Paul Hoffbrand is a legal tech veteran. We talk to him about cloud and tech trends from the SME law firm viewpoint.
Of course, technology has changed a great deal since his early days when the IBM golf ball typewriter was part of the office. What are the big influences and how has cloud technology made a difference for the people in law firms?
You’ve been doing this a while – what’s changed the most?
When I first started in document management it was really more about document production. Everything was proprietary which came to mean expensive. I also recall a time not so long ago when IT directors were nervous of online back-ups and even a time when finding back-up data meant retrieving a tape from a dusty safe and spending days searching for the information required. Today that seems ridiculous.
In my view it’s the advent of cloud based technology that has been the true game changer over my career. Changes started small but today, even in the risk averse legal sector, any previous reticence around cloud security has subsided, with savvy firms now demanding a cloud-first approach.
We’ve had document management based on Microsoft Windows and server technology since the early 90s but as service delivery and availability have become more and more critical, emails are a now a critical business tool and need to be treated as assets, even 15 minutes of downtime can have significant business impact and an online searchable back-up of data is a must.
The other big change is how easy it is to make a change. Technology migrations used to be long, arduous and complex, devouring IT resources and budget. You might well have implementation project teams on site for months. Products in the cloud mean a firm can be up, running and benefiting with a standard configuration in a matter of days with bespoke configuration to follow at leisure. The cost and task reduction, better use of people and skills means that firms can focus more on delivering what’s important to their clients.
What are the business and technology challenges facing small to medium law firms?
In my view and experience, the business and industry challenges that law firms face are the same; whether you’re a provincial firm of three or a magic circle with 20,000 fee earners. In my view there’s no difference because a client is a client whether it’s a first-time house buyer or Shell PLC. All lawyers have the same challenges – they have to develop and sustain a service that clients value. For this they always need to create documents, send emails, account for money and they need systems in place to help them.
How can technology help?
As I see it, today’s cloud technology ensures new competition models because smaller law firms can very credibly compete with magic circle firms. Thanks to the internet they are using the same technology so they have access to many of the same resources. Small firms can punch far above their weight by putting everything in the cloud – and I mean everything; practice management, case management, email systems, HR, document management, everything. This way a small law firm can actually be far more agile and can move very quickly and benefit immediately. And even attempt to become paperless.
Many small firms have specialisms and these boutique firms are becoming more and more attractive to bigger clients. I work with a firm that has around 11 lawyers and over a short time the firm has built a strong reputation around venture capital. It has taken instructions from very large media organisations that once would have been the realm of the big firms. The boutique firms have the know-how to solve specific client problems and now also have the infrastructure and systems to compete with larger firms. Not long ago this just wasn’t possible. Big firms are amazing and impressive but clients want to be sure of what they are paying for. They want value for money and exceptional levels of service. Cloud is giving the client more options and levelling the competitive playing field.
What are the latest tech trends for SME legal?
At the risk of repetition, it really is all about the cloud helping small and medium sized firms compete for clients alongside the big players. The time and money required to maintain and update previous models has closed technology off to many small firms. Technology adoption and innovation as a strategy can now be taken seriously, because it’s within reach for smaller firms.
Practice management in the cloud is also growing at the moment and I’m watching out for the larger PMS vendors to make their move. It would be great if this happened sooner rather than later – integrating with other cloud systems. The three pillars – accounting, practice management and document management – are all connected. That’s what firms need to work towards. A document is saved once in the correct place and has correct information – you can then see what’s going on in every dimension – for example, is the matter profitable?
Finally, I’d suggest that the concept of transparency is a key trend when considering today’s expectations for the lawyer and client relationship. With the right systems in place a return will be more accurate. The client can see everything, so there’s less ambiguity, less admin and more time for relationships. This becomes more important as fixed cost billing takes hold making the relationship with your clients even more important – otherwise clients will pay once and move on.
Tell it to me straight. What’s the difference between on-prem and cloud based software?
I always begin here: not all clouds are equal. Firms need to get to grips with the terminology to make sure that, when they reach for the cloud, what they get will actually deliver the value that true cloud promises. Put simply, if software has just moved server location, to a data centre it’s not really cloud and the value to you will be diminished. This is because that scenario means the software will still require updates and upgrades, you’ll be outsourcing some of the IT tasks, but it adds nothing for the users – which I think is very important.
True cloud means one single piece of software, for everyone and the provider does the maintenance. It’s always up to date, always available, everyone has the same features and the right version and so the many benefits apply to both IT teams and users.
Any common pitfalls?
This one is an old one too: rubbish in rubbish out. If the data that is in your existing system is rubbish it will still be rubbish in a new system, it’s only as good as how you use it. I always recommend data cleansing first but in reality this is very difficult – so then the value comes in being able to easily find what you do need and keep it secure… even if it is rubbish.
Secondly, you’ve got to be all in, that means the senior partners too. This is a basic, but it’s crucial that all matter related information goes into the system, an email could be the one historic email that you need to have your hands on when somebody’s on holiday or has left the firm.
How can I get started?
My tip would be to read all about it. Talk to colleagues that have already moved. Then you can make informed decisions. Change can be hard but it’s worth it and I think cloud is today’s technology equaliser.