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Looking for efficiencies in a complicated system

Remember that children’s board game, Mousetrap? It’s a Rube Goldberg machine that uses an unnecessarily large number of moving parts to catch a mouse. Part of the entertainment came from wondering whether the machine would effectively transfer the kinetic energy required to catch the mouse.

Now replace the board game with a law firm. Then replace the moving parts with redundancy and high-priced labour. You might now be describing many processes that keep modern law firms running.

One data set to multiple systems

All sorts of processes, from client intake to invoicing to discovery, involve data that travel through two or more systems. Unlike Mousetrap, a given event (like client intake) must catch several mice (like opening a case, creating an accounting file and setting up document- management folders).

Data often live in silos created by the specialized systems that store them. Making data flow efficiently between systems, and reducing any manual intervention required, only happens when those systems are integrated.

Why is the same data reentered in different systems?

Larry Port doesn’t know how those silos originally took shape, but he relates a plausible explanation for their continued existence: software vendors responded to the market.

According to Port, CEO of Rocket Matter, a legal practice management and time and billing application, software vendors who target large firms are more successful when they develop systems that cover fewer roles. The sale thus requires fewer approvals.

People in large firms typically perform specialized roles. When they do, they develop a “mental model” that helps entrench the systems they use. “The second you have specialized roles, it gets a lot harder to sell and the sales cycle gets longer,” Port says. “All it takes is one person not liking one feature” for the sale to fail.

How data gets shared between systems

Integration of law firm systems takes several forms. There’s the everyday integration nobody notices. For instance, the e-mail feature in Microsoft Outlook accesses the contact list so that people need not open a separate piece of software, copy an e-mail address and paste it into the “To” line.

Other tools can easily tie into popular systems.

“Our phones integrate into our Outlook calendars,” says Andrew Feldstein, managing partner of Feldstein Family Law Group. “When somebody schedules an appointment in court, it immediately appears in Outlook at the office.

“It’s so obvious you don’t even think about it,” says Feldstein of his firm’s platformagnostic mobile setup (two BlackBerrys with the remainder consisting of a roughly equal mix of Androids and iPhones).

More complex, but just as important, are integrations that allow separate systems to share information. Feldstein, for instance, integrates ProLaw and Worldox at his firm.

“Why do I want to pay someone to enter information for every file in two different pieces of software? That seems like a waste of their time.

“We also integrate ProLaw into our photocopy system so every photocopy gets billed to the proper file. That way, nobody has to manually enter the photocopies they take. They put the client file number into the photocopier for the copies they take, and the copies automatically go into the accounting system.”

Sheldon Waters notes that law firms may also perform “one-off” integration exercises, like importing data into an e-discovery tool then de-duplicating that data. His company, DSM Computing Solutions, has written applications to handle such one-off needs.

How integration happens

System integration isn’t as difficult as it once was.

“As more systems move to web interfaces with SQL (or similar) back ends (or developer-provided application programming interfaces — APIs), it becomes easier to synchronize data between systems without building customized bridges,” says Dominic Jaar, KPMG Canada’s national leader on information management and e-discovery.

Port concurs with Jaar on this point.

“For instance, a system might, via an API, allow ‘outside’ software to add, delete or edit a contact,” he says. “The worst possible integration occurs when you must jimmy things together, work around the limitations of a system.”

Ideally, “integration is transparent to the end user,” Jaar says. “Adding even one click makes the integration more cumbersome and less likely to be successful.”

When not to share data

An extra hurdle faces firms that use cloud-based services, since synching firm data to servers outside their firewalls gives them pause. (Pulling data from outside servers isn’t as worrisome.)

In-house counsel face similar concerns when they field requests to integrate data from their law environment into the larger enterprise environment. For instance, information in an e-discovery tool should not become easily accessible outside the legal department. “You don’t want privileged, confidential information synched back to the enterprise environment,” Jaar says.

Preventing data isolation

When Sheldon Waters works with law firms, he supports the practice software they choose, but “We’re always looking to avoid islands of software and islands of data.”

That avoidance helps fuel demand for “Swiss-Army-knife” systems that handle many different processes. Like Microsoft Outlook, they remove the need for certain integration initiatives. And in small firms, people often wear more hats than their large-firm counterparts, so they’re open to such systems.

These systems aren’t all-in-one, though. Port provides tools clients use to integrate Rocket Matter with tools that cover bases the application doesn’t (like payroll, formal financial statements, payments to vendors and e-mail).

Jaar advises firms that embark on integration projects to consider other objectives too.

“Use this opportunity for data cleanup,” he says.

This article was originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine. To view the print version, click here.