Decisions, Decisions, Decisions — Constructing an Application Portfolio

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application portfolio

All organizations, whether they realize it or not, possess an “Application Portfolio”. That is, the set of applications used to conduct the business of the entity.

Like an investment portfolio, careful consideration must be given to the nature and extent of the applications in an organization’s portfolio. Step one, naturally enough, is making a determination about which programs and processes are required. Within a law firm, for example, some applications are obvious (think email, office suite, accounting/time entry software, document management systems); with courts, similar applications would be important (docket and calendar systems and case management software). The requirement for others might be less apparent, yet in today’s world they are truly essential. Security software is a prime example.

As to the rest, within any business entity — whether a law firm, corporate legal department or courthouse — there are a slew of needs relating to business operations, client support, business development, public outreach and various other areas. Evaluate your business’s needs as a whole — just as solid investment strategies call for financial portfolios that are balanced and diversified, the same can be said for application portfolios.

We all know NFL teams can’t carry 100 players on their roster, and we can’t ring up $100,000 balances on our credit cards (with the possible exception of those of us with children in college) — reality is a world of constraints. Courthouses, law firms and corporate legal departments are no different — we all have budgets and finite numbers of technologists. So, choices must be made.

What are some of those choices? A proper summary of these issues could be the subject of a college thesis, but let’s focus on just one. What classes of applications are most reasonably procured from a software company versus those one can internally develop? Here are some of the key decision points.

Common or Industry Standard Applications

This is clearly the most obvious topic, so limited time will be spent on this area. Applications and operating systems like Outlook, Office and Windows are no-brainers. Everyone uses them. More broadly, legal specific applications in spaces like eDiscovery, time entry, accounting and document management are directly adjacent to the no-brainer category. Almost all law firms require these too. Protective and patching technologies for your workstations and networks, and the ability to monitor email and Internet browsing are in the peloton as well. For courthouses, the ability to efficiently manage caseloads, dockets and calendars becomes vitally important. All of these technologies are required, and the industry standard offerings give us the best-in-class option in a manner where the development cost is shared across many thousands of different entities.

Defensible Applications

In a way, this category is closely related to that of common applications. Could a technology organization internally build, for example, security or patching tools and processes? Certainly. But is that defensible, meaning, if something went wrong, would you feel comfortable explaining why you selected that approach vis-a-vis a proven industry standard? I wouldn’t. In my view, developing patching tools internally is about as defensible as entrusting one’s life savings to a con artist. There are times in life it makes perfect sense to go with the flow, and certain application categories fall into that bucket.

Dynamic Business Rule Applications

There are many legal-centric applications which track and manage information based on ever-changing global rules and regulations. For example, rules relating to the prosecution and processing of patents and trademarks vary around the globe; CLE regulations vary by state; and legal calendaring and deadline management guidelines differ by court jurisdiction and geography. Building software internally to try and keep track of all of this data internally just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. And the cost of keeping up with all of those rule changes also is quite substantial. Why not rely on a company who specializes in these areas? When the investment is spread across an entire customer base, that makes the offering more fiscally attractive to each individual organization.

Client-Specific Applications

Let us now shift gears and examine how custom development is a key component in the applications which comprise an application portfolio.

Client service is a leading imperative within a professional services firm. It’s certainly one of the top priorities at my firm, Tanenbaum Keale LLP (TK). In my view, it’s vital we provide innovative technologies to help TK distinguish itself as a leader supporting core service areas of the firm. And I know my management feels the same and expects that of me. So, here is a good illustration which calls for customized software and support teams.

Many of our clients at TK need to manage complex, nationwide litigations with large numbers of plaintiffs. It’s simply impossible to manage this with general business applications like Excel or Access. Clients have complex reporting needs. For example, they often need to address questions posed by finance departments or company auditors for quarterly reporting; or, they need to quickly assess the risk and exposure of a pool of plaintiffs in conjunction with fast-moving settlement negotiation meetings. Additionally, our mass tort or products liability clients tend to present various analytical questions, quite frequently, relating to statistics about the entire litigation (case status, exposures, settlements, the state of litigation specific documents, legal billings, financial projections, etc.) The questions span considerable ground and are often exceptionally time-sensitive. Sometimes, these require the introduction of new system fields and subsequent population of the fields, prior to generating the reports which are requested.

Dealing with these challenges using off-the-shelf software where unique, client-specific needs are placed in the work queue of a professional services group does not cut it in this space. I’m not trying to be critical. I’ve spent my life in software development and I work with managed service providers. I get the concept, know the drill from both sides of the fence and see the value of this model. But something more sophisticated and specialized is required in these situations, such as professional grade technologies and, just as importantly, skilled and dedicated technologists.

That’s why we see customized software and a dedicated service team as a necessary path towards delivering outstanding client service.

Wrap Up

Returning back to the big picture, we in technology leadership roles must carefully snap together the pieces of the puzzle which is our application portfolio. Like our investment funds, we are always hopeful of constructing something providing the maximum value to us. This includes looking at the different functional areas noted above, plus some of the other concepts previously addressed. And whether you serve in a courthouse, a law firm or a corporate legal department, be sure to keep an open mind as to how to meet these needs.

Lastly, be mindful of the fact that I have not touched upon all the available options. Far from it. Some of the more obvious tools available to us, technologies like Sharepoint and applications and virtual services offered by cloud providers like Amazon Web Services, are also in play. But hopefully there is enough meat on the bone here to prime the pump and encourage the type of creative and thoughtful deliberation required to compile a great application inventory for your organization.