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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.

CRM - training for failure?

CRM is a hot topic in many firms at the moment, particularly in the current economic climate. This is not a new phenomenon. CRM has been around for a while now, but the question many people are asking is why it so often fails to take off. Ok, I accept that comment could be perceived as being a little harsh. Howard Hughes famously created the world biggest aircraft called the Spruce Goose. It cost a fortune, many thought it would never work, it sped along for an age before taking off only a few feet before gliding gently back to earth. CRM systems can be a bit like this. It's a massive undertaking and a real change for many people. The momentum takes a long time to build and take-off is extremely hard to achieve. See, no cynicism here!

Maybe I am a little cynical. I've been involved with three CRM system launches in three different firms. I have also shared experiences with friends/ex-colleagues (who work for other firms) that paint a similar picture. CRM seems to be hard work, even though it should be a no-brainer. But why? Let's discuss a few issues.

Is IT training the poor relation of IT?

An attention grabbing headline if ever there was one! I don't want to come across all 'woe is me', but rather explore perceptions and the role of IT Training within a law firm, particularly during software rollouts.

Well are we?

Ok, the inspiration for the headline originates from a conversation I had with colleagues many years ago. It was a conversation borne of frustration at current events in the firm where we worked. We were rolling out a new DMS to the firm. Obviously this is a major event for IT. It just had to be right. It's a week before the training begins and the IT Training team still haven't seen a finished product and we have no training environment. Scary stuff, but not uncommon. You just have to adapt.

The Dutch playfield

For my first blog I want to start to give you a short overview of the IT solutions in use by Dutch law firms. Currently, there are approximately 14,951 lawyers and 3.258 law firms in the Netherlands. 48.5 % are "me, myself, and I firms"; 36.5% have 2-5 lawyers; 8.7% have 6-10 lawyers; 5.6% have 11-60 lawyers, and just 0.8% have more than 60 lawyers (24 firms).

If you want be part of the Dutch law firm Top 50 you need at least 30 fee earners. Most of the law firms on this list are Dutch, some are from the UK (Clifford Chance, Freshfields, A&O. etc) and a couple are US firms (Baker McKenzie, Greenberg etc).

Is SharePoint the One?

I’ve heard this question a lot of times lately and for some reason I always wondered: “will it ever be?” If you are looking further down the road you’ll hear a lot different opinions about SharePoint and if it will be necessary or useful in a law firm.

Many firms are busy to renew their intranet to professionalize the look & feel and to implement new features. Often, such intranet redesign projects face quite some scope-creep resulting eventually in the launch of new and related projects. This is always the biggest challenge of a project manager: scoping the project to a manageable piece.


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