[Part of InsideLegal's guest blogger program - This article authored by M. Thomas (Tom) Collins, founder of Juris, Inc.]
My involvement with the legal community began in 1974. That was a long time ago and one’s memory begins to get a little blurry looking back that far. But as I remember the ’70s, horn-rimmed glasses, polyester leisure suits, and long sideburns were the “in” thing for guys. The ladies were into denim hip-huggers and bell-bottoms, platform shoes, go-go boots, mini-skirts and big hair. Law firms were giving up typewriters and investing in dedicated word processing systems from Wang, and later from IBM and NBI. This was breakthrough technology, but it was a long way from the general-purpose computer systems used today. The emphasis was on automating the “factory floor” of the law firm—document creation, editing and production. In-house systems for back office functions were still several years away.
Federal Express invented the overnight letter. That opened the door for national and regional service bureaus to begin automating the back office billing function using room-size computers and acres of keypunch operators. Law firms sent their time slips to processing centers using Federal Express overnight services. Computer generated draft bills were shipped back to the law firm for editing. Billing attorney changes were over-nighted back to the processing center where their changes were converted to holes punched into IBM punch cards for computer processing. Final bills were printed and expressed back to the law firm for mailing to their clients.
The next evolution came in the form of a device we lovingly called “the wiz-bang machine”. It looked like an oversized typewriter—but, for its time, it was a giant step forward in law office technology. The wiz-bang was a remote processing terminal. It was all keyboard and printer with an attached magnetic tape and slow-speed modem. The law firm entered its own information from time slips. The data was transmitted to our data processing center during the night time hours for processing. At the end of the month, a work-in-process report was transmitted to the firm over telephone lines
for indicating billing action and for editing and entering corrections. Once the billing action and corrections were transmitted back to us, we printed the bills on high-quality, chain printers and expressed them back to the firm for mailing. The wiz-bang moved data entry and printing into the law office, coincidentally preparing the law firm for the next step in law office automation.
That next step, the mini-computer, arrived on the scene for law firms toward the end of the seventies. Companies like Juris, Inc. reinvented their mainframe computer software by rewriting it to run on minicomputers. The computer moved onto the law firm premises and that began the process of automating the full range of back office functions: financial accounting, billing, accounts receivable, accounts payable, conflict and even payroll. For the first time, law firms could have their own business computers—i.e., no more Federal Express.
The mini was relatively short lived. In 1981, IBM changed everything when it introduced the IBM PC. Microsoft gave us the DOS operating system; WordPerfect invented word-processing software that ran on the same IBM PCs; and then Novell figured out how to connect individual IBM PCs into a network. The rest of the story, IBM’s lost grip on hardware, the collapse of the specialized word-processing systems and the eventual dominance of Microsoft, is modern history.
During the period of the ‘70s and the ‘80s there was no such thing as a technology staff. At least that was the case for all but the very largest law firms. The administrator became the defacto chief technology officer. That is the person computer service and systems people targeted as the decision maker in law firms. A salesperson bypassed the administrator at their peril. Bypass one administrator by going around them to a partner and you could find yourself blacklisted among a close knit administrator community. Today, the situation has changed. Most law firms of any size have a technology person on staff. The administrator’s role has shifted toward the human resources and softer side of law office operations. The decision maker regarding technology has moved up to the owners of the business—to the partners and especially to the managing partner or partner charged with responsibility for technology.
The emphasis today is no longer on automating the “front office” or “back office” because that has already been done. Law firms changing their technology platforms are doing so to improve operational efficiency and financial performance. It is no longer about the accounting and staff needs. It is about the owners and their aspirations.
Marketing was simple twenty or thirty years ago. You advertised in the ABA Journal and the ALA publication. You exhibited at the conferences but in the end, you sold by having feet on the ground. Today, marketing is totally different. First you have to make sure you are easy to find—that means Web sites, Blogs and key word purchases on Google and Yahoo. Second, you must be convenient for prospects to deal with. That means online conferencing and e-mail. There are now so many publications targeting the market that it is difficult to stand out among the noise. In a way, the saturation volume of the print advertising market has made it less important. More creativity is required to impress your name on the pool of potential buyers and to build your credibility as experts in your field. Salespeople must deal face-to-face with VITO, a Very Important Top Officer. That means that they have to speak the language of the law firm business and from the perspective of the owner—the partner. Engaging a partner means that your marketing and salesperson needs to deliver value even when a prospect does not buy from you.