Replacing Technology

Excerpted from “How to Buy, Implement and Replace Technology in Your Law Practice”, ABA TECHSHOW 2015

By Sharon D. Nelson & Bjorn Christianson, ABA TECHSHOW Faculty 2015


Can lawyers actually manage their technology (instead of it managing them)? Buying, implementing, and replacing technology are huge challenges – especially when you have billable work to do. And yet, technology is the most important part of a law firm today – at least after the carbon-based units! 

We believe lawyers can manage their technology and do so successfully. If you want to be one of those lawyers, start with some basics: 

1. Figure out who and where you are. 

Are you just starting out – a true solo with no money? You cannot blow the budget on 61/2 times more technology than you can afford.1 Your first step is to write a business plan. What is the minimum technology you can begin with, how much is it going to cost, and where does the money come from for it and all your other operating expenses?

Are you looking for an exit strategy? You still need technology that is appropriate to your practice but it will not have any resale value. Make sure what you have is adequate to your needs but don't think buying something bright and shiny will make your practice more attractive to a potential purchaser or successor.2

Are you a techno-geek, desperately seeking the unit with the fastest processor, with the most RAM, the biggest hard drive, and the most connectivity with as many different devices as Future Shop will sell you? Well, if you think you want to buy that much technology and still want to practice law, you might have to rein yourself in. For you, the key word is KISS, or at least as “Simple” as you can keep it and still have fun.

Are you enjoying your Halcyon Days? A busy practice, great clients, lots of potential? Good on you! Your risk is that of complacency. In this century, a successful law practice, by definition, has good technology that has been well implemented and meets your current needs. If you start taking your technology for granted though, the good days will peter out fast.

In short, your first step is to analyze your current needs, your goals, and your personality. Only then can you adopt the technology that will work best for you.

2. Bear in mind that “buying, implementing and replacing” technology are separate words but not separate processes.

To write this paper, we have to have headings like “Buying Technology”. Otherwise it just wouldn't look right, eh? But remember that you shouldn't buy technology until you know how you are going to implement it (and what it is going to cost you to implement it). You should document your reasons for buying this hardware or software because, when it comes time to replace those things, you have to know what need it was to serve, whether it did it successfully, etc. You will NOT remember your reasons; it has to be in writing.

3. The business of law is not an annoying sideline.

Everyone who has ever tried to provide advice to lawyers on managing their practices has heard “I just want to practice law! I have no time for this stuff!”. If you don't sharpen your ax, how much wood can you cut? Technology is one of your axes. By registering for ABA TECHSHOW®, you have established your credentials as a lawyer who knows the importance of the business of law. Just make sure you are devoting time to it regularly and routinely, not just once a year when you come to Chicago for an annual dose of technology education. 

How to Replace Technology

Technology has a life span. For most computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc., that tends to be about three years. That does NOT mean that the devices will cease to work. It just means that we tend to replace them that often because performance will deteriorate as we ask more of our devices (specifically when software asks more) and because we tend to want/need new features in our technology. You may be able to stretch the lifespan of some equipment – servers, printers, multi-function machines, etc. - to five years.

If you plan to push your technology past its Best Before date, you had best have yet another plan, called a Disaster Plan. The old joke, with too much bitter truth in it, defined your computer as obsolete if you own it. Consider this as an alternative definition of obsolete: If it is no longer effective at doing the task you bought it for, or it cannot be reliably and quickly repaired, or if it’s past the industry standard life cycle, it is obsolete. Replace obsolete technology forthwith. You do not want to suddenly find your server is dead like lead and you are out of your files for the next week.

Lawyers are terrible about budgeting. Make yourself a list of all the equipment you own, when it was placed in service and who has the devices (this will need updating each year). For the most part, experts recommend that you plan on refreshing your technology, with the exceptions mentioned above, every three years. That means you need to budget for replacing 1/3 of your technology each year. At the outside, budget for replacing ¼ of your technology each year. The ultimate and often seen nightmare is a “big bang” purchase of almost all the technology because everything is so out-of-date. This is a major hit to the law firm wallet. It is far less painful to do this over time.

Having said that, some lawyers like the Fork Lift approach to equipment purchases. They want to keep everyone with the same equipment, the same software versions, the same issues and solutions. If that is your approach, just remember you still have to budget every year so the money is there when the Fork Lift is needed. And bear in mind that a Fork Lift upgrade means the whole office is disrupted at once; that can be avoided if you are replacing a third of the equipment each year.

Now guess what is the first step in successfully replacing your technology? You need a plan. As noted above, when you bought the technology you should have documented what you wanted it to do and why you chose that vendor as opposed to another vendor. You bought that all-in-one copier/printer/scanner from Ricoh five years ago because (a) you thought paperless was a problem in the washroom and (b) your brother-in-law was a Ricoh salesman. Admit it. Now the Ricoh is past its industry standard lifetime. Reading your notes from 5 years ago will prove to you that the device was suited to a process (paper-intensive) that you no longer wish to follow and that Ricoh may or may not necessarily have been the best vendor – meaning you have a clean slate in making the choice of vendor (especially since your sister finally dumped the creep).

Ideally, you will review your reasons for the initial purchase and the plan for replacement annually, even if you expect it to be good for 5 years. Whether or not the equipment still works, if it no longer does what your current circumstances require, you may be replacing it sooner rather than later. We mentioned Christianson's labor intensive process for compressing and archiving data to get it off a 4GB server – when the server was purchased, 4GB servers for Mac cost an arm and a leg. A few years later, 4TB could be had for less than $400. So why compress and remove data when it can be simply moved into a Closed folder, just like a Closed file is put on a different shelf? Waiting for the 4GB server to be obsolete would have cost much more than $400 in time and aggravation.

To summarize: Like all successful steps in the practice of law, buying, implementing and replacing technology is simple – so long as you Plan, Review, Revise, Repeat.

This article is but a taste of what awaits you at the ABA TECHSHOW 2016, March 16-19 at the Hilton Chicago. As a member of Minnesota State Bar Association, we want you to know that you can get a discount on the ABA TECHSHOW 2016. This discount only applies to registrants that qualify for the Standard registration. You can register online and include this unique discount code: EP1601 to receive a discount. 

Reprinted with Permission. 2015© by the American Bar Association.  All rights reserved.  This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.