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Eleven reasons why in-house lawyers value online legal professional networks

A survey conducted a year ago on behalf of LexisNexis, hosts of Connected, gathered responses from more than 449 in-house attorneys (See my post of Oct. 12, 2008: background details on the poll; and June 9, 2009: some questions about data on social networks used by corporate counsel.). One question asked “What are the top advantages of participating in an online legal professional network?” Here are the choices on the survey and the percentages of those who selected them. Read more...

 

If I had Workflow Foundation, would I have finished this column on time?

So this time I am going to talk about Windows Workflow Foundation (WF) as I promised quite a long time ago. After setting a definition, I will talk about what WF is, and as importantly, what it is not. In addition, I will talk about how WF fits in to the SharePoint world. I will then talk about some of the things I like about WF under SharePoint, and some of the things I do not like (hey, no technology is perfect!)

What is Workflow?

Yeah I know, we all “know” what workflow is – unfortunately it is different things to different people. In fact, it does not seem to be a word – at least not according to the Miriam-Webster Online Dictionary, but this is a definition I found at BusinessDictionary.com:

Progression of steps (tasks, events, interactions) that comprise a work process, involve two or more persons, and create or add value to the organization's activities. In a sequential workflow, each step is dependent on occurrence of the previous step; in a parallel workflow, two or more steps can occur concurrently.

 

I would tend to simplify this a little. For me, the meaningful part of the definition is:

Microsoft SharePoint as an option for legal departments

Law departments ought to consider Microsoft’s SharePoint for some of their automation needs, according to an article by a consulting firm in ACC Docket, Vol. 27, May 2009 at 18. The article describes it as having the potential to serve as a matter management system, a document management system, an integrator of information from other applications, a corporate governance suite, plus much else. More a platform or toolbox than a finished application, SharePoint has many fans. Read more...

Without spend management software, law departments get their data from accounts payable

If law departments lack software to track external expenses, they may rely on accounts payable to generate whatever figures they need. This point struck me after I read astute blogger Ron Friedmann and his lament about the lack of technology in many law departments. On that point, he heard from Rob Thomas, the sage of Serengeti.

“In our most recent annual survey of ACC members (about 80% of which [law departments] have fewer than 10 lawyers), only 29% have a matter management and/or e-billing system. Another 36% manage by manually keying information into spreadsheets. So one-third have no system at all, not even spreadsheets. … Law departments can’t manage what they can’t see.“

Read more...

Into the cloud

By now you will have heard that Legal Technology Journal is no longer being published, hence the extended gap between LITP columns. I have to start by thanking people who e-mailed saying they’ll miss the LTJ. So will I – it’s sad to dismantle a really good team. But life – and legal IT – must go on. I’m a freelance writer and I continue to cover the legal and technology sectors – more news to come so watch this space as I’ll be looking for comment and input!

It could be said that Legal Technology Journal and the Legal Technology Awards went out with a bang. More than 450 people attended the awards and as someone who does a lot of work by e-mail and on the phone it was great to meet the legal IT crowd – not least the founder of this site.

As this is my first LITP column for 2009, I thought I’d highlight some of the latest trends: new challenges and new technology.

Firms are still focused sharply on Green IT, especially if it saves money while it saves the planet. As everyone also knows, London’s Legal IT Show was quiet compared with previous years. Was it the recession, a reluctance to travel – or was it the snow in London – an unusual occurrence which ground our public transport system to a halt? The keynote speech by James Woudhuysen focused on Green issues and their impact on IT. His book – on economics, energy and IT – is erudite and well written, which isn’t surprising given that James is a lecturer at de Montfort University, but it occurs to me that for an environmentalist, he is using an awful lot of paper. It says nowhere in the book whether it was printed on recycled paper…please correct me if I am wrong…

It’s 2009. Are you still litigating like it’s 1999?

I’m sure you’ve noticed how much the Internet has changed the way we live over the last ten years.  You watch your favorite television programs on-line instead of on your television.  You e-mail or instant message family and friends instead of picking up the phone.  You love the power and convenience of the Internet, and you can’t imagine how you ever got along without it.  That is, until you step into your office and start practicing law.

For many litigators, your practice hasn’t changed much since 1999, or for that matter, 1989.  Of course, technology has brought some big advances – on-line legal research and e-filing of court papers to name two – but in one major area for most litigators – defending and taking depositions – anachronistic practice remains the norm.

Two companies, New Media Legal Publishing (www.newmedialegal.com) and Thomson Reuters (www.thomsonreuters.com) are changing that with cutting edge products designed to propel deposition practice into the 21st century.

Skills to pay the bills

Chris DaviesLaw firms around the world are working hard to increase operational efficiency during the recession. So why are training budgets often the first thing to be cut? Obviously this kind of expenditure is easy to trim, but is it wise? Let me explore a few issues.

Human Capital

A firm recently extended its lending facilities with their bank by securing a loan against firm assets. It highlighted an important question - what are the assets of a typical law firm? In this case it was property, fixtures and fittings, goodwill, WIP and IP. Many industry analysts feel this was a largely symbolic move as WIP and goodwill are quickly devalued. The real assets walk into work in the morning and go home at night. Law firms are all about people. When considering this fact redundancies are a double-edged sword for a law firm. Costs can be significantly reduced, but a loss in human capital also means a loss in experience, knowledge and the significant investment made in that individual. Firms who are shedding staff may well be concerned about their ability to respond to an upturn in the economy. Recruitment and development are neither cheap nor quick.

Work Smart

If you've had the misfortune to read my previous articles, you will be familiar with my firm belief in the ability to release the potential in staff through training. Many firms will now have to do more with less people. How can this be achieved? We can all work harder, but we can also work smarter!

Law firms are heavily reliant on secretarial support. Fee earners need secretarial support right? A no-brainer surely? Yes, but at what ratio? Over the years I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard the following words come out of a fee earners' mouth – "I'm an expensive typist". While I agree with this statement to an extent, particularly regarding bulk typing jobs, I have always believed this to be a convenient excuse. A fee earner could easily type a simple filenote in the same time it takes to dictate it. There are still plenty of fee earners that dictate emails. Obviously you need adequate typing skills and the will to do the typing. Guess which one is more difficult to develop? I'm such a cynical soul! You can extend this example to many simple tasks (obviously simple if you know how) such as sending out calendar appointments and making simple amends to documents. It often takes more time to ask a secretary to do it, than just to do it.

Any Idiot Can Implement SharePoint - but should they?

Portal Technologies: Fact and Fiction, Part 2

One of the great things about SharePoint (note that in this column, when I say SharePoint, I am somewhat generically referring to WSS and MOSS) is its ease of use, ease of implementation, ease of administration, etc. In many ways, a parallel can be drawn between SharePoint and the early days of Visual Basic. Visual Basic made it easy for anyone to create a Windows application. An unfortunate side effect was that a lot of people did in fact create Windows applications which were ill-planned, ill-conceived, and badly implemented. Did this mean the VB itself was bad? No, it just needed to be used intelligently (I know, many will argue that it was and is a bad language, but that is a different discussion).

SharePoint is much the same. It is easy to set up ad hoc sites, throw together team sites, do some collaboration, store some documents, etc. However, it is also easy to get into a lot of trouble when these ad hoc sites grow and multiply. As with many things, it is easy to do the easy stuff, but much more difficult to do the hard stuff well.  It is even more difficult to implement SharePoint in such a way that it brings real, lasting value.

Add to this the breadth of functionality in SharePoint, and it becomes obvious that in order to get the most out of an investment in SharePoint requires a significant amount of research and understanding of SharePoint’s capabilities, and what they mean for your needs.

Portal Technologies: Fact and Fiction

Well, I am finally getting my first column written. It has taken longer than expected – the joys of cold and flu season here in Canada.

First, a bit of background on why I am here – writing on a Legal Technology site. Working as a Principal Consultant with T4G Limited and having spent much of the last decade as VP of Technology with Whitehill Technologies, I have helped hundreds of clients overcome challenges related to document generation, document automation, and workflow.  Along with leading the teams that developed and maintained Whitehill Enterprise and Paperless Proforma, I was also the driving force behind the creation of Whitehill’s workflow solutions for legal.

My primary focus currently is on portal technologies and the deployment of portal solutions in the enterprise. Of course, one of the big challenges I find is that the whole idea of “portal technologies” is very broad, and often ill-defined. What I mean is that a lot of organizations decide (or are told) that they need a portal solution, without having a clear idea of what that means, or exactly what business problems they intend to solve.

New Year Revolutions

Last year was a very good year for me and my team. At the beginning of 2008 the team was still very much reactive in terms of the services (or lack of) we offered. By the end of the year we had launched our curriculum – now offering a dozen new courses. Our evaluation results have exceeded our wildest expectations and the feedback from the business (right up to Partner level) has been fantastic. I can pretty confidently say that we upped our game in 2008 and we now deliver more value than ever. So why do I still feel a little uneasy? The economic downturn in the second half of 2008 signalled the end of more than a decade of law firm growth – and of course law firm IT department growth. Many firms have made redundancies. No matter how secure you think you are, no one is bullet proof in the current climate. Can you honestly say that you haven't looked around the department and considered who would go before you? It's a horrible thought, but human nature when you have bills to pay (at this point I'm pondering the possibility that it's just me who's had this thought and I'm going to burn in hell). Everyone is now thinking about strategies for increasing visibility and delivering more value.

I'm aware of six firms that have made redundancies to their IT staff. The common trend, with the odd exception, has been cuts to the techie teams, rather than front line services. I always thought IT Trainers may be at risk if a recession ever hit. I pessimistically believed some firms would view us as a luxury, but this does not seem to be the case from what I've heard so far. There may be a dozen different reasons why redundancies are made and who becomes the unlucky few. All you can do is work as hard as possible to minimise the possibility of it happening to you or your team. If the recession had hit a year ago I think my newly created team may have been in trouble, as we were invisible. I think we're now in a much stronger position. We've added much more visibility, value and hustle.

Three ways to add value in a downturn

IT can improve efficiency, foster innovation and support your firm’s green credentials. 

December’s news focused on the credit crunch and an obsession with shoppers’ footprints in London’s West End as early sales finally tempted Christmas shoppers. While some features pages focused on thrift, others asked whether we could really spend our way out of a recession. This doesn’t seem a sensible approach. I doubt that many individuals or families will be throwing caution to the wind in an attempt to save the UK economy and the Prime Minister’s reputation. And it definitely won’t be the case when it comes to law firms’ expenditure. Since my last column – and I know that it has been a while – I have spoken with a number of law firms in the UK and Europe, and certainly all the sensible ones acknowledge that the economic situation is transforming the nature of their work, which has focused on reorganisation, restructuring and insolvency as well as distressed transactions. Law firms are necessarily involved in the rescue deals that are hitting the headlines, so they are only too well aware of the impact on business.

Although some of the biggest firms report excellent half-yearly figures, the big picture in the legal sector is blurred by the fact that many are undertaking work that is driven by the financial crisis and the economic downturn –  insolvency and litigation departments are particularly busy. Notwithstanding this, the slowdown in transactional and real estate work has led to many firms announcing redundancies. The imminent danger is the possibility of a gap between the end of the ‘clean up’ and the market picking up again. Firms that do not consider their medium to long-term strategy risk falling into that gap. Law firms, like other businesses, are looking harder than ever at their own spending.

Value to the business

Where does that leave the IT department? Technology is critical to all modern businesses so ‘value add’ needs to focus on providing reliable and responsive systems and support as any downtime is expensive, wasteful and frustrating. Speed and user-friendliness are top priorities in order to make the best use of lawyers’ expensive time. In a cost-conscious business environment, it is more important than ever for IT directors to work closely with the business and demonstrate the return on investing in systems and applications that fit and support the business in terms of hard savings achieved through efficiency improvements and reduced manpower. As you are no doubt aware, there have been a number of high-profile redundancy announcements in law firm support departments too. Although it makes sense to outsource some services, this critical strategic element represents the core value of IT directors and their in-house teams.


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