One does not simply buy a product in 2015. As our society has advanced in its complexity, products, even niche products, are fitted for specific uses. That’s why there are umpteen dozen versions of Tide — though, I do appreciate those versions addressing allergy sensitivities.

And, it’s the same deal with computer software. There are freeware versions and enterprise versions; consumer products and business products; desktop applications and mobile apps; standalone programs and add-ons, and integrations. There are industry-specific products, including many in the legal vertical — that’s the ‘for lawyers’ thing.

(Not that I’m one to talk. I wrote ‘Twitter in One Hour for Lawyers’, which could just as well have been titled ‘Twitter in One Hour for Human Beings’, save for some very small tweaks here and there. This is one of a number of reasons why I don’t consider myself a ‘law practice management consultant’ so much as a ‘business management consultant’ with specific industry knowledge. But, I digress.)

At this point, it’s probably fair to say that pretty much everybody gets the fact that the right technology can add efficiencies to business practices. It’s just that choosing the right technology is so damn hard. There are so many product offerings, that lawyers and law firms often become paralyzed by the sheer volume of opportunity, and their technology platforms stagnate, while they are unable to make effective choices. Adding to the problem is that, even after making a selection as to a type of product (case management via email or a practice management system?), there often remains to be made a choice between versions of that product (though that is not the case with law practice management software; although, APIs offer more choices respecting integrations). Lawyers often get chastised for their perceived distaste for or assumed ambivalence toward technology; but, for busy, practicing attorneys, it’s impossible to stay on top of all of the machinations of the legal technology community, or to get effectively up to speed in a truncated fashion.

Inextricably coupled with the choice of product is whether you’re getting upsold. ‘Upselling’ is a more generic term, with a parcel of meanings; but, what I mean to say is that law firms should watch out for the unnecessary upsell. If you’re considering advancing beyond the consumer or freeware versions of a product (to pay for something, potentially additional features), don’t just ramp up to the enterprise version, or the ‘for lawyers’ or ‘legal’ edition, before considering whether it’s truly necessary for your particular business situation, whether it’s substantively worth it.

I use the term ‘upsell’, because it gets to the heart of matter. If you’re subscribing to a special-use product, it’s going to cost you more money. So, the question about whether the additional expenditure is worth it is very much a literal one. For many law firms, the central issue swirling around technology choices is cost. In order to protect the bottom line, law firms attempt to extract as much value as possible from each purchase; however, the complication is that attorneys are notoriously poor vettors. They don’t take the time to learn about a product, before making an educated decision to buy. This is particularly problematic in this instance of an upsell, because paying for an enterprise version or a specialized version of software without actually needing it is the equivalent of flushing money down the toilet.

The answer to ‘which version do I buy’ is a two-fold inquiry. In the first instance, you’ll want to determine whether a more expensive version of a software offers additional, worthwhile business features. From there, the second line of inquiry is whether an industry-specific product makes sense. Ironically, it’s more problematic for lawyers to choose between versions of general business software than it is for them to make the choice between a general business application and a legal-specific software product. An obvious example relates to the purchase of a PDF convertor software. Depending upon how you interact with your clients, it may be that you need a certain version of Acrobat, to maximize your use of fillable forms. Maybe, as a personal injury attorney, you require PDF packaging tools to make your best case to adjustors. Perhaps, as a solo litigator, you have to have extensive metadata tools. On the other hand, you may just have a need for a system that will allow you to convert into and out of PDF to other formats on an irregular basis. That’s something you can do with a free program, like Cute PDF. If you just need to view PDF documents, Adobe Reader is free.

The calculus surrounding the purchase of a lawyer-specific product is a little different. In macrocosm, that software has to offer something specific to a lawyers’ business process that a general application does not, really: cannot. Sometimes that’s tied to a document management question: Are template forms and template clauses built for the legal environment accessible? Sometimes it’s tied to ethical considerations: Will this product allow me to reconcile my trust accounts? Sometimes it’s tied to workflow: Does this software include deadline-sensitive task management tools, across case categories and respecting statutes of limitation? If a vendor positioning a lawyer’s software does not offer unique features intrinsically tied to the practice of law, then it is perfectly reasonable to open the field back up to the world of general business software. If you don’t believe, for example, that the Avvo Ignite CRM tool offers features unique to lawyers and the practice of law, you can then effectively renew the competition to include Sales Force or Pipe Drive. You should only be paying for legal-specific software if it does legal-specific things, or if it outstrips the features of a generic competitor.

At bottom, beyond the comparison of application types, there are certain features that it is worthwhile to pay for, or to pay extra for. While this is not an extensive or exhaustive list, some of those features relate to: access and mobility/flexibility, data storage and usage and security.

In the end, if you want to make sure you’re maximizing your technology dollar, you must vet the software you are considering buying. The answers to the majority of questions posed in this post are revealed through thorough investigation. While each law firm’s choice of a technology platform is different, and personalized, the best defense against being taken advantage of is becoming an educated consumer.

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Liner Notes

Give It Away‘ by George Strait

George Strait is a living legend, who’s still cranking out hit records on a biannual basis. He’s the rare musician who gets better with age, where most flame out, or burn out. (Don’t believe me: listen to some of Cat Stevenslatter albums, which are mostly hot garbage, especially in comparison to his earlier efforts — the Yusuf stuff is better.) Many of my friends who don’t like country music nonetheless like George Strait.

It’s Western Swing, by George!