There are lot’s of self-serving puff-pieces out on the internet that are thinly veiled sales brochures with little to no useful information – this isn’t one of those!!
Picking an IT Support partner for your Law Firm can be tricky. The best way to avoid a misstep is to follow a systematic approach with your decision, one that helps you check all the boxes and look at this decision in the right way.
Choosing an IT Support Provider for your Law Firm
I’m guessing the picking a Managed Services Provider for your Law Firm has to be top on your list of stuff you hate doing – after all, you have client matters to attend to and a decision like this takes time and focus away from running your law firm.
Unfortunately, this is a decision that needs your attention – much like choosing an accounting firm or an outsourced HR provider – these are weighty decisions that you simply can’t ignore.
Do you REALLY need to make a change?
The first question to ask yourself, “Do you REALLY need to make a change?” Chew on this for a bit…
If you are contemplating a change then I’m guessing your current provider probably did something recently to make you mad.
Was your vendor’s goof a minor, one-time-deal? If so, consider giving them some slack, especially if they’ve been a good partner up until now. After all, no one is perfect and mistakes will happen from time to time.
If you are contemplating a change and your current vendor is “in the running” you are going about this all wrong. Just call in your current vendor and have a heart-to-heart – chances are they will take the conversation seriously and address the frustrations you are having.
After all, it is always easier to fix the relationship you are in than to vet multiple vendors and make a change in an important relationship.
If your dissatisfaction stems from a more systematic problem or repeat service issues that you’ve told them are unacceptable but nothing seems to change then maybe you do need to make a change.
WARNING – be careful that you don’t ask you vendor for something they can’t do or they claim to be able to address your frustrations with “a new tool” or “a great new guy we hired” – these are clear indicators that the issues you are concerned about are more systemic, core to your vendors business model and unlikely to change any time soon.
Something’s gotta change…
OK, so assuming you’ve done all you can to make the current vendor relationship work, you’ve had a heart-to-heart and nothing changed or you are worried about their ability to grow with you into the future – you’ve decided to make a change and staying with the current vendor isn’t an option.
Roll up your sleeves and let’s get to work helping you make the best decision for your law firm…
Describe your ideal situation and must-haves
There are a lot of factors that go into selecting a Managed Services providers but some of the best come from your own, recent, experience.
Take a minute to write down some thoughts about your current vendor
- What do you like about what your current guys do? C’mon, there has to be something!!
- What do they do that drives you crazy and you never want to experience again?
- What are things on your mind that you are worried aren’t even on their radar?
Managed Services vs. IT Support
Next decision factor – and this is a big one… Does your law firm need someone to call in a pinch or a true Managed Services Provider?
There is a chasm between a ‘reactive’ support firm and one that properly manages the type of complexity inherent in a growing law firm. But, take it from me – EVERYONE you meet with will say the word ‘proactive’ at least a dozen times – I’ll guarantee it!
If you feel like you just need someone to call when there is a problem then focus on three things;
- Average Response Time
- Average Resolution Time
- Billable Hourly Rate
These three factors, along with your “Ideal Situation and Must-Haves” will help guide you to the right firm to meet your firm’s needs.
But just like all law firms aren’t the same, all IT vendors aren’t either. You probably wouldn’t pick a law firm that specializes in criminal defense to do the closing on your new house, would you?
But what if you need more than just support?
First, understand that a true Managed Services Provider simply can not deliver a proactive process for the cost of pay-as-you-go IT – these are two completely different worlds.
Monitoring and alerting tools doesn’t make a vendor proactive – rather, these are tools that simply let your provider know when something has gone wrong.
Being proactive takes process and discipline.
To find a proactive provider you need to look carefully at their processes.
- Can they share examples of processes and procedures developed for other law firms?
- Can they demonstrate what their client documentation looks like? Is it thorough?
- Do they have a well thought out (and written) set of standards and best practices?
- Do they have regular proactive on-site visits to check alignment to standards?
Outline the Basic IT Services
The basic set of IT Services used by a Managed Services Provider should include;
- Centralized Services – do they have a standard tool-set to nail down the basics? Patching operating systems and third-party apps, anti-spam, content filtering, anti-malware, something specific to ransomware all tools they should have at their disposal and deployed consistently across their environments.
- Customer Support – do they have a dedicated team of customer support staff at their office ready to take your call? This is essential to quickly resolution to the inevitable problems? If they assign you a ‘dedicated resource’ who handles reactive issues – this is a huge red flag!! Chances are when you have an issue your ‘dedicated resource’ is already working on an emergency for someone else!
- Network Administration – do they have a dedicated team focused on proactive roles like documentation, process, procedures, standards, and alignment? If not, I’ll guarantee it isn’t getting done – without a dedicated team in place, separate from customer support, everyone becomes a firefighter and the proactive role gets pushed off until they “have the time” which, as you can guess, is never!
- Technology Consulting – do they have a dedicated team of people with the knowledge and experience necessary to help your law firm make important business decisions around your technology? This can be tricky as often this role is assigned to an ‘account manager’ who is nothing but a salesperson whose job it is to get you to buy more IT stuff!
Law Firm Experience
Does your prospective vendor have experience servicing other customers in the law firm industry?
Seems like a pretty straight forward question and one that most IT providers can answer “Yes” to.
But dig a little deeper….
Remember from the section “Managed Services vs. IT Support” – there are big difference in IT support models. If you are looking for a true proactive partner and the firm you are talking to delivers reactive IT support, even to another law firm, this is a miss, no matter how many law firms they parade out as customers. Find out how you can tell in the Check References section below.
In addition to experience working with other law firms, do they have experience working with the industry-specific applications unique to your firm? Worldox, Needles, TimeSlips, Tabs3; list your specific applications and see if they have experience.
Note: while experience with a specific application is a plus, don’t let the lack of experience with a particular application be a show-stopper.
Know the Terms
Review their agreement and focus in on three specific areas;
- Term. Be sure the initial term of the agreement is realistic – no more than one year. Don’t handcuff yourself to a vendor for three years (or more) even to get a discount – it simply isn’t worth the risk and hassle of being trapped in an agreement for longer than one year.
- Auto-Renewal. They ALL have them but most customers are under the impression that once the initial term expires they “go month-to-month” – this is almost NEVER the case. Know what happens when the initial term expires and what your notification provisions are to prevent an automatic renewal for another term.
- Non-Performance. Look carefully for the provisions to cancel the agreement should the provider fail to live up to the terms. Know exactly what constitutes non-performance, how you and a customer should notify the vendor, and what their duties are under the provision.
Look Closely at the Costs
The costs under the agreement should be easy to understand and well laid out. There shouldn’t be any doubt in your mind what you will be paying under the agreement (unless of course, you are opting for a pay-as-you-go arrangement with a reactive vendor)
Spend time talking about the costs that fall outside of the agreement;
- Aside from the monthly support agreement, what costs will we be billed for?
- Are there additional charges for on-site or after-hours calls?
- Are there any usage-based costs in the agreement, ex: if my offsite backup doubles in size, will there be additional charges?
Can they handle it?
In the quest to add new business, sometimes Managed Services Providers can bite off more than they can chew.
It happens – especially when a prospective vendor is desperate to add new business, they can fool even themselves into thinking it won’t be a problem to add another law firm while their staff back at the office are straining under the load of current customers.
So how can you know for sure that your provider of choice has the staff necessary to carry the load?
Simple – look at their roles and ratios. Remember from “Outline the Basic IT Services above” that there should be defined roles and responsibilities!
To get a feel for their capacity, ask;
- “How many total employees do you have?”
- “How many are in customer-facing roles?”
- “Tell me about your technical teams, what are they responsible for and how many dedicated staff do you have in each?”
- “Give me a sense of capacity – how many current customers is your team supporting?”
- “How do you know when it is time to hire an additional technical resource?”
These questions should give you a good feeling for how the roles in their company are separated and what their internal support structure looks like.
Pay special attention to the answer to the last question – this should be metric-driven – there should be some forward-looking measure you prospective vendor uses to know when to hire ahead versus waiting until their staff is pulling their hair out, delivering sub-standard performance before begrudgingly hiring an additional staff member.
WARNING #1. If they have 20 support staff supporting 200 customers this is a huge red flag! There probably isn’t a “perfect” support staff to customer ratio but if it seems high compared to the vendors “individual service” pitch then dig a little deeper. Chances are the bulk of the 200 customers are under their “reactive support model” and will drive the day with ongoing emergency requests.
WARNING #2. If they can’t articulate their technical teams’ roles or have a hard time explaining how many people are dedicated to each role then you can be certain that they have an “everybody wears a lot of hats” approach that will 100% prevent them from delivering consistent service, much less being a proactive partner.
Dive into the transition
Next area to tackle with your prospective vendor is their plan for taking on your law firm – this should be a well thought out process complete with defined milestones and a timeline.
If your prospective vendor says; “Welcome aboard, just call us when you have a problem” what this really means is “We are a reactive support firm with no real plan.”
Your vendor should be willing to invest the time upfront to get to know your environment, complete initial documentation, look for any glaring hidden risks, deploy toolsets, conduct user orientation and execute a plan that smoothly and efficiently gets you from where you are now to being one of their customers.
Avoid the Gotchas
Here are a few ‘gotchas’ that we’ve seen people get into with vendors that can be super frustrating. A little time spent upfront can protect you against these predictable failures;
Be sure there is some provision in the agreement that states your vendor will document everything they do and that all documentation, diagrams, and passwords are your property – not theirs. As a contractor, they are being hired to work on your systems and all that work belongs to you – no exceptions.
Beware the Bronze-Silver-Gold syndrome. This is rampant in our industry by whatever term they call it – a vendor that shows up with a good-better-best menu of choices should be avoided. Besides, would you even engage with a customer in a way that would prevent you from delivering your best? Just makes no sense! Two thinks inevitably happen here (from experience);
- Customers hear the benefits of the ‘best’ package and in the end, select the pricing of the ‘good’ package (it all blends together during the meetings!) which causes a misalignment of expectations from the start
- The Vendor is so overwhelmed which request from the ‘good’ package that they can’t deliver on their mission for the ‘best’ package and those customers suffer.
When deciding between vendors, under no circumstances should you entertain technical proposals, ex: “How would you take us to the cloud?”
First, no vendor can provide a plan without investing the necessary time to learn your environment, your apps, your people, your processes and your future plans before even starting to whittle down the myriad of cloud options – some of which may be a good fit for you while others would be a disaster!
Second, and I say this will all due respect, you probably aren’t qualified to compare competing technical proposals so you pick the one that ‘sounds best’, or worse, costs the least.
Spend your time focused on selecting a vendor with the right process and the technical stuff will fall in line. A great vendor can take you to the cloud (and whatever the next big thing will be) but will first and foremost want to understand what makes your practice unique so they can help formulate the right strategy before picking tools and technology.
AFTER you have made a decision to go with a vendor, check their references.
You may think this step should fall much earlier in the process but it shouldn’t. With very few exceptions, your prospective IT support provider is going to give you references that are going to speak highly of them – just how it works.
Use this as the last step to back check that all your decision points above are in line with what one of their customers is actually experiencing. Be prepared to ask tough questions about anything during the process that didn’t seem right to you.
Ask specifically for one reference from another law firm and one from a customer that is about your size (in any field). This should give you a good feeling for their experience servicing law firms and how a customer of comparable size feels about the services they are receiving.
Also, be sure you are talking to references using the same services you are evaluating, ex: “When we talked with XYZ Provider, they recommended their ‘Total Care’ package that includes A, B, and C. Is this the same services offering you receive from them?”
Picking a Managed Services vendor is can be a pain! Trust me, I see people struggle with this decision each and every month. I hope this article helps simplify the decision for you and your staff in a way that sets you up for success moving forward.
While I’ve provided this information to you without any expectations, if you do find yourself wanting to find out more about our services, please see our page Managed IT Support and Services for Law Firms for more information.