Contacts Management Database: Can Your Law Firm Handle the Change?

Law firm marketing directors learn early on that we must become agents of organizational change in order to be effective in our jobs. Recently, my mid-sized, regional law firm, Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, underwent a significant change by purchasing and implementing a new client relationship management (CRM) database. A summary of a few of the organizational change issues and obstacles we encountered may be of value to those of you in other firms who face a similar business decision. We implemented the InterAction database product, but there are similar solutions on the market that will cause a firm to encounter these same change issues.

From their vantage point outside of your law firm, software manufacturers and database consultants can do an excellent job of helping you identify and sell the benefits of the product itself. And that is a good thing too, because what you will be trying to sell to your leadership is a hardware and software package that can often run well into six figures, financially. This is a major purchase decision that once made, exerts a great deal of pressure on those of us who work inside the firm to deliver the goods and to lead significant organizational changes.

Once the product is fully-integrated, questions arise. "What, exactly, are those deliverables?" Unfortunately, the vendors and consultants have moved on to their next customer. It gets a little lonely without them.

Here are a few benefits statements of the CRM that you will find yourself echoing, followed by the organizational change issues and obstacles that may lie beneath the surface. If you research and resolve these change issues before buying the CRM, you will surely decrease the pain and time involved with your organization's adjustment.

Benefit: The CRM database will improve collaborative marketing between attorneys.

Change Issues
What is the prevailing attitude in your law firm about sharing vs. hoarding client relationship information? I highly recommend that you secure a board or executive committee level commitment to requiring the sharing of contact information, rather than approaching this commitment on an attorney-by-attorney basis. A powerful partner who does not trust his or her colleagues to use information wisely, or to maintain information accurately, can present a real obstacle to a new database implementation. Every partner whose contacts are not included in the shared information detracts from the value of the firm's investment in the CRM product.

Benefit: The CRM tool will eliminate duplicate data entry throughout the firm.

Change Issues
Several CRM products have the capability to make the firm operate more efficiently in this manner, but whether they can actually do so depends on your firm's software and hardware infrastructure, the way work flow happens, and just plain old back office politics. Are your accounting and records systems capable of electronically exporting and importing necessary information? How do new matters enter your firm? Are secretaries the first ones to record client and referral source information? Does it then go to your records or accounting departments? Do the managers in those departments view entering information into the CRM product as opposed to their existing proprietary software as inefficient or additional workload? Are you going to use Outlook or Groupwise as the "front end" for your new product, or are you going to stop using those programs for contacts management? These are a few important question best addressed before you purchase a new CRM database.

Benefit: The CRM database will help you track client interaction with your firm.

Change Issues
What is your firm's attitude toward making client financial and billing information available to all staff and attorneys? What is its ability to do so in a user-friendly manner? There is a great deal of marketing intelligence in most law firm accounting systems that goes untapped. Your accounting system can tell you what services you do and do not provide to a specific client. It can also tell you who is on a client team and who is the key contact for every client.

Through a good CRM database you can see valuable views and summaries of this critical marketing intelligence. However, with a more powerful database tool comes the need for significant training and re-training of attorneys and secretaries for them to operate its features. Does your law firm have full-time professional trainers? Can you get your attorneys to attend training classes? The answers to these questions will help you decide whether database features that track client interaction with the firm are worth your investment.

Benefit: The new CRM will easily create letters, mail merges, labels, faxes, and emails using central database information.

Change Issues
How will your new CRM database interface with your firm's existing templates and macros that you use to create letters, faxes, labels and so forth? The vendors will assure you this will all work fine, but there is truly no way of knowing until you get the CRM database installed in your firm. Use this question as part of your pre-purchase reference checking to see how other firms have coped. Legal secretaries and assistants become very entrenched in their work routines for creating documents and working with contact information. A frustrated secretary can influence a powerful partner to badmouth the CRM product within the firm.

Legal secretaries should be part of your purchase planning and your rollout team. You should anticipate the need for substantial secretarial training upon rollout of a new CRM database, as much as two full days per secretary, followed by regular assistance at their work stations for at least a year afterwards by experienced trainers.

If you have used outside vendors to develop customized macros and templates for your document management, be sure to interview them about the CRM database product you are considering. This is the one area of change that affects broadest cross section of people in your firm on a daily basis. So make sure it is at the top of your selection criteria.