When should a law firm develop its own software?

  Never. Law firms should never develop their own software. <end post>

Okay, fine, perhaps some explanation is in order. While the above conclusion may seem obvious to me and to many others, whenever I make this assertion on Twitter or from a podium, more than a few people will question my sanity or try to uncover my hidden bias. My bias isn't hidden at all. My view is developed from a lifetime of selling software, managing teams developing software, managing teams configuring and installing software, and managing teams buying and implementing software. Of course, the world isn't so black and white that one answer applies to every situation. But, by and large, law firms should practice law, not write software code. Here are 6 reasons why.

ivoYou need to stay focused. Smart business leaders outsource when (a) the all-in cost of buying is lower than the all-in cost of building; or (b) when in-sourcing will divert needed resources from strategic imperatives to non-core, non-strategic functions. Just as corporations hire law firms - because investing in a huge law department to handle all legal needs would be more costly and disruptive than hiring on-call experts -- law firms should outsource their non-core activities. So a law firm CIO is better off purchasing software that can be configured to the users' needs or, at worst, hiring a software vendor to write code specific to the users' needs.

Check your math. If your calculation suggests you should build vs. buy, you're likely doing the math wrong. The all-in cost, or total cost of ownership, isn't simply about software seat licenses, initial configuration, and ongoing maintenance fees compared to the sunk cost of Steve in the IT department who can write code. The all-in cost requires a broader look at the learning curve for common features/functions, R&D time for new features/functions, quality assurance and load testing, fixing bugs and releasing periodic patches, gathering ongoing user requirements, maintaining a product roadmap of features/functions having the widest impact to the user community, training users, providing front-end support such as password resets, providing second-level support for major bugs or conflicts, management reporting, and, oh yeah, coding. By the way, nowhere in your calculus or rationale should we find: "We have a software developer on staff and we need projects to keep him or her busy." Software purchases can be expensive. But it's short-sighted to view a vertical or enterprise application as solely a cost; it can be an investment too, with significant returns. Many organizations offset costs by demonstrable improvements in costly workflow, reallocating headcount doing things the old way, eliminating fees for outdated software, and even generating revenue.

You're not a special snowflake. Your users' requirements are not as unique as you think they are. Every single law firm partner believes the firm's work environment, internal processes, client interactions, and lawyers are unique. They're really not. What's worse, too often the most vocal advocates of a unique culture have literally never worked in another environment, let alone another law firm, so their perspective is meaningless -- despite what the org chart may reflect. A software provider with 10, 75, or 175 clients facing substantially the same business challenge may have deployed numerous iterations or configurations to address unique user requirements, but the core code is substantially the same and flexible enough to adapt to hundreds of other iterations. If you research existing solutions and don't find the feature or function you seek, it doesn't mean it's not out there. Sometimes a feature isn't in the base code but is commonly configured in the customer's deployment. Many times a feature or function is on a software vendor's radar but it won't be added to the next version until enough clients express a willingness to buy. Talk to trusted providers and you may find the path to meeting your requirements doesn't require starting from scratch.

Your requirements are incomplete. I can't count how many law firms I've encountered with code written to meet one specific partner's or one specific client's needs, as expressed through a vague description of desired outcomes, and ignoring all other viewpoints. Gathering business requirements and then translating them into technical specifications and then into code is a discipline, and even Agile and lean environments don't rely on coding to a single user's needs. Inevitably, if what you've coded is a good idea from which other internal users or clients would derive benefits, and it often is, the code you wrote for one specific instance -- especially if it contains hard-wired references to a specific client -- is very challenging to build upon. To scale it, you'll need to rewrite. In software development, it's better to think ahead and write modularly rather than frequently pay for one-time throwaway code. Also, capture input from all stakeholders. Countless times a partner establishes the requirements but the client, or the legal secretary, or the billing clerk, is a key influencer or user who had no voice in the development. It's no surprise why adoption rates are so low. Quality software developers capture input and seek sign-offs from all stakeholders before writing code.

Your discipline is suspect. I'm sure Steve in IT is a good code writer, even though his day job is network administrator, or help desk tech. Even if he's hired specifically as a coder, one resource isn't capable of gathering requirements, translating business requirements into tech specs, writing code, testing code, documenting code, conducting user testing, training users, and fixing bugs upon release. Having Steve attend a meeting with the partner and then begin to code from his meeting notes isn't enough. Few law firms invest in quality assurance and proper load testing, and even fewer invest in virtual environments to replicate their user community experience, including testing for conflicts with other enterprise applications. I've also run into law firms with the source code housed on one machine with no off-site backup protocol, and others where only one person has access to the source code. Just as you counsel your clients to hire the right law firm for the job, look for a disciplined and experienced software developer that isn't going to make rookie mistakes.

Reliance on a single point of failure is risky. We know that Steve doesn't have time to write up a summary of the business requirements let alone document his code. So what happens when Steve leaves and you need to fix or add something? Yes, of course you can find other coders pretty quickly, but their first task is to trace the existing code to figure out how things work. This takes time. And what if, as we inexplicably continue to see today, the current code base is ancient and the availability of coders fluent in that outdated language is limited? What if Steve leaves in a huff and deletes the source code, or changes the password? I recently worked with a law firm that had developed a specialized application some years prior and dozens of clients had embedded this app into their workflow -- a perfect demonstration of the value of switching costs in a business relationship. Trouble is, the partners didn't fully appreciate the role of their two software developers and laid them off during a cost-cutting exercise. "We have other people in IT who can run with this," they said, ignoring the importance of subject matter expertise and specialization in a way that they'd never apply to the firm's lawyers. Predictably, the code faltered, the clients grew dissatisfied, and the clients untangled their workflows from a suspect system. (Side note: partner profits increased a healthy amount that year even as firm revenues grew modestly, but <surprise!> profits declined the following year.) Invest in the redundancies and peace of mind that come with purchasing software from trusted vendors.

The selection of a software package or provider is complex, as well it should be for enterprise or mission critical needs. Some vendors are better than others, and the size of the company or global breadth of the brand are often false indicators of competence. It's necessary to address to your satisfaction common questions and objections such as depth of domain expertise, development process, architecture and infrastructure, configurability of the software, compatibility with existing systems, responsiveness and service posture, and, not unimportantly, how likable is the team you're going to be doing business with for multiple years. And yes, the price tag on the software matters, but only insofar as it's one factor in your total cost of ownership calculation. (Side note: If you're a software vendor CEO and your team isn't incorporating TCO into its sales motion, call me. Your poorly-trained salespeople are missing opportunities to solve customer needs and close deals.) I know you're in a hurry. But if you rush to do a poor job instead of taking time to do it well, I don't think "fail fast" means what you think it means.

Keep in mind, the question isn't whether you can write good software code. Let's assume you can. It's safe to assume any competent coder can produce a good software application... once. But if your business case requires this code to be supported, upgraded, reconfigured, or replicated down the road, it's healthier to start with the premise that others are better suited to provide these services in a long-term business partnership. Avoid falling into the trap of assuming that "We can do this" or "It makes my job or my team's jobs more secure" is a good rationale. The best job security comes from finding the right people with the right skills and giving them the resources they need to be exceptional.

 

Timothy B. Corcoran served as a senior executive with several global companies and has managed numerous software rollouts. He was the 2014 President of the Legal Marketing Association and is an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change. For more information, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at tim@corcoranconsultinggroup.com.

Announcing the Coalition of Professional Services Providers

Coalition of Professional Services ProvidersWe inhabit a competitive world. Dogs vs. Cats. Star Trek vs. Star Wars. Buyers vs. Sellers. Too often, however, this competitive nature prevents effective collaboration. The newly launched Coalition of Professional Services Providers is a step in the direction of establishing a mutually beneficial relationship between those who offer services and products to professional services firms, and the professional services firms who buy them. In the legal segment, most of the professional associations are exclusive by nature, indeed almost combative. Only practicing lawyers can join this group. Only chief marketing officers can join that group. Only buyers of a specific legal technology product are allowed to join a discussion of the product. And so on. Major conferences often have a bias for in-house professionals as presenters. "We must be protected from vendors trying to sell us something," they say, thereby eliminating input and advice from experts who may have seen 75 implementations of a specific tool or process, in lieu of an in-house practitioner who has deployed the tool only once, in only one organization, and is leveraging the speaking opportunity to find a better paying role. Of course not every in-house presenter has such limited experience and of course they're not all seeking a new job. But if you stipulate to that you must also stipulate that not every vendor is going to rashly use podium time to pitch a product that the audience doesn't need or want and instead will provide useful education and practical takeaways.

"For the low, low price of $10,000 you too can be in the same room with people who might someday influence a buying decision!" says the brochure for the local chapter of a professional legal association, promoting this opportunity to all vendors and service providers as some sort of exclusive benefit that can't be gained otherwise. "For $20,000 you can put your logo on napkins and the president of our association will nod curtly in your direction during the cocktail reception," they breathlessly exclaim. "But there may be no eye contact, and you're not allowed near the podium because of the potential risk that you might begin selling." And my favorite: "You may purchase an expensive advertisement on the back cover of our trade magazine to show your support, but you may not attend the workshop for buyers of your product, where the top agenda item 'If Only We Had a Better Understanding of How to Use the Product' is sure to provoke lively discussions."

While these are somewhat exaggerated, they ring true for many of us who have been on both sides of the buyer/seller equation. What's missing in some cases is a sense of collaboration, an understanding not just that we need each other, but how best to utilize each other. Clients can be great catalysts for new and innovative ideas, features, and functions, just as vendors and consultants can share time-tested best practices with clients who are behind the learning curve. A service provider that doesn't heed client input is no more absurd than a client needlessly pursuing a long, lonely learning curve on some new technology without any guidance whatsoever.

And so several of us put our heads together and decided to launch a new initiative. The Coalition of Professional Services Providers is designed to jump start this dialog. The in-house practitioners have several professional associations through which they can collaborate, communicate, network, and learn. And while some of these associations warmly embrace consultants and service providers as members, most don't. CoPSP serves as a platform for those providing services and products to come together and communicate on what's working and what can be improved, to collaborate on best practices, to work with other associations to develop mutually beneficial sponsorships, to help newcomers to the field learn how to market and sell to the professional services segment, and to provide resources and training.

The Coalition of Professional Services Providers (CoPSP) is an organization dedicated to advancing the interests of solution providers that work with the legal and professional services communities. It is governed by members, for members, all of whom stand in alignment around the following principles:

  • Passionate about continuous improvement – for ourselves and our ability to serve clients and customers – and for our clients and colleagues
  • Committed to transparency in the way business is transacted
  • Access to quality and relevant education that advances personal and professional development for members
  • A community of peers is critical for success
  • Advocacy on important issues gives us a collective presence, stronger voice, and greater influence

We hope you join for the ride.

More information here. Apply here. Facebook here. Join the LinkedIn Group here. Follow on LinkedIn here. Twitter here.

Timothy B. Corcoran was the 2014 President of the Legal Marketing Association and is an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change. For more information, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at tim@corcoranconsultinggroup.com.

Random thoughts on the future of law and technology

I have the good fortune of meeting and collaborating with some pretty influential players in this cozy little global profession of law practice. Monica Bay is one of those with whom, and from whom, I've learned a great deal. While it's shocking to comprehend the passage of time, I first worked alongside Monica over 20 years ago when we were colleagues at a spunky little technology startup called Counsel Connect, a division of American Lawyer. You can probably google the history somewhere, but essentially Monica and I were part of an effort to bring social media and technology to the mainstream legal profession long before it was cool to do so. I played a minor role in comparison to the other staff members and volunteer contributors, many of whom continue today as thought leaders in this field. But over time I've gained a few insights of my own, and I've had the luxury of sharing my learnings and wisdom, such as it is, as a leader, manager, mentor, and now consultant, where I regularly offer insights at law firm and law department retreats, at conferences, and, of course, on this blog. I was delighted when Monica, in her role as roving reporter at the recent ILTACON15, asked me to spend a few moments reminiscing on what we've seen transpire in this profession, and what we see coming in the near and long-term. We touch on the role of technology, the demise (?) of the billable hour, project management, process improvement, change management and how incentives influence the pace of change, and what's next. I hope you enjoy watching and listening to our conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.

 

ILTACON 2015 - ILTA TV - Monica Bay interviews Timothy Corcoran from ILTA on Vimeo.

Leaders in Legal Business

Leaders in Legal BusinessThe legal profession is changing. Perhaps you've noticed? What was once a profession is now most assuredly a business. Of course, it's always been a business, but when things are going so well that both buyers and sellers are content, we can convince ourselves that we're above the challenges faced by lesser mortals. Things like economics, and consumer behavior, and profits in alignment to client satisfaction rather than in opposition. Luckily, the disruptive forces impacting the legal profession are pretty routine for anyone who studies business cycles. Those who are most challenged when facing a changed future are not those who have never faced these changes previously, for they will turn to expert guides. Those who will struggle mightily are those who refuse to believe lessons from other business segments apply, and they will blindly lurch from strategy to strategy in a vain attempt to maintain profits and market position while clinging to outdated business practices. Given my career history as a corporate executive and former CEO who now shares my business training with law firm and law department leaders, I was invited to contribute to a new publication, "Leaders in Legal Business," compiled by industry veteran Stephen McGarry. In his words:

"Is law a profession, a business, or both? For decades, every law school, bar association, and law society has posed this proverbial question. The fact is that today, the profession of law annually generates more than $700 billion dollars in revenue. There are several million people employed in the legal profession, and hundreds of thousands support it through products and services. Some would even argue that the profession of law has morphed into the business of law.

Twenty-eight distinguished leaders in legal business discuss the history, development and the future of the services and products they, their firms, companies and associations provide the profession of law. This is must reading for the legal profession."

I am pleased to be in the company of some of the fantastic minds helping to guide the profession today, many of whom are good friends as well as colleagues and thought leaders I turn to for inspiration. Take a look at this roster. It's like a live concert with the remaining Beatles joining the Rolling Stones on stage to play the entire Taylor Swift catalog, or something like that!

Here's the lineup:

Chapter 1 – Introduction to Leaders in Legal Business
Stephen McGarry – Founder Lex Mundi, WSG and HG.org
Overview – Legal Business Services Jordan Furlong – Principal, Edge International
Chapter 2 – Legal Business Publishers and Publications
Publishers on the Business of Law Bill Carter – President and CEO, ALM
Legal Business News John Malpas – Publisher, Legal Week, Incisive Media
Law Firm Directories and Rankings Derek Benton – Principal, Warwick Vine Consulting Ltd.
Chapter 3 – Legal Business Consultants and Advisors
Hiring a Consultant or Advisor Michael Roch – Founder and Partner, Kerma Partners
Law Firm Business Strategies Timothy B. Corcoran – Principal, Corcoran Consulting Group
Business Development, Coaching, and Sales Silvia Coulter – Founder and Partner, LawVision
Online Content Marketing Kevin O’Keefe – CEO, LexBlog
Social Media Marketing Nancy Myrland – Myrland Marketing and Social Media
Corporate Legal Management Susan Hackett – Principal, Legal Executive Leadership
Public and Media Relations Richard Levick – CEO, LEVICK
Recruiting and Staffing Jon Lindsey – New York Founding Partner, Major, Lindsey & Africa
Discovery and E-Discovery Carolyn Southerland – Former Director, Huron Consulting
Knowledge Management Ronald Friedmann – Senior Consultant, Fireman & Co.
Technology Assessment Robin Snasdell – Managing Director Huron Consulting
Chapter 4 – Law Firm and Multidisciplinary Networks
Stephen McGarry – Founder Lex Mundi, WSG and HG.org
Chapter 5 – The 100 Largest Law Firms – Management
Tony Williams – Founder and Principal, Jomati
Chapter 6 – The Bar, Corporate Counsel, and Administrative Associations
American Bar Association James Silkenat – Immediate Past President, ABA
International Associations Fernando Pelaez – Past President, IBA
Corporate Counsel Associations Veta Richardson – President, ACC
Legal Administration Associations Oliver Yandle – Executive Director, ALA
 Chapter 7 – New Law – Alternative Business Models
Mark Ross – Global Head - LPO, Integreon
Chapter 8 - The Future of Legal Business
Legal Business Publishing Tony Harriss – Group Managing Director, Globe Business Media Group
Overview – Legal Business Services Jordan Furlong – Principal, Edge International
Legal Business Consulting Gerry Riskin – Founder and Principal, Edge International
Law Firm Networks Stephen McGarry – Founder Lex Mundi, WSG and HG.org
International Law Firms Markus Hartung – Director, Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession
Bar and Legal Associations Bob Young – Chair, ABA Law Practice Management Division
New Law – Alternative Models Joseph Borstein and Edward Sohn – Global Directors, Pangea3
Chapter 9 – Epilogue
Stephen McGarry – Founder Lex Mundi, WSG and HG.org

 

And perhaps the best part is the book is free! Click here to download the PDF, and here to download the eBook. Enjoy!

 

Timothy B. Corcoran is the immediate past President of the Legal Marketing Association and an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at tim@corcoranconsultinggroup.com.

2015 InnovAction Awards Call for Entries

I am pleased to announce that we are now accepting applications for the 11th Annual InnovAction Awards!  Each year, the College of Law Practice Management conducts a world-wide search for lawyers, law firms, law departments and others in the legal services field that have invented or successfully applied new business practices to the delivery of legal services, and recognizes successful contributions with an InnovAction Award.  The goal of the InnovAction Awards is to demonstrate to the legal community what can be created when dedicated professionals with big ideas and strong convictions are determined to make a difference.

 InnovAction Awards can be awarded in the following categories:

  • In-House
  • Law Schools
  • Law Firms
  • Service Providers and 
  • Pro Bono/Judiciary

Judging Criteria:

Disruption: does this entry change an important element of the legal services process for the better, and marketplace expectations along with it?

Value: is the client and/or legal industry better off because of this entry, in terms of the affordability, ease, relevance or its effect on legal services?

Effectiveness: has this entry delivered real, demonstrable or measurable benefits, for the provider, its clients, or the marketplace generally?

Originality: is this a novel idea or approach, or a new twist on an existing idea or approach?

Eligibility:

Any individual lawyer or law firm, practicing anywhere in the world, or any business providing services to lawyers, law firms or consumers are eligible. An individual lawyer or law firm may submit more than one entry so long as they are not duplicative.

 Only entries submitted in accordance with these instructions will be considered. We reserve the right to disqualify, at any time, any and all entries that do not comply with these instructions. All entries and supporting documents are subject to verification. Once submitted, entries become the property of the College of Law Practice Management and will not be returned. All entrants must be willing for their entries to be the subject of articles published in legal and business media. All entrants must be available for interviews and provide requested information in connection with verification of entries to The College of Law Practice Management. Any entrant who fails to comply with the foregoing will be disqualified.

For additional information, go to the How to Enter page to learn more. The deadline for submitting an application is June 30, 2015.

You can read about the winners here and browse the Hall of Fame to learn more about past Award recipients.

 

Timothy B. Corcoran is the Chair of the InnovAction Awards, the immediate past President of the Legal Marketing Association, and an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at tim@corcoranconsultinggroup.com.