The Efficiency Equation: Techno Tools or the “bleeding edge”?

The reverse side also has a reverse side. – Japanese Proverb

As an attorney, when do you take the plunge and bite off the next great techno tool? 

Recently, I had occasion to replace our washer and dryer which we have had in operation for about 14 years. We had to make a decision whether to repair or replace them. They were a matched pair of front-load high efficiency washer and dryer made overseas and this brand was evaluated on several websites as a top performer. However, in about the fifth year of ownership, we had to have repairs on the washer for several hundred dollars because of the failure of a mechanical device which controlled the spin cycle. Since then, they have performed flawlessly until now. So now we faced the decision to ante up another couple hundred dollars to repair this 14 year old washer and dryer pair, or to purchase a replacement.

We visited a very trustworthy dealer in our local area who sells all the brands and whom we have purchased most of our appliances in the past. He is credible because he wants to keep our business, plus we know him personally and know that he would not steer us wrong. What he told us was surprising. He had obtained a large number of washers and dryers from a US manufacturer which could no longer be produced due to federal energy efficiency standards. What was interesting was that he had those in his showroom along with the latest and greatest from overseas with the most tech imaginable. The machines that he bought which were going out of production were the old standard, top loading machines with an agitator. 

The reason he bought all of them that he could was that they were designed to last the longest. They had no electronics and were the machines that the laundromats use for commercial operation. But they can no longer be produced under federal law because they use too much water and do not spin as fast as some of the newer machines. But they last forever. His take was that today you are buying 10 year obsolescence when you purchase many of the new appliances. Purchase the old tried and true M-ytag (if you can) and everyone I surveyed who has one has had them in operation for 15-20 years and more with no breakdowns. Sure, old agitator machines use less water, and spin so fast that clothes are virtually dry after the wash cycle which is a plus for efficiency. The old style washers don’t spin as fast and are not as efficient wringing out as much moisture – but those old style machines last longer. As he explained, you will spend more on water usage, but will not have to spend another $1,000 to replace them in ten years. So the energy saved over the ten years is a good thing, right? But there is a trade off. The money you saved on energy consumption may be lost in comparison to the replacement cost of replacement or repairs of that more exotic machine which are not factored into the equation.

Consider, not only will you have to fork out another $1,000 or so after ten years, but the companies that make them may shorten the longevity even further – to say, five years. Why not? It generates more sales. Also, how many resources will be necessary to produce that new washer? Steel, plastic, rare earth elements, energy and recyclables should all factor into the LONG TERM COST. This isn’t factored into the promoted energy savings of these new exotic machines. By the way, read the reviews – some complain about top loaders without agitators. They have tremendous capacity, but often do not clean as well or leave detergent undissolved because of the limited water usage. They might have great capacity, but many complain that they cannot be fully loaded due to water limitations. 

We ended up purchasing the old style top loader with agitator and no electronics. We had it delivered and my wife noted that since we use cold water (from our well) and can adjust it to use less water, we really are not at a great disadvantage compared to the newer style machines. Plus, this machine comes with a three year warranty, whereas the exotics have one year warranties. We will never need to replace or repair this machine due to electronic failures and it will probably last the rest of our lives, based upon past history of these machines. 

Lightbulbs are another great example of inefficient efficiency. It used to be that we would purchase an incandescent lightbulb of any wattage and know the color it would produce without checking a chart to make sure the color was one that we wanted. They cost maybe 80 cents or less and lasted – well, it depended on how often you turned them on or off, but A LONG TIME. Since the federal regulations on energy efficiency have been established, in my household we have gone through several iterations of illumination.

When we were told that wattage would be limited, we purchased a bunch of the old higher wattage bulbs, just in case they would no longer be available. At the time, compact fluorescent bulbs were the rage. They were also priced at about three times the cost of the old incandescent bulbs. We soon found that they did not come on instantly like the old incandescent bulbs. Also, if it was extremely cold, they were often not as bright or didn’t work properly. Very frustrating. So, we decided to change to halogen bulbs where we could. They created heat and cost even more than the compact fluorescent bulbs. We also found that the longevity of some of these new bulbs have not lived up to their advertised life expectancy. Finally, the light emitting diode (LED) bulbs have come to the fore and are now widely available and prominently advertised. But the initial cost is again much higher than the old style bulbs. 

So what does this have to do with the practice of law? When considering the software necessary to run your firm, when you first start your practice, you do not need a lot of client management software. In fact, you don’t need any for your first few clients. But when you begin to feel the burden of managing multiple client’s matters, accounting, timekeeping, accessibility in the cloud, client access through a portal and coordinating all of those functions for greater efficiency, then you need to consider solutions that increase your efficiency and profitability.

I attend the American Bar Association TechShow every year and there are hundreds of vendors peddling software solutions. It can be mind boggling. Don’t jump the gun or feel obliged to get on board with client management or document assembly and management software before it is time. How do you know when it is time? It will be different for everyone. 

I suggest you find a local practitioner who is using software to find out what it cost. How have those costs changed over time? Is there good support and recovery available for that software? How does it work in practice? After you have surveyed a number of programs, I would align myself with a program that a familiar practitioner uses. That way, in the event your system locks up late at night when tech support is not available, you might be able to get a resolution through that local attorney who may have experienced that problem before. In addition, they can help you understand the common functions you will need to understand and how to use it efficiently. In addition, they might become your local tech support when you need it most.

Don’t feel pressure to take on every new device or technical solution that comes your way. It will be tempting to think that a great time capturing, coordinated software platform, will make you money. But if you don’t have time to learn how to use it, and if you don’t use it to its full capacity, it may just be that you have found yourself on the bleeding edge of technology, not the leading edge. My advice, do your research and reflect on your real needs. Go slow and follow those who have gone before you.


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One Comment

  1. An attorney’s time is her/his most valuable asset. When do you take the plunge? There is an argument to be made in implementing a solution early on. The right solution helps build a proper foundation for business growth and can reduce liability. Ideally a practice management solution should be scalable, secure, and cloud based. The solution should provide multiple functions, ie. calendar, time and billing, provides search of work product across client matters and allow client access.

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