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Making IT personal – or not!

Notwithstanding the economy, it is still conference and event season in the legal sector. I recently attended a meeting of the Adelaide Group at Berwin Leighton Paisner, which is organised by IT director Janet Day. The superb presentation by Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty was very well-attended, but the same could not be said for other legal IT events. Apparently, the Strategic Technology Forum in Spain was not as busy as usual. The reasons for this can be driven by politics as well as costs. ‘Our firm is making people redundant, so it doesn’t look good if we go off on a beano, whether or not the IT department has the budget for it,’ explained one IT director. IT departments are under pressure to achieve more with less and to present the right image both within the firm and externally – both within the legal sector and the legal IT industry.

So starting with the first imperative – achieving more with less – an obvious solution is outsourcing. I have written about this in my last few columns and it is still a hot topic. Now that law firms generally accept outsourcing non-core services as a way of achieving efficiencies, it has now become a strategic decision: what should you outsource to produce the best possible outcome for your particular firm. That includes making the best possible impression. I contributed to a recent LinkedIn discussion about outsourcing telephone and reception services – not strictly IT, but certainly part of a firm’s back office infrastructure and an attractive option in a downturn. The phone is always answered; callers are never transferred straight to voicemail – even at lunch time – and the telephonist follows an agreed script. The firm no longer has to worry about out-of-hours and holiday cover. But the downside is a less personalised service. I recently called a mid-sized firm who outsource their back office. The person I had arranged to speak to was unavailable and I called back three times before getting through. Each time I spoke with a different telephonist. They were all extremely polite, but clearly working remotely. It was obvious they did not know the individual I was trying to reach or whether my previous messages had been picked up. How much does this matter? For law firms, it is an important consideration in terms of business development and client retention as many of them, particularly niche and mid market firms, trade on the fact that they provide personalised client service. I have spoken with a number of law firm clients who also appreciate this quality and regularly refer to it as a key reason for continuing to instruct a particular firm.

Personalised services also underpin lawyers’ relationship with outsourced IT support services. Users feel more comfortable if, when they require assistance, they know and are known by the individual dealing with the query or problem. So a challenge for outsourced or managed services providers is to retain the personal element. One leading managed services provider allocates a particular team to each firm. Some of their staff regularly work onsite too, so that they can get to know users and – equally importantly – users can get to know them and feel confident in them.

Personalised services are a key factor in the relationship between IT directors and suppliers. When I ask IT directors why they go with a particular supplier the answer is often because they listen to suggestions, act on ideas and tailor their service to the firm’s specific needs. Although these days price is a consideration, more often than not it is the relationship and cultural synergy that seals the deal.

Cloud services, which I focused on in my last column, are ever more popular. With cloud services, you actually require less infrastructure to do more. Firms that move to cloud services routinely decommission servers, saving costs in terms of space, energy and maintenance and supporting the environmental and green credentials that are often requested as part of a business pitch – particularly for public sector work. And at last law firms are generally confident that software as a service (SaaS) offers at least as much security against data loss and leakage as retaining data in house. In particular it protects the firm from data loss as a result of human error – people losing laptops or BlackBerry devices. Data storage and email management in the cloud offer the added advantage of disaster recovery and business continuity as they offer access via the internet during a system outage.

As I finalise this column, I read about the possibility of the UK Government outsourcing NHS patient records to an external provider. While some may find this alarming, I think it could be an excellent idea. We should remember how much confidential information our public servants have lost by disposing of unshredded paper documents in open garbage bags, leaving laptops on the train or having them stolen from offices or cars. One laptop with Government information mysteriously appeared for sale on Ebay recently. When information is stored in the cloud, confidential information is encrypted and held securely so that even the provider’s staff cannot access it, allaying all the panic about sensitive information getting into the wrong hands. So in this case, a remote service could well be the best option!

Ultimately, for IT directors, doing more with less and weathering the recession is down to strategy: deciding which relationships are key and when it’s time to call in the experts or move infrastructure services into the cloud.


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