Fast Fish and New Technologies

We have moved from a world where the big fish eat the little fish, says Tom Peters, the famous management consulting guru, to a world where the "fast fish eat the slow fish."

I’ve noticed lately that many of the most innovative developments in legal technology have come from smaller firms and solo practitioners. Small firms and solos have developed some of the most successful legal web pages, pioneered voice recognition and other applications, and taken the lead in developing "paperless" office strategies. They have become the faster fish.

While much has been written (including by me) about the difficulties small firms and solos have in finding good technological assistance, the flip side of the story is that small firms and solos have some advantages over big firms that help them leverage new technology and level the playing field against larger firms.

Here are ten advantages that small firms and solos have over large firms when it comes to innovation and technology:

1 . The People Most Affected by the Technology Decisions Actually Make the Decisions. Large firms generally have an IS department that handles technology matters. Technology decisions are generally announced to lawyers rather than discussed or voted on. As a result, decisions tend to be based on what is best for the organization as a whole rather than what it best for individual lawyers.

In a small firm, the people most affected by the decision actually make the decision. There is more opportunity to tailor technology to individual needs. More importantly, the decision-makers will directly experience the impact of their decisions. A critical factor in the success of the adoption of any technology is the amount of "buy-in" from the people who will be using the technology. Better participation leads to better attitudes about changes, greater success with training and more effective use of new technology.

2 . Decisions Can Be Made Quickly . Some large firms have spent years debating whether to have a Web page. Some small firms have gone from decision to implementation over a weekend.

Any process that involves a long series of committee meetings will foster an atmosphere of cynicism and frustration. In a small firm, decisions often can be made over lunch or when several attorneys decide to make an impromptu trip to a computer store. For solos, important decisions can be made in the shower or on the drive to work.

3 . The Need to Find Cost Savings Drives Innovation. In a small firm, every little bit of cost savings can have a direct impact on an attorney’s earnings. In larger firms, cost savings have more indirect results. Cost savings can be an important motivation for adopting new technologies.

If you are starting up or maintaining a small practice, the cost of a library can be prohibitive. Purchasing library material strategically on CD-ROM rather than in book form can result in both space and cost savings. Wise choices made while attempting to cut costs can result in an innovative use of technology that leads to a more productive practice.

4 . The Size of the Project is Less Daunting . It is easier and cheaper to set up a network of three computers than it is to set up a network of three hundred computers. Adding a new hard drive to one computer is far easier than to add several mirrored hard drives to a network server.

5 . Technology Improvement Can Be an Important Use of Downtime . Smaller firms and solos sometimes have alternating cycles of busy periods followed by slow periods. In a large firm, the constant push to bill hours does not allow for that type of cycle and puts pressure on attorneys to focus exclusively on generating billable hours and not on developing systems or improving technology. In a small firm, a slow period in the practice may be a perfect time to implement new software, to use document assembly to automate forms, to try a new calendaring or contact management program, or simply to plan for future technology requirements. Taking more time to think about technology and to explore options will result in more successful applications of technology.

6 . Small Firms Are More Willing to Adapt Their Practices to Shrink-wrapped Software . In a large firm, different departments often do things in very different ways. In addition, there may be a "Firm" way of doing things which has not been modified for many years. These firms will often spend enormous amounts of money to customize programs to match existing practices.

Small firms, on the other hand, are likely to use commercial legal software, and even commercial software designed for home users, and adapt their practice to the software. This flexibility will often allow a small firm to use a time and billing program costing a few hundred dollars as opposed to a $ 100,000 time and billing package which might produce no significant practical difference in results. What matters is that time gets recorded and bill get sent out, not that you are using "legal-specific" or customized software to do it.

7 . The Payoff From Technology Investment is More Easily Seen . If every time that you want to print a document you must copy the file onto a floppy disk and take it to another computer which is physically attached to a printer, you will clearly and concretely see the benefits when you network your computers and printer. A larger monitor may give you an immediate impact by reducing the need to squint to see details. A Web page might start producing clients that can be readily traceable to the Web page. A small firm’s return on investment can be easily seen and measured. In a larger firm, return on investment can be harder to identify and may take place over a longer time frame.

8 . Small Firms Are Willing to Experiment . Small firm lawyers are usually the lawyers speaking at seminars about voice recognition software and other innovative technologies. As a general rule, lawyers are not known as "early adopters" and many large firms are extremely conservative and unwilling to take risks when it comes to technology.

In small firms, there tends to be more of an attitude of experimentation and a willingness to try new things. There is also a willingness to admit that an experiment has not worked and to try something new. This attitude allows smaller firms the opportunity to match technology to their needs and to keep them in some cases closer to the leading edge of technology than many larger. Smaller firms seem more willing to try new options like leasing technology and breakthrough legal software like CaseMap.

9 . The Need to Level the Playing Field Drives Technological Change . Some of the more innovative uses of technology by small firms came in response to the practice of larger firms of trying to bury smaller firms in paperwork during discovery. The use of programs like Summation, or other litigation management software, can give a small firm control over mountains of evidence in a way that can be superior to what can be achieved by a team of big firm lawyers not using the same technologies.

Because it is all but impossible for a small firm to compete with a large firm in a war of attrition using human resources, small firms have tremendous motivation to leverage technology to level the playing field against big firms. Competitive factors often drive excellent decisions about technology.

10 . Small Firms Focus on the Practical. Often big firms seem to be preoccupied with the theory of technological improvement and with thinking about how technology might work rather than actually using the technology. In the meantime, small firms are adopting new technologies that streamline their practices, putting up Web pages that draw in clients, and producing charts and visuals that help them to win cases.

An important example is law firm web pages. Large firms have a tendency to put out web pages because it is seen as a requirement for a firm of stature, with no real expectation of getting clients, often a self-fulfilling prophecy. Small firms put up web pages that work and get clients.

Here are five final points to remember about technology and the small firm:

1 . Be flexible and willing to experiment.

2 . Build on your successes. Constantly try to extend the efficiencies you have already gained through other technology and systems you’ve developed.

3 . Try to identify areas where cost savings will also result in innovation and increased productivity in your practice.

4 . Focus on practical and measurable results.

5 . Get on the Internet.

Be a fast fish. By being flexible, practical and innovative, small firms and solos can use technology to increase their effectiveness and productivity and level the playing field against slower-reacting large firms.