Innovations Fresh Thoughts For Managing

Law Firm IT Customization: Approach at Your Own Risk

“You can fully customize this to suit your needs” is something law firm managing partners, innovation managers and IT directors often hear during legal tech vendor presentations. 

Bim Dave

On its face, being able to customize a product to meet the unique requirements of the firm seems like a good thing. In the real world, extensive customization can actually cause significant problems and may lead to unnecessary expenses or even client relationship nightmares. 

Certain customizations, for example, can make updating software impossible and prevent firms from taking advantage of future developer improvements. Their version of the software will just be too different for the upgrades to function properly. In a future update, the developer might also offer a feature for free that the firm previously paid for as a customization.

In extreme cases, customizations can cause products such as accounting software to output incorrect information. Given that algorithms do these calculations in the background, that error might not be caught for months or years — causing financial chaos when It’s finally noticed. That is a client disaster waiting to happen. 

All of this can be costly to both find and reverse, which can negate any savings from implementing technology in the first place. Even minor customizations or forgotten upgrades can create a significant issue. If staff and attorneys are not making full use of expensive software add-ons that sounded great in the sales pitch, that means the firm has 1) paid for technology that was never needed in the first place, and 2) spent time training people on something irrelevant to their day-to-day work.  


Legal organizations should resist the temptation to customize their IT. The old adage that “less is more” really applies here. 

Many problems can be avoided by simply having a solid implementation plan in place. This includes clearly documenting how the firm’s systems, processes and integrations look today and defining what a successful solution will look like. Just like going to the grocery store with a list reduces impulsive snack buying, planning will keep everyone focused on what is truly needed from a solution. Instead of being distracted by bright and shiny add-ons and persuasive sales pitches, the implementation teams will focus on what the solution actually needs to do for the firm. 

“Just like going to the grocery store with a list reduces impulsive snack buying, planning will keep everyone focused on what is truly needed from a solution.”

In most cases, firms should use new technology as is for six months before even considering customization. During that time, attorneys, staff and IT personnel can assess whether they can live with the solution’s limitations or if customizations truly are needed. Often, the firm will find out it can easily make compromises for anything lacking. Even then, it is important to keep the focus on what the firm actually needs, rather than what some people think the software should do.


If after six months a firm decides it must have certain customizations for an IT solution to be effective, it can explore making changes. There are, however, safer tweaks than others and some to avoid at all costs. 

The following can likely be customized without any problems:
  • Forms
  • Workflows
  • Reporting formats/how data is organized in reports
  • Integration and synchronization between other IT systems in the firm

Firms should avoid customizations that change the core functionality of an IT product, especially those involving an algorithm or hidden automatic calculation. There is no way to peer into the “black box” of an algorithm to make sure its output is correct. It might take months or even years to spot a problem — and by then it is far too late. 

Given this, anything involving a firm’s general ledger (accounting, financial reporting) or functions such as trust calculations should be left alone. There is simply too much risk without any upside. What a firm can do is look at some of the safer customizations listed above to see if those changes will accomplish its goals instead of drastic alterations to core functionality.


Firms face serious liability if they succumb to the temptation to customize a new IT solution. From paying for unused features to incorrect accounting reports that ruin client relationships, the problems can be serious. 

Reversing changes can be expensive, not to mention the opportunity cost if customizations prevent taking advantage of future developer upgrades — which may include free features that a firm once paid to have as a customization. When it comes to a law firm’s technology, it’s is much wiser and more cost-effective to have a solid implementation plan and approach customization with caution.