Law office technology and a perfect storm

We’re right in the middle of a perfect technology storm, a wild ride that makes the last twenty years look tame. A recent article about law office practice management programs will serve as an example but the principle is true in every area for every kind of business.

The storm is caused by a platform shift from computers to mobile devices. For business people, the small devices are largely a complement to the traditional reliance on computers, but there is an increasing urgency to the desire for business information to be available on phones and tablets. There are statistics here: 89% of lawyers are using a smartphone for law-related tasks outside the office, and using them for more than just calendar checks – most of the attorneys specifically claim to be using practice management apps. The shift is occurring so quickly that developers are working overtime to meet demand.

The platforms are fragmented. Apple iPhones and iPads are perceived as the market leaders and targeted first by developers. A telling detail from an infographic about lawyers and mobile devices: 33% of attorneys are using tablets – and 91% of lawyers replaced the word “tablet” with the word “iPad” in the survey. At the same time, Android phones are actually the market leaders in sales and Android tablets are gaining fast, but the Android platform is itself fragmented into multiple Android versions. Microsoft is gamely struggling to enter the market with Windows Phone 8 devices and Windows 8/Windows RT tablets, with little effect so far except to complicate things for developers.

With fragmentation comes incompatibility. We haven’t seen this level of incompatibility since the early days of PC computing when hardware specs were still evolving. There was a period in the 80s when it was impossible to be sure that add-in hardware would work correctly. Early technology buffs remember constantly changing sound cards and video cards and motherboards and processors and memory, a flood of devices that might or might not function when the computer was turned on.

The problems are different today but the effect is the same. Now it’s not just technology buffs who are affected, it’s everyone. Incompatibility comes from our expectation, however misguided, that a program working on one platform will work on another one (the trap for the unwary person who purchases an iPad to go along with an Android phone, for example). Another type of incompatibility comes from the dashed hope that programs will cooperate nicely with each other and information will travel from one to another, a frustration felt frequently by someone using a law office practice management program who expects its data to flow nicely into Quickbooks or some other accounting program.

Law office technology - order and chaos

The flood of products onto the market makes it impossible to make an informed choice. No one – no one, no human being on the planet – can keep up with the torrent of products becoming available now, and the pace is only going to increase. It is even harder for small businesses because the platform shift requires many of you to consider changing the core products that run your business, but you have no effective way to evaluate more than a tiny handful of them. Pity the poor consultant! We’re even further behind than you are, because you expect (or hope) that we will have a deeper knowledge of these programs than you do, and we’re struggling just to remember their names. At best, many consultants are becoming specialists in one or two products and desperately hoping they have chosen wisely and their product will survive for a few years.

It’s even worse than that for businesses evaluating new programs to run core business functions – practice management, billing and accounting, customer management, document management. Many, perhaps most, of the new programs and services will look clean and modern and well-designed at first. The quirks and difficulties and missing bits tend not to appear until a program has been used in the real world for extended periods. Getting that information is difficult! Small businesses don’t have time or resources for extensive testing, and can’t afford to implement a new program and go through an expensive migration and only then discover that the new program doesn’t meet their needs. Online research all too often only turns up “reviews” written from press releases, not real-world feedback from real users.

New programs for law offices are appearing rapidly and existing programs are changing fast. I had this perfect storm in mind when I read this article about new products and updates to existing products on display at the ABA TechShow in Chicago last week. Law office practice management software was a dead category for much of the 2000s, with old warhorses clinging to life and few new entrants. Now the field is thriving, exploding, overflowing with choices.

Each of the companies are working frantically to add features and write mobile apps and update their user interfaces – and look at the list of products on display at the ABA TechShow! Amicus Cloud, Clio, Houdini ESQ, MyCase, Rocket Matter, Lexis/Nexis Firm Manager, Tabs3 Connect, Orion, Thomson Reuters Firm Central, Velawsity – all of them proud of new features, new cloud services, new support for mobile devices, new client portals, new integration with other programs, and more more more more more.

Take a deep breath, because the article then goes on with a list of programs that have specific functions in law offices to fill niches for document management or research or timekeeping or collaboration or document drafting: DirectLaw, NetDocuments, FastCase, Agile Law, iTimeKeep, Chrometa, VentureDocs, Worldox, Neulexa, Cabinet, LawZam, nQueue Billback, Attorney Timekeeper, Smokeball, WordRake, Best Authority, TriCerat.

If you’re a lawyer or doing IT support for a law firm, your head is spinning. If you’re in any other kind of business, I trust you know that exactly the same thing is happening in your field, whatever your field is.

I don’t have any answers, just encouragement to keep a sense of perspective. If technology seems overwhelming, that’s because it is overwhelming, and there is no relief in sight. Our world will become more fragmented and there’s never going to be a time when you can feel confident that you understand all the choices. Our decisions will be arbitrary and never as informed as you wish.

Nonetheless, with luck we will all survive and thrive and prosper. Keep learning about new technology and be willing to take chances. A new world of cloud computing and mobile devices awaits!

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