You may have noticed that I am not fresh from undergrad. Despite my life experience, I started law school with the vision that law practice would be filled with amazing technology and tools to make work more efficient. In school this year, I quickly learned that efficiency is not the pinnacle of achievement for law firms. Further, the great advances in office technology are nowhere to be found (at least not in the legal aid arena).
Through the years, I have observed that people often get caught in a cycle of inefficiency because they are so overwhelmed by their day to day tasks. If I had a nickel for the times that I have seen smart people doing menial tasks manually instead of harnessing technology, I wouldn’t need to worry about paying for law school. This summer, I found that legal aid attorneys are no exception. Many of them know that solutions are available but finding the time to work on those solutions seems overwhelming.
When managing an understaffed government office, I learned that investing the time to automate tasks saved time and energy later. Although the late nights and tussles with cantankerous computer systems were painful, by harnessing technology, I was able to make the office more efficient. This eventually allowed me to focus on other areas that needed improvement. In speaking to other offices across the country, I learned that staff claimed to hate the software that we all used. What I found was that organizations were rarely utilizing their systems fully. Many would use the system just as it was delivered from the developer without learning how to customize and make it work for them. This discovery led me to share tips and tricks on my blog and led to great speaking opportunities. Over time, I learned that system inside and out. I have to admit that leaving it behind was a bit sad for me. After all, I had become an expert in something that I thought I would never be able to use again.
This summer, I have learned that legal aid organizations also struggle with similar efficiency problems. I can’t tell you how emphatically people claim to dislike their case management systems that are supposed to make life easier. I venture to say that they dislike the system because they don’t know how to fully utilize it. Many organizations don’t have anyone dedicated to digging into these systems and customizing them to the organization’s needs. Further, the problem is exacerbated because there is no training program for staff. The manufacturer often doesn’t help by creating manuals that are not designed with the end user in mind. To make matters worse, organizations often begin using new systems before they understand how the system works. By not understanding where data goes and how the system pulls the data for reports, organizations severely limit their reporting capabilities. Even more egregious, instead of using the transition as a time to develop better processes, many organizations try to use the new system in ways similar to their previous system. These factors lead to underutilization and dissatisfaction.
When digging into my ATJ Tech Fellows project this summer, I was surprised to discover that the case management system used by many legal aid organizations is built on a platform very similar to my old government system. With my knowledge of these systems, I was able to help my host organization make a few changes to use their system more efficiently. (Even small changes can make a big difference for users). When I realized how many other agencies use the same system, I began dreaming of going from office to office to help. I am not sure where this will lead, but I am open to the possibilities and I am excited by the prospect.