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De-risking ERP Implementations at Law Firms - A Proven Approach

Darren InglesThe business benefits of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems are well proven across a range of industry sectors and these also apply to legal. Combining multiple silo'ed systems (for example, practice management, HR, time recording and so on) into one business platform with a single source of data delivers total firm management across client and matter management, billing, time recording, finance & accounting, business intelligence and talent management.

Despite the clear benefits of this approach, only a few of the largest law firms have taken the plunge to invest in this transformational technology.

Undoubtedly, there are some challenges that any firm-wide project of this type will pose - changing a practice management system involves a firm-wide adjustment and an appetite for change; an open and positive attitude; and resource to champion the business transformation. But the business benefits far outweigh the challenges. Fieldfisher went live with its ERP system in 15 months, on time and on budget with 1.7m savings expected over the next five years.  

There are some misconceptions surrounding the implementation of legal systems and indeed challenges too, however, it is possible to de-risk the solution's implementation and deliver a tailored solution and a tangible ROI in a short space of time. Below are some tried and tested recommendations. 

A collaborative approach 

Collaboration between law firm, technology vendor and systems integrator must underpin any implementation. It facilitates trust, a pragmatic approach and open communication across the implementation environment and organisations. In essence, this requires breaking down the barriers between the roles of the technology vendor and systems integrator - and a change in mindset across all parties. To illustrate, typically, the technology vendor puts the solution on the shelf in the law firm and the systems integrator implements it. So, the law firm then needs to talk separately to the two entities, even though it is the common client of the two organisations. This situation is often rife with issues such as a silo'ed approach to implementation, miscommunication, 'not my remit'/front foot - back-foot mindsets, which sometimes leads to fractious relationships.  

Commonly decision-making is hierarchical and slow in law firms, but relatively flat in supplier organisations. This can be problematic as delayed decision-making slows down progress and sometimes impacts the quality of decisions, which can be detrimental to an ERP implementation. 

Therefore, establishing a combined team comprising members from all stakeholders with agreed and shared purpose and clearly defined roles, ensures a concerted, joint effort by all parties to deliver against the common goal in the most cost-effective, efficient and tailored way possible. In addition to facilitating team work and collaboration in the true sense of the words - ultimately, it supports the team in meeting the law firm's requirement. A collaborative environment allows for client's and project's priorities to be re-evaluated, re-defined and finessed on a continuous basis. 

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Work the problem to continually move the dial

Due to the scale, scope and nature of an ERP implementation, issues and glitches are likely to crop up regularly. It's advisable to encourage the law firm to assign an independent Project Assurance executive from internal IT or another internal department.  This individual must be empowered to prioritise activities, make decisions and influence the firm's partners and stakeholders, so that the engine room functions is at full throttle at all times. This role is critical to ensuring that the 'progress dial' is continuously moving in keeping with the agreed deadlines, larger project timelines and law firm requirements. This individual also helps the delivery team to accommodate changes in law firm requirements as the project progresses. After all, due to the business transformational nature of an ERP project, the law firm can't and mustn't be beholden to requirements agreed upfront. The firm must be allowed to change its mind on business needs as the deployment advances.  

A big bang approach potentially a huge mistake

It might look good on paper, but a big bang approach to go-live can be a mistake and best avoided. An iterative stance to software deployment is a sounder tactic. Take data migration for instance. Often, organisations agree the number of migrations, at different stages of an implementation. For arguments sake, let's say a technology vendor suggests three migrations over the course of the implementation. This traditional course of action demands that by the end of the third migration, the process is perfectly completed - as typically there is an expensive fixed fee associated with each additional migration. Given the intricacy of the project, such hard deadlines are fraught with problems, frustrations and sometimes even failure.  Instead, due to the importance of a thorough and clean data migration to the success of an ERP project, an iterative migration, so that the process can be successively finetuned until it is simply right, is a more pragmatic and realistic approach. It helps teams eradicate the emotional baggage and confrontational attitude that comes with a severely constrained and restricted migration process. 


Fail fast, be agile and develop last

A light touch go-live model is a good one to follow. It can be executed by practice area, office, region or in any way that suits the law firm; and in this manner, gradually deployed across the entire entity. This allows the law firm to actually see the solution in operation, get early access and with every go-live, make incremental steps forward in getting to a wholly implemented solution across the organisation. This Agile methodology-led approach also allows the combined team to fail fast and course correct almost on a daily basis. It genuinely pre-empts failure just before a deadline, which is potentially damaging to the success as well as the reputation of such a project. 

Moreover, develop last. There's no need to re-invent the wheel. Take what's already 'in the box', configure the solution to the needs of the law firm, and if essential as a last resort, write code to develop the solution for specific functionality.  Keeping an open mind and adopting a positive and flexible attitude to deployment will save time and ensure focus where it materially matters. This, needless to say, is contrary to the traditional formulaic methodology that many organisations follow.

Honesty, transparency and accountability will result in timely delivery

Finally, it's imperative that all the parties involved - technology vendor, systems integrator, the law firm and any other stakeholders - are honest and transparent with each other. There's no room for politics and it's important that the sentiment 'we are in this together' reigns supreme. The stakes for all the parties are high and it makes business sense to approach the project with clarity and realism. 

ERP adoption represents a significant change in law firm operation and business management. Vitally, no ERP project is ever a 100 per cent right, because there's always an incremental improvement that can be made to a process or a way of working. That's the beauty of an ERP solution and it's for this kind of continuous improvement that firms deploy such systems. Don't aim for utopia, it simply doesn't exist. Instead a willingness to receive software updates regularly and 'continuous improvement' should be the mantra.

Darren Ingles is the Programme Director for LexisNexis Enterprise Solutions. He spends the majority of his time driving the delivery of ERP solution, LexisOne, and its related operations at law firms. A Chartered Accountant by training, he has been involved with finance systems and software delivery for over 10 years in different roles. 

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