law firm. You may know them for 15 years, but if they waste the firm’s money, refuse to move systems, and undermine your strategic direction, they are working against you, not for you.