Feature highlighting a number of services by which firms may be able to enhance the efficiency even of well established systems

The increasing requirement for professional IT services

There are benefits to be had from updating and integrating different software applications that your firm is still using, even if individually they appear to work well enough…

Now, more than ever before, firms are beginning to reap the rewards of receiving expert advice on IT infrastructures, believes Tycom. IT security is a constant concern with more and more system downtime being caused by non-standard setups, and poor anti-virus, anti-spam and spyware tools. Many firms today still have a mismatch of PCs, servers and internet access with no real regard to the importance of the data they are holding.

Hours of downtime can be saved by taking some simple precautions, beginning with a solid internet policy. As part of its services Tycom can assist with an internet policy, and if the potential dangers of internet use and email are highlighted to staff the number of system failures will decrease by up to 60%. Microsoft has announced a new version of Windows XP, Windows Vista, due to be released next year; will it help some of these security issues or offer a whole lot more?

Remote connectivity, branch communications and home working have all added to the importance of security. However this need not be an expensive business. With ADSL widely available, complete access to your own desktop can be achieved for very little cost. Email access is increasingly important and can be achieved in a number of ways via laptop, palmtop, or mobile phone.

Mike Smith, Tycom’s sales manager, said: “Getting the right advice at the outset from someone who knows about IT and how legal firms operate will solve a lot of issues. It is important lawyers understand IT and how it should work if set up correctly to avoid being undersold. Tycom has clients throughout Scotland from Wick to Kirkcudbright and these systems work effectively due to the careful project planning and discussion that went into the process at the outset.”

In addition to professional IT services, Tycom’s partner Pace Professional Systems (PPS) is a provider of practice management, or as it used to be less fashionably called, legal accounting software to law firms in Scotland. The two companies have worked closely from the outset to provide a one-stop solution for law firms buying PPS software, and a formal partnership is expected to be announced within the coming months. As a result, Tycom will become more closely involved in the development and support of PPS software in order to provide a seamless interface for joint customers of the two firms.

The rapidly changing nature of computer hardware and operating software means that giving your firm a functional, current IT environment is a journey rather than a destination. Just as it is necessary to keep your network up to scratch as already described, if you continue to run old application software then you are not going to get the full benefit of your investment in infrastructure. Microsoft Office is richer and more powerful with each release. A lot of the improvements are in the area of seamless integration with other Office applications such as Outlook, SQL Server database, and Explorer.

The primary function of Word is to address the most important administrative function in a law office – the production of documents. Since Word has always been very good at this, many law firms continue to use whatever the first version of Word they bought happened to be, and would probably continue to use WordPerfect if that was in any way a feasible option. The same situation usually exists with the firm’s practice management or accounting software. Sticking with a very old application that the cashroom is familiar with and that does not generate any revenue in any case, avoids disruption and expense but is it the right thing to do? With a PC on every desk, server based applications and remote access to and from anywhere via the Internet, those dreadful computer things can genuinely make life easier and save money just like computer sales people have been promising for years, as the company puts it!

At the centre of everything that a law firm does are clients and those firms that have attempted to make full use of whatever the current state of computer technology happened to be, have finished up with a range of different applications that are either not connected or only very loosely. As a result, the well intentioned IT partner will find him or herself in the worst case, with accounting, time recording, billing, wills and titles index, case management, document management and word processing systems all of different vintages and overlapping in the data that they store and the equipment necessary to run them. Well designed law office software will integrate all of these functions based on a single central database and give everyone access to all the information relating to clients in a clearly structured fashion. In addition, the latest versions of Office are designed to link seamlessly with Microsoft SQL Server database applications to simplify and automate secretarial and fee earner functions in a way that is simply not possible with older software. So the answer to the question “Is it worth updating applications that are creaky but still working?” is a resounding yes.

The new importance of time recording

Time recording software is a ready means of increasing productivity while reducing client complaints

With the recent withdrawal of the Law Society of Scotland’s Table of Fees, firms have been showing an increased interest in systems that can cope with the new found flexibility in organising charge rates, says LawWare.

While traditional paper time-recording slips will always retain their enthusiasts, the on-screen input of entries by fee-earners provided by modern practice management systems provides many important benefits including:

  • real time data that enable firms and fee-earners alike to monitor their daily performance, ensuring more recovered chargeable time and healthier profits;
  • the ability, with clients requiring increased justification of costs, to produce detailed real-time file entries to defuse disputes over service or costs, thereby retaining clients and helping avoid complaints;
  • a simple to use time recording system, providing instant access to your current work in progress figures that are needed to satisfy new Inland Revenue and accountants’ requirements on including WIP within turnover figures.

A sophisticated modern practice and case management system should provide all the above features yet be easy to use, with time recording being fully integrated rather than an add-on component.

LawWare’s Warren Wander tells of one user who recently commented: “Now that all our fee-earners record their time in real-time, even with badly typed business entries (!), in conjunction with carefully worded terms of business letters that the software automatically generates, you have provided us with the systems to both deal with spurious client claims/complaints by having detailed records available, while also dramatically increasing fee-earners’ chargeable hours by eliminating unrecorded work”.

For more details visit www.lawware.co.uk or contact Warren Wander on 0870 2000 577.

Run your own property website

Basic skills are enough to maintain an attractive and user-friendly site

Does your property sales business have its own easily managed and specialised website? According to Axiom, software products are now available that make a website so easily managed and updated, that anybody with basic word processing skills can set up and create a site that competes with that of any estate agent. The software makes it easy to add new properties with photographs and schedules for downloading, and the website is searchable so prospective purchasers can easily navigate to their desired property via location, number of bedrooms etc.

Drummond Miller, which operates one of the biggest property sales operations in Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife, saw the launch in 2004 of its property department in the west of Scotland.  For over three years the firm has been using Axiom Web Manager software to manage its online property marketing. 

Hazel Elms from Drummond Miller’s property department comments: “Axiom Web Manager’s simple and user friendly structure means the property can initially be very quickly advertised on the website (basically as soon as we have been instructed in marketing) and other items added such as photographs and the schedule when they are available.  The reporting facilities available are also very useful in that we can advise the client how many ‘hits’ their property has had, i.e. how many times the schedule has been displayed or requested via the website.”

Home computing tax break still being ignored

The government-backed Home Computing Initiative benefits employers and employees alike, but has seen little takeup outwith larger companies

Employers who run the Home Computing Initiative (HCI) can help their employees get up to 50 per cent off the high street cost of computers, and achieve real savings for themselves into the bargain – but only bigger companies have so far taken advantage, claim Central Belt chartered accountants Springfords.

HCI has been around for some years as a government initiative to encourage the wider use of computers and promote IT literacy. The initiative is recognised by the Inland Revenue and works like this: the employer provides employees with a computer to use at home; employees pay for the equipment as a reduction of gross salary and can spread payments over a number of years. The equipment is supplied by the employer on loan to the employee, although to all intents and purposes, the employee owns it. The icing on the cake is that employers get cost savings through reductions in employers’ national insurance contributions. There are no catches, and employees and employers alike benefit from tax savings.  

The initiative is being offered by Springfords to smaller and medium-sized employers.  Partner Alan Jones explains:

“It really is something for nothing and, to date, only very large employers in the UK have benefited from it. It has not been on the radar of SMEs because up to now there have been no providers offering them a complete HCI package to minimise their administration. Everyone gains from the HCI, which is intended to promote flexible working practices and the ongoing development of IT skills in the workplace. It’s great for employees, bringing with it a full three year warranty, coupled with professional home installation. We’ve found that the scheme is a big boost to staff morale too. I expect the takeup by employees in legal firms to be high and that will be good for the firms themselves.”

Besides the national insurance saving, employers gain as their employees develop a wider range of skills, which play a central role in increasing productivity. HCI should produce higher staff retention rates, by creating the opportunity for more flexible working patterns. There’s a benefit to recruitment too: increasingly, discerning candidates are looking for benefit schemes that widen skills and make for greater personal fulfilment.

Apart from the possibility of flexible working, the HCI also offers employees the chance to improve their computer skills for learning and leisure, linking into the government’s agenda of lifelong learning. IT skills are in themselves now recognised by the government as a third skill for life, to be ranked alongside literacy and numeracy. IT skills allow employees to take full advantage of online learning and other computer-based training.

The benefits extend to employees’ families. As well as the educational opportunities, lifestyle choices are improved through access to sources of information, goods and services through online shopping, and home entertainment.

In hard financial terms, the initiative means that employees who are basic rate taxpayers can get a computer costing £1,000 on the high street for as little as £570 under the HCI; for higher rate taxpayers, the cost comes down to £502. These reductions are the result of income tax and national insurance savings, and VAT can also be recovered. Savings made are NOT taxed as a benefit in kind, provided the individual HCI scheme has been properly set up. 

Any employer can set up an HCI scheme, but it is important that it is done correctly to maximise the tax saving benefits for everyone. Working with sister technology company Dundas IT, Springfords’ scheme is run in association with the Independent Association of Accountants Information Technology Consultants (IAAITC). As a member of IAAITC, Springfords has direct access to the IAAITC’s bulk buying scheme – working with suppliers and finance companies to get the best deal, so employees get even more benefit from the scheme. As well as computers, peripherals like printers can also be acquired. Equipment selection can be done through a Springfords web portal.

Springfords takes care of HM Revenue and Customs issues, as well as dealing with Office of Fair Trading approval and the paperwork needed to set things up. More information is available from Alan Jones (0131 440 5000), who can answer any questions about the HCI and the Springfords’ scheme. He sums up where things are now:

“The message about HCI is just getting out to SMEs. The advantages are so obvious that it won’t be long before employees are asking employers “Why don’t we have the scheme here?”

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