Little Things Make a Big Difference

Unlike many of my classmates, I did not arrive at law school within months of earning an undergraduate degree. As a young military spouse, I shelved the dream of going to law school—the challenges of being able to practice seemed insurmountable. Thanks to the work of the Military Spouse J.D. Network, many of the challenges I faced are being reduced.

As we moved around the country and world, I gained experience in many areas, from retail management to education. After settling in northern Virginia, I fell back on my undergraduate degree and began working in the law enforcement branch of local government. Although I had a challenging job that I loved, I felt that my skills were underutilized. After both of my kids were in college, I began to investigate the notion of going to law school. As my peers prepare for retirement, I am embarking on a new career.

I started law school with the rose-colored vision that law practice would be filled with amazing technology and tools to make work more efficient. However, I quickly learned that efficiency is not the pinnacle of achievement for many law firms. In fact, it seems that the more inefficient a law firm is, the more billable hours it can produce. And while it is true that 96% of lawyers are using smartphones to do “occasional legal work,” they are relying on the apps that came with the phone instead of using the custom apps for their case management systems.

The biggest disappointment for me is finding that some members of the profession seem barely capable of running basic programs such as the Microsoft Office suite. Fortunately, Ivy B. Grey preaches the need for competence in these areas. Sadly, even if we have skills, Casey Flaherty’s Legal Technology Assessment is a grim reminder that we may not be as proficient as we believe.

The great advances in the use of technology that I expected in law are hard to find. Perhaps this begins on campus. Many law students will graduate without taking a single technology-related course. Thanks to Dan Linna, we know that this is due in part to the scarcity of these classes within the law school curriculum. However, I believe it also reflects the popular advice given students to focus on courses tested by bar exams.

When managing an understaffed government office, I saw people often get caught in a cycle of inefficiency because they were overwhelmed by their day-to-day tasks. The same holds true in the legal field. Many attorneys know that solutions are available, but have difficulty blocking out time to explore those solutions. However, I learned that investing the time to automate tasks saved tremendous time and energy later. Although the late nights and tussles with that cantankerous computer system were painful, the office became more efficient because we harnessed the technology that was available. While speaking to other offices across the country, I learned that staff claimed to hate the software that we all used. Sadly, I found that organizations were rarely using their systems fully. Although this “off the shelf” program was quite customizable, many were using the system just as it was delivered from the developer. On further examination, I found that many offices struggled with the same issues that my office had experienced. These discoveries led me to share tips and tricks that had been helpful for my office. Feedback from other offices encouraged me to search for solutions to other problems. As offices adjusted their settings, satisfaction with the system increased. Eventually, these improvements allowed me to focus on other areas. Over time, I learned that system inside and out. I have to admit that leaving it behind was a bit sad for me. After all, I had become an expert in something that I thought I would never use again.

One of the first things I learned this summer is that attorneys can be quite unhappy with their case management system. Just like the government employees unhappy with that system, attorneys believe the grass is greener on the other side of the case management fence. I venture to say that the dislike of the system stems from not knowing how to use it. Many organizations do not have anyone dedicated to digging into these systems and customizing them to the organization’s needs. By creating manuals that are not designed with the end user in mind, the manufacturer exacerbates the problem. Quite often, even if training is given when the system is purchased, no additional training is offered, and the new staff is left to figure the system out on their own.

To make matters worse, many organizations often begin using new systems before they understand how they really work. By not understanding where data goes and how the system pulls the data for reports, organizations severely limit their reporting capabilities. One example I saw was that the organization was placing data in the wrong field. Although it was a reasonable mistake based on the field name, the reports built into the system had no way to access the data. Unfortunately, the decision had been made long before the current staff was in place, and they felt the habit was too entrenched to change.

Another more egregious situation is when organizations try to use a new system as they had their legacy system. Instead of using the transition as a time to develop better processes, organizations will ignore the advances offered. This quickly leads to underutilization and dissatisfaction.

When digging into my ATJ Tech Fellows project this summer, I was surprised to discover that the case management system used by many legal aid organizations is built on a platform very similar to my old government system. Although this knowledge was useful, customizing the user interface for the attorneys required no special training and made them much happier than anything I could do behind the scenes.

So, what can attorneys do if their case management or another system is making them crazy?

  1. First, locate the user manual.
  2. Customize the user interface to accommodate individual preferences. (This is a low-hanging fruit that will provide a quick lift and improve things immediately).
  3. Make a list of the problems or complaints that you have with the system.
  4. Skim the user manual. Pull out those highlighters left over from law school or conferences and mark the sections that address problems on the list.
  5. Learn how the system is designed to be used. Determine whether the vendor hosts training and volunteer to attend and bring the information back to train others.

Another thing I learned this summer is that law offices struggle with efficiency just like other offices. Quite often, the attorneys know the solution but feel they lack time to work on the problem. For example, one attorney was using several versions of a protective order form to cobble together a document. Although she knew that creating a fillable PDF would save time in the long run, filing deadlines left no time to spare. Once the deadline was over, other matters took priority. How can attorneys find the time to solve problems?

  1. Create a “wish list” of problems that need to be solved.
  2. Schedule time or use found time (such as when a meeting is canceled).
  3. And if all else fails, assign projects from the list to interns.

For an example of how this might work, think back to the protective order mentioned in the last paragraph. An intern was given the task of turning the document into a fillable PDF. On its first use, the judge was so impressed with the final document that he complimented the attorney. The intern gained a valuable skill and attorneys across the state benefited when the attorney shared the form with their offices.

Just as in life, annoyances or frustrations at work can build up into problems. However, instead of trying to move the mountain, sometimes it is the little things that can make a difference.

About the Author

Shellie Reid is a second-year student at Michigan State University College of Law where she leads the student group Legal Launch Pad. This past summer, she served as an Access to Justice Tech Fellow. Contact her at her blog Ferreting Out Justice or on Twitter @edgeofempty.

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