The Four Tech Groups – Balance in Your Tech Diet

Sham Harga had run a successful eatery for many years by always smiling, never extending credit, and realizing that most of his customers wanted meals properly balanced between the four food groups: sugar, starch, grease, and burnt crunchy bitsTerry Pratchett, Men at Arms

In the spirit of Sham Harga, one runs a successful law practice by always smiling, never extending credit and having your tech properly balanced between the four tech groups: security, redundancy, utility, and cost. These are dynamic forces often in opposition with each other. If I want my systems to be perfectly secure, I must sacrifice utility (for others not to access my tech, I must also limit how I may access my tech) and invest in cost (firewalls, DMZ’s, encrypted communication, and 24/7 monitoring come with large price tags). Should I wish perfect utility – unlimited access, 24/7/365 availability – I must sacrifice security and invest in redundancy and cost. But there is a point where all four forces lie in balance – costs comfortably within our budget, security contained comfortably between extreme paranoia and laxness, and systems that are sufficiently redundant so that they can attend to the tasks required of them now and for the reasonably foreseeable future with only minor, rectifiable hiccups.

While there are undoubtedly precise mechanisms that will spit out one’s ROI when investing $X in amount Y of security or amount Z of redundancy, this point of balance is more than a simple evaluation of a couple of the forces in isolation. This is more a matter of personal intuition for what we are evaluating is a fluid system and the balance we achieve today may not be the right balance tomorrow. It is a bit like yoga – today I find my balance in child’s pose and even though I might find it in mountain or tree tomorrow, right now a simple solution addresses my needs and that is all that matters for the moment; let tomorrow bring a new balance with it when tomorrow comes.

Yet being in tech balance is more than simply being able to find the right balance between the four tech groups – there is finding balance while engulfed in the ever-present white noise of our interconnected tech; of finding those small moments of quiet midst the cacophony of social networks, list-serves, RSS feeds, blogs, and e-mail if for no other reason than to find some time to actually do some paying work. I find that when the din becomes too much and the well-considered advice of the efficiency experts no longer lifts me above the noise I take a retreat from my tech for a few days – deliberately disconnecting from the cacophony of interconnectedness – choosing instead to regress to more primal state of tech. One in which afternoon naps are more likely to be interrupted by the dulcet tones of a landline than the strident chirp of a cellphone and where word processing is a product of ink on paper rather than electrons on phosphor.

Admittedly, putting one’s tech on hiatus is not easy (a small town’s lack of reliable connectivity goes a long way in helping me ignore tech’s siren song) but I find that doing so reminds me to have a more deliberate, purposeful relationship with my tech; that my tech is there to facilitate my mission, not dictate it. Seems everything needs to be rebooted ever now and then.

Retro or Different

It’s pretty clear now that what looked like it might have been some kind of counterculture is, in reality, just the plain old chaos of undifferentiated weirdness.Jerry Garcia

Different seems to be the watchword for today’s new breed of lawyers; these rising stars with their different philosophies on billing, on marketing, and on the practice of law in general. We are seeing the birth of a legal counterculture, marked not by long-hair and tie-dyed T-shirts but by iPads, smartphones, and SaaS clouds. Out here in small town America, the trappings of old, republican, conservative law die hard (there is still the expectation of brick and mortar offices, three-piece suits, and varnished oak desks) and one has to sneak different into one’s practice slowly.

It is not that clients aren’t receptive to different, it is just that they really don’t care about it. Clients are interested in outcomes; more specifically, they are interested in paying you for solutions to their particular problem – they don’t care about the process or what technology you use to expedite your research, they just want the solution to be palatable. For the rural lawyer, technology’s role is not as practice differentiator (well, there may be a few referral sources that will be impressed by a law firm’s use of technology to implement a stream-lined, systems-based approach to handling client matters, but the average client won’t care if you have a new smartphone or a 5 year old flip phone); technology’s role is to simply improve your efficiency and reduce your costs.

In my one-man-band solo practice, technology is what keeps me sane. It allows me to have a human voice answer my phone and direct calls to me and it allows me to spend 30 minutes dictating a contract rather than 2 hours typing all without the overhead of having to employ actual staff. Technology allows me to run a paperless office secure in the knowledge that between my RAID arrays and backup software my business data will always be readily accessible. Tickler systems keep me on task, and e-mail filters help me manage information distraction.

The only thing different about my technology is that it’s not different – no cutting edge open source software, no public SaaS clouds, no smartphones or tablets. The only new piece of technology I could really use is a typewriter (I’m really fed up with filling out the 3-part Certificate of Real Estate Value by hand). Perhaps retro will be the new different.

Road Trip

The saying “Getting there is half the fun” became obsolete with the advent of commercial airlines. — Henry J. Tillman

The Rural Lawyer is hitting the road this week. My thanks to the South Dakota Bar for their gracious invitation to speak at their  Annual Meeting, I’ll be filling the dead space between the good speakers and the mid-afternoon break with my take on technology and marketing for the rural solo/small firm.

There is a lot to be said for travel – it’s broadening (though give the current state of the coach seats on commercial aircraft, I’d dispute that sentiment – though my hat’s off to the air crews; any one who can keep smiling after dealing with the hoi-polloi that generally occupies coach either is of a more pacific temperament than I or has access to some high quality mood stabilizers), it’s educational, it’s relaxing – but for the rural lawyer, travel is just part of the job.

While those charming wide open vistas of rural America are part of the attraction of small towns, they also mean that there is always going to be some distance between where you are and where you want to be – usually only a practice located in a county seat will find clients and courthouses in close proximity. So, the rural lawyer finds that reliable transportation and a good GPS are just as important as  form books, laptops, and practice manuals.

Paranoia and Security

I’ve always found paranoia to be a perfectly defensible positionPat Conroy

Let me make something clear right from the outset, when it comes to the security of the technology that supports my business, I am not a raving, paranoid lunatic; I am completely capable of carrying on calm, quiet, rational conversations.

Back in the day, when hard drives were the size of washing machines, tape drives consumed half-inch tape on 12 inch reels, computers were huge blue boxes serviced by a cadre of adoring acolytes, and networks were comprised of tin cans, bits of string, and acoustic couplers security was simple – those without the blessing of the high priest (the systems administrator – a god-like being capable of patching a OS binary on the fly). The concept of an external attack was practically inconceivable simply because (a) it was the rare computer that supported even dial-up access, (b) dumb terminals and acoustic couplers were not your typical household appliance, and (c) an attack coming in at 300 baud (about 30 characters per second) is something you would notice. It was a halcyon time, carefree and innocent. A time where security was a backup tape and a warm blanket. A time doomed by its own success and the crushing inevitability of Moore’s Law.

Today, if your tech is connected to the outside world though anything other than a electrical power cord (and I have my suspicions about those), it is vulnerable to attack; it is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when. Therein lies the faustian bargain we make with the Internet – access to untold amounts of knowledge, pleasure, and power in exchange for our tech’s soul. But fear not, for tech also offers some hope of salvation if not complete redemption. Continue reading

Rural Transformation

To Imagine, To Create, To LearnThrough out America, rural communities are changing, evolving, and transforming themselves as they work to reverse the effects of  a few decades of outmigration, youth drain, and the general malaise of the rural economy. Big ideas whether from the rush to alternative energy (nothing helps an agrarian economy like $9/bushel corn) or the information economy sweeping in as high-speed internet slowly but surely marches into small town USA.

ReImagine Rural  explores how people are building a new future for rural communities. I can across ReImagine Rural thanks to Bob Morris’s post: I Guess I’m A Rural Lawyer — Go FigureA great essay on where a rural practice can take you, even if you don’t know you’re a rural lawyer. Sarah Larson’s post: Downtown to Small Town: A “City Girl’s” Transition to Rural Practice also speaks to me as her path to rural lawyerdom mirrors mine. 29 years ago, This city boy married his college sweetheart, a wonderful gal whose soul was drawn to rural and wild places, and learned to enjoy rural life.