Our headquarters are in sunny South Florida, but when I get to spend time in my hometown in West New York, there are a few little things that I really look forward to doing. One of those things is snagging some fresh donuts (or, if you prefer, doughnuts) early in the morning from a local, family-owned bakery. Sure, the donuts at the major supermarkets are fine, the ones at the chain store coffee shops are OK, but they’re just not as good.
So … how does this relate to software?
Well, one of the great things we’re going to see this year is a proliferation of more software and technological tools for lawyers. As technology marches forward, as attorney adoption becomes inevitable (eventually required?), the software business becomes more attractive and naturally more players will enter the market. Generally, competition is good and more choice is even better, but then again …
Soon enough, it’ll seem like everyone sells donuts … er … software for lawyers.
When you’re considering which particular software solution you’d like to invest time in trying out, consider some sincere – albeit admittedly biased – advice: go to the bakery first. That is, the best software is often made by software companies. Folks who eat, sleep, and breathe software all day, everyday. People who know software like you know law, as opposed to how your podiatrist cousin “knows law” – and wants to argue with you about it.
If you’re experienced with buying and working with software, this observation is hardly a secret. A software geek can usually tell, almost immediately, whether a piece of software was designed and built by software people or not. The speed, the simplicity, the “clean” look (for instance, the lack of clunky drop-down menus), how quickly it’s learned, how easy it is to find the things you use most. Nobody likes to fumble through 47 features that are used once every 10 years in search of the one you use every day, ten times a day.
Other things matter too: the security, the redundancy, the vendors and providers they use, even the backgrounds and experience of the team members. Like with most other things, look to the primary core competencies of the team and the resources that team relies upon, and that’ll probably give you a darn good idea of what they’re really good at. A firm that handles a lot of personal injury cases may be able to competently handle an asset purchase deal, but your first choice would probably be a shop that focuses on corporate and deal work. Similarly, when you need some software for your profession, professional colleagues building software might be a plausible choice, but your best choice might be company that specializes in building software.
So when the promotional material says “software designed by lawyers for lawyers by a team of lawyers!” or “accounting software built by accountants!” or something to that effect, consider what that would really mean. Unless all those folks also spent the last umpteen years building software, the lawyers and accountants might not be the best choice to manage software design and development.
Of course, nobody takes all that marketing talk literally, but the point is: building software is a profession in and of itself, requiring software expertise. Building and supporting software isn’t just a step in a process – something that can just be outsourced based on someone’s (perfectly good) conceptual idea.
Frequently, when folks outside of the software business get involved in software building their intentions are terrific, the ideas may be great, and the professionals involved may be the best at what they do, but building great software isn’t something one just picks up or outsources. Having an idea and outsourcing all the actual design or development is certainly possible today, but it just isn’t how the best software is built. It’s not how a “software company” does it.
That’s not to say, of course, that lawyers shouldn’t be part of the design and development process of legal software. Of course lawyers should be part of the process, and arguably part of the team. But, just like the best interactions between you and your clients – it’s often best for the client to discuss the challenge and let you (the expert), ask questions, get to the real problem, and develop and execute the proper solution. You’ve got the insight, skills, perspective, and experience to do a better job to define and solve the problem, just as a software company does with software. Your client may have an amazing grasp of the substantive issues that comprise their current predicament – an understanding far beyond your own – but defining the legal problems presented, and the solutions thereto, are in your domain.
So, when you’re out there trying out all the awesome new stuff that’ll be coming out this year (like I will be, for sure), give some thought to the company that built it, and how that may impact your experience with the product now and, going forward.
Now, go eat a donut. Try a great local bakery first.