Thoughts on How to Run a Modern Law Office
by Kenneth R. Allen
Partner, Townsend and Townsend and Crew LLP

A law firm, particularly a large law firm with a large number of clients and a large number of active matters, is a manufacturing environment.  Its product is processed information:

It creates added value by organizing and creating information.
It receives information in inventory.
It stores information.
It creates new information of various forms. It organizes information.
It retrieves and it reports information.
Clients rely on the timeliness and accuracy of that information.

In the case of such a firm, information manufacturing is a multimillion dollar operation.

To remain profitable and competitive, a law firm needs an infrastructure to support the tasks carried out by the key value adders, namely anyone who creates billable work product.  Anything that impedes that manufacturing capability, whether in terms of need to rework or customization of frequently-used resources, is a cost in terms of lost effort, more expensive service or risk creation.

This operational model applies directly to processes relating to all information flow through a firm and that fall in the realm of record tracking, docketing, file management, mail handling and flow, forms completion, information retrieval, e-mail management, client information management, matter information management and office automation.  There are both the advantages and disadvantages to e-mail.  While at first reluctant to embrace e-mail as a productivity tool, users will quickly find found how it transforms the working environment.  And it must be managed to avoid getting out of hand.

In a manufacturing environment, particularly one involving information technology, there must be three parallel streams of substantially independent operation, with systems managers that thoroughly understand both the how and the why of what the systems are supposed to do and what is not working.  Those three systems are manufacturing (that which is used in the production line); engineering (that which is the test bed for the manufacturing system in a real world environment); and research and development (where new systems are developed and tested, debugged and reinvented.)  Support personnel may rotate through each environment, as their skills dictate, but it is flawed to try to use the resources of one to support the mission of the other, especially where the tasks are each full time occupations.  Of course there must be service support which observes weaknesses of manufacturing processes and communicates those to R&D and engineering so that problems can be resolved. There is always the tension between pulling someone off a long-term task to solve short-term problem vs. exposure to the short-term problem to assure the long-term task is rightly-focused.

In a law firm are found the same problems typical of a manufacturing environment.  There tends to be far to much need for customization by the manufacturing line (secretaries and attorneys) due to defective or incomplete databases and forms.  (Consider how a template for a patent application and supporting documentation is used and how the information is generated.  There is frequently a lack of good mapping across existing databases and a wasteful need to populate new databases to use each new capability.)  It is astounding that the "one database" problem has not been solved, a perfect solution for a relational database.  However, access to information of substantially the same update in mirrored databases in several offices and bar code tracking of files with frequent inventoring by location are excellent examples of good practices.  In fact, if everything were bar coded and everyone had bar code readers, such things as documents and files and office furniture could be integrated with a master relational database.

A typical problem among IT support personnel is the reluctance to take initiative to solve problems before they become obvious to the users.  Due to lack of resource commitment by operational management, there is often a lack of available resources to address problems, a lack of internal checks and balances, a lack of adequate in-house capabilities and a belief that someone else has solved the last detail of a problem.  Hence, there is a tendency to let things "break" in order to allow upper management to see things fail, hoping that management with high enough authority will notice.  If complaints from high enough places are loud enough, it is assumed, then the authority will be granted to expand budgets and solve the problem.  Rather than a can-do attitude, there is a "can't afford it" or a "can't do" attitude that creates contention and hurts productivity and profitability, and even drives away people who perceive themselves to be constrained by the environment.

Another typical problem in IT, which has existed since the invention of the computer and the high priesthood of the computer operator and programmer, is the tendency to solve a problem in a way that is convenient to the programmer, not to the end user.  As a consequence, the user frequently has to develop a workaround rather than initiating the procedure to get changes needed to make the problem go away.  It is not a matter of lack of training in use of the database management tools, although lack of understanding of how the database management system is designed, but it is often a problem of lack of understanding about how information is expected to be used.  Complicated solutions are often needed to solve seemingly simple problems, while simple solutions can create complications.  A good example is the whole problem of case sensitive, date sensitive and any character-specific sensitive search of a database.  A well-designed and programmed search engine can recognize case insensitive search requests, dates in any format and the lack of a leading zero in a numeric field.  It is just more complicated to program because it takes a larger search dictionary, a dictionary with characters seldom, if ever used.  However, it is more complicated for the users when it is not so programmed.

A significant problem is the lack of system-level knowledge by support staff and professionals about the nature of the business operational problems to be addressed and solved.  In a law firm, there is chasm between staff support management and professional management, each addressing different problems, but neither understanding fully the needs, operations or skill set of the other.  The same thing happens at a university, although like a university, a patent law firm often has professional personnel who have experience doing what some of the technical support staff are charged with doing.

A further problem in a law firm, or an insurance company for that matter, is the difficulty in getting and keeping good IT people.  Operations are information intensive; yet the economy does not yet pay secondary professionals in a service business the same as those same professionals when they are the primary income producers of the operation.

As a professional service firm grows and matures, it needs to be aware of the sources of frustration and tension and do all it can to solve these problems in a timely, cooperative manner.

Ken Allen 4/17/00