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Effective Use of IT in law firms

Bill KirbyBill Kirby: "Getting to grips with IT and its support in the business is one reason why I am supporting the Alternative Legal IT Conference" 

The recession continues and aided and abetted by the impact of the Legal Services Act is having a major impact on the performance and morale of many lawyers and managers within law firms. This dramatically affects the operation of the business in key areas and harnessing IT to support the business is probably even more critical at this time.

At last I think it is fair to say that the majority of lawyers are beginning to believe that IT is not an overhead for the business but it is an essential support tool for the successful running of the business. It is also a great facilitator of communication with and performance for clients.

Without successful IT we cannot achieve effective compliance, risk management, quality standards, market to the current marketplace, communicate effectively, be efficient and therefore profitable, manage working capital and have critical management information to make effective and timely decisions. However still too many firms, and in some cases spending a great deal of money on IT, are not making it work for them and too many partners and even department heads are not embracing technology despite its relevance to business survival, desired levels of return and growth.

So how do we do this and what are the areas of priority? Getting to grips with IT and its support in the business is one reason why I am supporting the Alternative Legal IT Conference taking place in September. The conference will afford an interesting opportunity to assess the role of technology in generating cost savings and improving processes and hence profitability. In an economic climate such as this, it is those firms who address the issue of how to maximise the return on their IT investment who will not only survive, but actually thrive.

Too many people still see IT as someone else’s issue and too many manages are not demanding enough from their IT and IT teams.

Like most other functions within a law firm IT has to be a part of the strategy and business plan of the firm it needs to be considered when making strategy decisions and the business direction and priorities of the firm have to be part of the subsequent IT strategy and plans.

The responsibility of the IT function, whether it is in house or hosted has to be clear with objectives/accountabilities, timelines and a reporting line. There are too many firms where accountability is not clear and reporting lines are blurred. The responsibilities have to recognise three significant sections – the maintenance and performance of the infrastructure, the effective use of applications such as the Practice Management or Case Management System, and the strategy and plans and consideration of new technologies to support the business priorities.

This does have to start at the top with clear management direction and a desire to make the best use of IT to support the business. The demands of every department are potentially different and the firm needs to address any potential “Luddites” that believe they do not need to change working methodologies to enhance performance and profitability. That is the responsibility of the line managers – not IT – It has the responsibility to educate with relevant capabilities and then deliver the priorities.

A survey on behalf of the Legal Software Suppliers Association demonstrated how little of the benefits were being seen in multiple IT applications despite the money being spent to acquire technology that can do the job. Lack of ownership by department heads, lack of change of working practices and unavailability for basic appreciation and training being the major contributors. Our consultants are invited to discussions by many firms feeling they need to change their Practice and Case Management Systems in most cases their systems are quite capable but the use is poor and it is this that needs changing.

Starting with the infrastructure many firms have not asked their IT functions (in house or outsourced) to deliver against Service Levels. How long can the web site be down (own, client or prospect access) or e-mail not be available (personal, client or third party communications). Can we afford to be without the accounts system for a day, a week? Can our Case management system be down for half a day? For business continuity of disaster recovery what % of staff do we want live and by when in the event of a failure. How long in the day do we need support for our users from a help desk – from 09.00 – 17.00, from 08.00 – 19.00 or up to 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Every firm irrespective of size needs to have thought about this and the IT function needs to provide costs and time frames for achievement. There is a cost and the closer it gets to 100% then the cost can be exponential but we all need to know what it is. Delivery of SLA’s at a high specification is a major justification for outsourcing IT infrastructure management to expert third parties. Do have a look at some case studies.

Secondly support for the business process. Most firms will have a Practice Management and Case Management System and most firms are not getting the real benefits from it.

Improvement has to start with the business priorities being shared between department heads and the IT function.  IT then needs to demonstrate the capabilities of the available software to show it can contribute to the business need.

There are some firm-wide basic processes that can produce big wins quickly, such as client inception, risk management, money laundering activities, billing profiles, electronic files with e-mail exchanges, document retention and so on. Most PMS/CM systems can do a reasonable job these days to support all of those activities but are under-used.

There are also some stages in case management plans that - to a greater or lesser extent - are applicable to work in every area of the practice; not just in one department. Workflows however have to be owned by the line manager or department head, not IT.

IT must facilitate efficiently. Where there is a will this often falls down in the communication process between the line and IT. Line managers do need an appreciation from IT of what systems can do for them. Generally once this is known everyone wants something and work piles too high so a simple justification process is easy to implement based on compliance, likely bottom line impact and so on. It all helps with the line commitment.

Most firms miss out by not having the right kind of relationship with their PMS/CM supplier. Law firms cannot afford to wait for good account management to materialise. I suggest a formal annual review on strategy and plans with the supplier and the IT manager and managing partner of the firm ensuring support performance and a clear awareness of what is available and what will not be available. This should be supplemented by three meetings a year between the IT manager and the supplier to ensure full awareness of new functionality to support the business. Too often products have been enhanced without awareness or adoption in the practice.

One of the greatest applications of the last few years has come from digital dictation. Very few have not received some benefit from its implementation but for many there is still so much more available if only the transcription resource in the firm was “pooled” and managed rather than traditional practices plus pressure from firms onto their PMS/CMS suppliers to integrate the chosen digital dictation system with the case management application.

Marketing support. For years many of the PMS suppliers have neglected their marketing modules and delivered limited functionality with this poor relation. Some are now responding to the needs of the market for more CRM capability (others are not). There are many things that can be done to support the essential marketing and customer relationship issues with existing product before the need for a separate CRM system – for example exploiting the client database and sharing information within the firm and using the management information facilities.

What of the IT Manager? In many firms he is a downtrodden, browbeaten person in the basement offering very little proactive suggestions. In others firms he is recognised as a potential contributor and is encouraged to make suggestions to the management team on how his IT function can support the practice. This doesn’t mean spending thousands £s but perhaps educating and making more use of what there is and by developing the right sort of plan then expenditure is in a controlled manner. You can probably position your own relationship with IT somewhere on the scale.

Bill Kirby is a director of Inpractice UK Ltd. The company specialises supporting law firms and accountancy practices with business, marketing, CRM and IT strategies, HR, Quality systems, IT troubleshooting and business continuity. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

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