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Buying and implementing legal tech for small business attorneys

Sterling Miller

Many in-house lawyers of small businesses were around when fax machines were cutting edge and email was new. From typewriters to artificial intelligence (AI), yellow pads to iPads, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the process of buying or implementing any type of technology. If you go about it the wrong way, you can end up with a very expensive lesson and a piece of software that no one wants or uses.

The right technology can make an enormous difference in productivity and timeliness and can provide many other benefits. That is why the rest of the business invests in technology to run their departments; the legal department is no different. In-house lawyers are expected to be strategic partners in operating the business and they need technology to do this. Moreover, a common refrain is often “do more with less.” If you want to get more work out of the same size team with less money to spend on outside counsel, get the right technology and use it properly.

It starts with the business case for purchasing the technology — what problem are you trying to solve? What are the pain points? Is it a logjam in providing services, lack of visibility into spending, the need to quickly find answers? Whatever the reason, understand the problem inside and out: 

  • Identify the problem.
  • What is the current manual process to solve the problem?
  • Is there technology that will replace this manual process and solve the problem?
  • What will it cost and do you have the budget?
  • Will the benefits of the technology outweigh the cost? And how soon will those benefits pay off the cost?

Next comes a requirements document — a document that sets out exactly what you are looking for regarding technology — with a list of features necessary for your business case. It should prioritize what you need versus what you want. Ask your team to contribute, along with anyone outside the department who may use the technology. The document doesn’t have to be very long, one page is fine. Here are some things to consider:

  • Overview – a summary of what you’re trying to accomplish
  • Must have – a list of all the features the product must have
  • Should have – a list of nice to have features, but not critical
  • Does/does not – what the technology will do and what it will not do
  • Cloud/local – will the technology be cloud based or installed locally
  • Budget – target cost
  • Must connect to – which other systems/products must the new technology connect to
  • Support – what level of support are you looking for from vendor
  • Scale – will the product easily scale to meet your needs
  • User platforms – where can people use the technology (smartphone, tablet, laptop)

Once you have defined your problem and written your requirements, survey the landscape to see what legal tech products are available to solve it. You can start with a basic web search. Consider attending a legal tech trade show and ask other in-house lawyers of startups and small businesses you know if they are aware of technology that solves your problem. If possible, get a free trial for any products you are interested in, or at least a demo tailored to the problem you wish to solve. Keep your requirements document handy during this process and check off the matches and note the short falls.

As you zero in on products, do some due diligence on the vendors. Ask for references and reach out to other in-house lawyers or a community, like LinkedIn, for thoughts. While no vendor is perfect, you want to know which vendors stand by their products and will be a true partner in the implementation process. Some things to think about:

  • Who needs to be involved in the decision to buy?
  • Does the product have many users or are you one of the first?
  • Do you understand the true cost of using the product?
  • Is your technology decision based on what is actually available today?
  • What happens when the contract ends?

Once you decide on a product, create an implementation plan — the document that sets out step-by-step implementation. If the product is small and easy to implement, you may have a very short plan. But sophisticated technology requires a detailed plan. If needed, set up a steering committee of members within and without the legal department. Your plan should include milestones for critical parts of the implementation: responsibilities, budget, scope, data migration process, training, user acceptance, interdependencies of the different tasks, and deliverables.  

User acceptance is among the most critical tasks in your plan to ensure the technology is presented — and works — in a way that people will use it, along with a training process on how to use the tool. A group of people who are excited about new technology will drive adoption throughout the team.

When it comes to legal department technology, focus on the “Big Three” first — the core technology every legal department should have in place or planning to put in place.

  • E-billing system – this should be number one on your list for secure management of all invoices.
  • Contract management system – if you’ve ever been asked to locate a certain contract in a hurry, you know the value of a contract management system. Basically, it’s a central electronic repository for all the company’s contracts that allows the company to manage its contracts and assists in the preparation of contracts.
  • Legal research tool – every in-house lawyer needs to perform legal research. Although using Google can help you understand that matter, you will get a lot of untested or irrelevant junk in response to your query. There are much better solutions that can provide quality answers, templates, and checklists that are on point and allow you to quickly find exactly what you need — which matters when time is precious.

Don’t forget about artificial intelligence. The true promise of AI for in-house lawyers is how it can augment you or your team — a way to actually do more with less. It won’t replace the legal team, but it will help them work faster and allow them to spend more time on high-value work. The solutions are out there and getting better every day.

Technology is great, but people are better. Technology can augment but will never replace the in-house lawyer. Technology is tone deaf: it doesn’t understand why the question was asked, it doesn’t understand why it gives the answer it gives, and it is limited by the data available. People are not. Get the right tech, but never forget the basics of the human touch: pick up the phone, walk down the hall for a chat, listen carefully to what is being said and, most importantly, why it is being said. Context matters, as does a pat on the shoulder or a good handshake. Technology cannot replace the one-on-one connection between in-house lawyer and client — and it never will.

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