Traditionally, law firm IT departments provide a wide variety of common functions and services. Among the most important are desktop applications, e-mail, document management, operating a secure network, websites, mobile communications, financial software, customer relationship management systems, and several others. In most instances, the technical strategy to support these needs within a law firm is based on a model of purchasing applications. But increasingly, with the trend in the industry towards innovation, there are many reasons to consider an internal applications development strategy. Here is a David Letterman-like Top 10 List citing some of the reasons to consider developing programming expertise within a law firm.
Number 10 — Security
The cloud is great, and generally speaking, companies in this space operate systems in a highly professional manner. However, occasionally one encounters special business needs which call for extensive “above and beyond” levels of security. This could be times a firm is storing financial information, medical records, or other data they wish to absolutely, positively protect. In these situations — under the theory that “no one does things better than I do” —it’s nice to have the option to build super-secure systems with features such as encrypted data within database tables, and to manage the systems with a very small number of highly trusted professionals specifically known by the law firm.
Number 9 — It’s More Fun to Say Yes
Applications in the marketplace are great. You’ll generally get a set of features and functionality at an overall lower cost, since the cost of development is shared among all the customers of a software company. However, occasionally a law firm might have some unique requirements vis-a-vis the general marketplace. These are less likely to be met by a distinct software company, who understandably focuses on the needs of the many, not of the few. At these times, it can be advantageous to have the option to deploy an internally developed system to meet specific client needs. Some examples of this might be case management systems with litigation specific fields or document management systems geared more towards unique types of litigations such as mass tort litigation.
Number 8 — Niche Processes
There are many functional areas within a business which are smaller areas of need. For these, off-the-shelf applications just might not exist. Or, if they do, they might be very expensive. What are some examples? Legal process areas such as the conflict process or ethical walls come to mind as examples where software can be expensive, while areas such as tracking and managing a law firm’s assets, vendors, applications, or projects might be examples of business processes with a limited number of external technical software options available. For niche areas like these, and others, having the option to develop a customized solution within a law firm is nice to have in your back pocket.
Number 7 — Reduce Costs
As noted in Number 9, there are plenty of times it is cost-effective to purchase superior software from a world-class vendor. No doubt about that. But if a product is not available or it is wickedly expensive, taking on the challenge internally might actually save your law firm some considerable coin. Anytime a new system which automates processes and helps to execute functions more efficiently can be economically deployed, that’s a big win for any organization.
Number 6 — Business Development Talking Points
This is a big one. Although some attorneys might not agree with this, it arguably can be a daunting challenge to articulate why your lawyers and law firm is markedly superior to another law firm. The development of any product or service within a law firm which helps to differentiate one from another can be invaluable. There are not too many law firms who can offer to build customized software products for a client to meet a need or secure an engagement. It’s a tremendous tool to have in your tool box.
Number 5 — Shadow IT
If a client asks the IT department for an application, and the answer is “We cannot meet this need”, this can lead to an undesirable “Shadow IT” implementation. For those unfamiliar with that term, it describes situations when non IT folks implement technology solutions unbeknownst to the IT department. This most often occurs when professionals use tools in the cloud or loaded on their computer to independently work on projects. Can this work out okay? Sure it can, people working in a law firm are smart folks. But, there is also a huge risk of error. Data might be inappropriately placed in an unprotected manner somewhere, a system might work well at first but bog down with a larger amount of data, or data might not be backed up correctly, just to name a few potential pitfalls. Having the ability to say “Yes!” via the customized software option helps to obviate the type of risk.
Number 4 — It’s Good for Your Career
Hey, this might not be important to your employer, but it should be to you! Technology, like the law, has a large number of functional areas in which one can develop expertise. Security, networking, desktop applications, email, mobile technologies, websites, collaboration technologies, financial software, video conferencing, telephonic technologies, etc. …the list goes on and on. Working with skilled professionals on tasks such as developing business requirements, writing functional specifications, being able to code applications, and operating user-facing systems are invaluable skills to add to your resume — especially in the Age of Innovation!
Number 3 — Customized Processes
This is the likely the easiest item on the list to understand. When a lawyer or client presents to us some unique needs and requirements and we look at it as technologists, it is far more likely we can meet these needs in a more rapid manner with a team of programmers and database analysis at the ready. Turning around client needs to track data or run reports quickly can build a tremendous amount of goodwill and trust between a law firm and its clients.
Number 2 — Create Tighter Client Bonds
This is huge! Developing mission-critical applications to, for example, help a client manage their litigation, store a set of useful intellectual property, or create secure work rooms, just to name a few examples, can make a law firm invaluable to their clients in ways beyond the outstanding legal services a firm offers. It’s not difficult to understand that when a client comes to grow, love, and most importantly, rely on, a technology that a firm provides to them, that is a very strong driver to help maintain a fruitful long-term mutually beneficial relationship between two business partners. And that’s a goal any professional services firm would surely hope to accomplish with any client!
Number 1 — Innovation
I saved the best for last. Innovation is a huge point of emphasis in the legal industry today. Those law firms who are early adopters of emerging technology have a leg up in today’s competitive marketplace. But there is more to this topic than simply being an early adopter of something like artificial intelligence, blockchain, the cloud, or other new offerings. The best law firms will be using these, and other tools as building blocks to assemble technology-based product offerings to assist clients with their business imperatives. Clearly, the ability to ramp-up a software development squad to deploy systems to meet clients’ needs can literally be a keystone within the domain services of a truly modern law firm in today’s dynamic legal market.