A few days before his inauguration, Barack Obama told John King on CNN:
"Here's the good news ... we have a lot of investment in making the health care system more efficient. Just a simple thing like converting from a paper system to electronic medical records for every single person can drastically reduce costs, drastically reduce medical error, make not only health care more affordable, but also improve its quality."
When I heard this, I imagined for just a moment that he had said "electronic legal records" instead. For years, law firms and medical practices have been slowly migrating their voluminous paper client records to online systems that can be easily searched, tracked and recalled—whether one is searching for the date of incorporation or the last measles shot.
And “slowly” is the key word here.
Historically, administrators and IT personnel have had a heck of a time getting the highest-paid professionals—doctors and lawyers—to use computers or even type prescriptions and client notes. In fact, the age-old joke is that the worse a doctor’s handwriting is, the better the doctor. (My father and two brothers are doctors and I'm a non-practicing attorney, so I know from whence I speak).
About 5 years ago, I noticed that my dog's veterinarian had all of his doggy records entered in a computer system. Every X-ray, shot, cough, bark, and poop sample was recorded and up-to-date. As the proud parents, my wife and I had online access to our pooch's entire medical history. The same was true for my dentist and for my son's pediatrician. None of them could answer a question without consulting the computer in the examination room.
However, my own physician had to flip tediously through a folder when I asked him a question about last year's physical. And when my wife went in for a procedure that required general anesthesia, the doctors were running around looking for the misplaced three-ring binder containing information on her allergies as well as our consent forms. I was shocked that these reputable practices were still stuck in the dinosaur age of client information management.
Sadly, these same examples apply to 90% of the attorneys in the country, despite the fact that unlike doctors or veterinarians, attorneys are charging $400-$1,000 per hour and can well afford to implement a modern electronic records system.
Having worked with hundreds of law firms over the past decade, I've never heard an attorney disagree with President Obama's basic premise that converting from a paper system to electronic records would drastically reduce costs, reduce errors, and improve service quality. For instance, Philip Beck of Bartlit Beck, The American Lawyer Litigation Boutique of the Year Firm, explains their use of technology: "In the office, we have immediate access to whatever information has been stored on the computers, and we can sort it and analyze it instantaneously, without waiting for help from support personnel."
Yet despite the fact that the benefits of an electronic records system are crystal clear—for law firms and their clients—it’s simply not happening in most mainstream practices today.
So what will ultimately entice these firms to make the switch? The transition process itself takes a good amount of time and effort, even if the actual costs are minimal. Will it be the sagging legal market that is crying out for greater efficiency as firms lay off attorneys and staff? Will it be partners watching profits drop or competition for new clients grow? Will it be clients that are demanding lower legal fees and 21st-century service capabilities, such as self-service portals and 24/7 access to information?
Imagine the impact on corporate America's legal bills over the next decade if every in-house counsel, CFO and board member for every venture-backed and public company could find all of their minute books, capitalization tables, contracts, due dates, and invoices online—from anywhere, at any time and without paying a single dollar in legal fees.
I'm just asking all the lawyers in America to think about what their doctor friends are about to be mandated to do—and then think about the millions of paper legal records sitting in their offices, growing more cumbersome by the minute.
It may be a challenge for an industry that has typically been a technology laggard, but in the spirit of change, why not practice a can-do attitude when the next technology project is proposed? Think about the positive impact on your bottom line: "Yes We Can." Think about the greater efficiency and productivity: “Yes We Can.” Think about being able to offer exceptional service to your clients in an increasingly competitive legal environment: "Yes We Can."