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Avoiding VaporWare

User attraction (new sales) is almost as important as user retention and support (keeping current users happy).  There is often a temptation among developers, though, to make pre-announcements.  We’ve occasionally made statements such as “no promises and no schedule yet, but we’re working on …”.  That’s a very strong temptation these days, while our development team is continuing with some significant enhancements to our products.  The temptation grows from “very strong” to “even stronger” when we hear comments from those who say they wish they could have certain features in law office management software, and when we hear comments from other developers who say they’re “working on” those features.

For now, I’ll at least say that we are indeed working on a number of enhancements to LawStream.  As we’ve done for more than ten years, though, we only sell what we have.  We don’t promise anything we can’t deliver today.  Take heart, gentle users (and curious prospective users): if you don’t hear a lot from us about what “might be coming down the pipes one of these days”, you can be assured that we’re too busy working to make predictions about the future.  When it comes to our software development, no news definitely is good news.

You might have heard the story about the garage mechanic’s sign:

“Folks want their work done, cheap, good and quick.  They can’t have all three.  If you want your work done quick and cheap, don’t expect it to be good.  If you want your work done quick and good, it ain’t gonna be cheap.  If you want it done good and cheap, then don’t expect it to be quick.”

Those trade-offs apply in a lot of work, perhaps including the work you do for your clients.  They certainly apply with a lot of software development work, and we constantly have to remember that “good” has to take priority over “quick” and “cheap”.

There is a similar notion, when it comes to the quality of software.  We call it the “Software Feature Triangle”.  This is what that triangle looks like:

The Feature Triangle

The Feature Triangle

When you are looking for software (especially, custom software, or software for a vertical market like the legal market), you have to make some choices, and you might have to compromise your expectations.  Most software developers will strive for a reasonable price (so they can sell more software), a simple interface (to reduce their support commitments to users), and a significant amount of power (to give their users a tool that will increase productivity).  Just as the garage mechanic can’t settle for “good, cheap and quick”, software developers have to find an acceptable point between the three quality criteria.  As power and simplicity increase, there will be more development time required, and therefore a higher price.  The “sweet spot” is somewhere in the interior of the triangle, but for LawStream development, it will be closer to the “power and simplicity side”, rather than close to the “price corner”.

The Simple Software Myth

It happens every few weeks: someone asks, comments, complains, begs, suggests, or muses about simple law office software.  Yes, we know simplicity is good, and yes, we know our own software could be simpler.  When looking for simplicity in software, though, don’t expect the software to perform miracles.  If you want your software to perform a simple function, then you should expect simple software; on the other hand, if you want your software to perform complex functions with a great deal of intuitiveness and power, then you might have to lower your “simplicity expectations”.

You’ve probably faced the “Rapid Results Ralph” client who has met you at your office and requested a quick resolution to a medical malpractice claim.  He wants his day in court, and he expects to have that day within a week.  “Don’t worry about all that paperwork.  I know what I want to say.  Just get that doctor into court next Wednesday, and I’ll let the judge really know what happened.”

We sometimes hear from prospective users (and users) who say similar things about law office management software.  Here are some of the kinds of things we’ve heard:

  • “I don’t want to bother recording my time.”
  • “There should be no need for file numbers.”
  • “If a client doesn’t pay the amount invoiced, I just change the amount shown on the bill, to match the amount of the payment.”
  • “I don’t care about a receivable amount: just show me what’s in the bank account, and nothing else.”

Life isn’t that simple, in law or in software development.  Our own LawStream software has been in continual development for more than fifteen years (longer than most medical malpractice claims), with more than tens thousand hours of development, documentation, testing, debugging, and enhancements.  Basic functions are simple (press command-shift-T, key your time code, add some details, and press Enter, if you want to record your time).  When added features come into play (multiple rates for timekeeping, specific time values, links to reminders and notes, entry of time for others, edits on date ranges, suggestions for calculated fees, statistics for productivity reports, active timers, and more), the process becomes more complex.

One of the key areas where simplicity is expected, is accounting.  You have to appreciate that accounting can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be so complicated that it should be avoided.  It might not be on the same level as rocket science or brain surgery, but many attorneys have not developed a healthy respect for the importance of keeping their books in balance.  Some are aware of the importance of concepts like “a minus here if there’s a plus there” (a.k.a. debits and credits), but others seem content with a general rough estimate of their finances.  We think lawyers should be as careful with their own finances, as they should be with their clients’ finances: you owe it to yourself and your family (and, perhaps, to your bank, auditors and bar association or law society) to keep  your books in order.  If that means hiring a bookkeeper, or spending some time learning the basics of accounting, then it will be a well-spent investment.

I once had a high-school teacher who liked to say “There are two types of people in the world: those who think there are two types of people, and those who don’t think there are two types of people.”  That saying no longer sounds quite as clever as it did when I was a teenager, but it still holds some truth.

There are two kinds of legal tech consultants in this world: those who have no biases and no interest in promoting any particular software, and those who may benefit if you buy software in which they have special expertise.  You might hear expressions of lack of bias from “experts” in any given software application, and those expressions may well be sincerely offered, but comments like “I’ll make sure you get the right package for you, even if it means I don’t get a commission on ABC Law Office Package” may well mean “I’ll make sure you get the right package for you, but I don’t know of anything better than ABC Law Office Package”.  Consultants tend not to bite the hands that feed them, and the “feeding hands” (software developers) prefer to have consultants who will promote their own products.  How often have you heard realtors say “My listings are good, but you really should look at some private listings before you consider letting me get commission”?

There are plenty of knowledgeable legal tech consultants who do not have any particular allegiance to specific software packages.  These days, you can even find consultants who aren’t tied to particular platforms (Dave Bilinsky and Ross Kodner are good examples of “legal tech gurus” who are open to the benefits of Macs and PCs in law offices).  If you are looking for someone to help you choose software (or hardware) for your office, find someone who doesn’t have any interest in the outcome (apart from satisfaction that you’ve found a good solution).  After that, feel free to get in touch with experts in particular software packages.

Would you like to become a dedicated authorized certified qualified LawStream consultant?  If you do, you’re out of luck (at least, for now).  In the past, we’ve had consultants and representatives in Hong Kong, Ontario and elsewhere.  Each time we’ve done so, we’ve found that the service provided by our representatives has not met our own standards.  Even though we can’t sell quite as much software when we don’t have representatives in other areas, we’re pleased and proud that we can continue to provide direct service to all our users.

By the way: that same high-school teacher also used to say “There is an exception to every rule, except the rule that says there is an exception to every rule.”  You might be able to find a tech consultant who is not in the pocket of any particular software vendor, but you’ll have to look very long and hard to find that person.

It’s so easy to get into the habit of entering a quick “point 2” as a record of the service you’re doing for a client.  It’s also very easy to lose track of the time it takes to do the work, and then quickly go on to another task after you’ve done that work.  Unfortunately, you may find that you have recorded twelve minutes (or whatever time you entered), without realizing that the work took a very different amount of time.

When you start an activity for a client, make note of the time (on a yellow-sticky, in your mind, or in your timekeeping software).  Open a “notes file” or similar entry for the activity, if you want.  Then, do the work (making more notes, if you wish).  After that, record the time.  By recording your time accurately, you will not only be creating a basis for a fair fee for your client: you will also be creating information that could eventually let you know how productive you are, in the different types of work you do.

LawStream users: You can make note of when you have started to work on a file, by double-clicking the line item for that file in the list of current files.  As you move back and forth between files, you can turn-off the timer for that file.  Once you’re done, you can ente a time record that will reflect the total amount of time you have spent on the file for the day.  Note, too, that you can enter control-click (OS X) or right-click (Windows) on any item in your list of time for the day, to have LawStream select an item that will let you update the time spent on that activity, or add notes for the activity.

Listen, folks.  Some things are positive things to say, but some compliments just aren’t complimentary.  “That dress makes you look thin” is not the right thing to say, if you’re trying to win the affection of a lady.  Similarly, “The gas mileage on my Hummer isn’t that good, but at least I’m helping to create jobs for workers in the oil and gas sector” is not a way to impress the environmental advocate ahead of you in the line at the local recycling depot.

Another thing that isn’t really a wonderful compliment, is to tout Mac OS X by saying it can run Windows applications through Parallels or other emulation software.  I have heard too many people boast about their ability to run Windows applications on their Macs.  Running Windows on Mac OS X is a bit like saying you can load a pick-up truck on top of your BMW or Mercedes: maybe it will give your fancy car some of the functionality of a pick-up truck, but you shouldn’t have to do that.

Here are two comments, taken from a single message recently posted by a respected Mac-using attorney:

In his recent SmallLaw post entitled “Why Macs Don’t Make Sense Once You Look Past the Cool Factor,” Ross Kodner ultimately concludes that Macs are just not cut-out for the legal marketplace. I, and thousands of other Mac-using Attorney couldn’t disagree more.

and:

I do have to buy Windows (if I don’t already have a version I can use) unless I want to use Codeweaver’s Crossover (http://www.codeweavers.com/products/cxmac/) which runs windows programs without Windows (yes, it doesn’t support all windows programs, but it is an option). I also might POSSIBLY want to buy a third-party application like Parallels or Fusion to run Windows (although Apple’s built-in Bootcamp does a wonderful job as well). However, if the benefit to the user outweighs these costs, it is well worth it (quality is remembered long after the price has been forgot).

Maybe you do need something that just isn’t available on Mac OS X, but before you scratch up the new paint on your fancy new car, you should first see if you can find a better way.  And don’t boast to your pickup-truck-owning friends about how your car can carry their trucks.

(and no: I can’t really hook-up my eight-track player to my iPod; I haven’t even tried; in fact, I don’t even have an eight-track player)