A look at the next big IT projects facing Scotish legal practices, including those that add to a firm's green credentials as well as helping it work efficiently

The problems and challenges facing the IT directors of Scotland’s major legal practices seem to get more complex and demanding with each passing year. While they solve some problems, advances in IT tend to sharpen existing dilemmas and push firms in the direction of change, almost whether they will or no.

Running a large legal practice is much like running any other competitive business, and IT definitely conveys competitive advantage. However, those heading up the IT departments in Scotland’s law firms tend to know and talk with each other, so there are few secrets. The key project for many practices right now – and it is a phase that several of the larger firms have either completed or virtually completed – is to reduce the large number of applications servers by replacing them with virtual server technology.

Virtualisation – a “must do”

A “virtual” server is a large server running software that carves up the big machine into a number of separate “virtual” servers, each of which can run entirely independently of any of the others.

This might sound deadly dull stuff to a non-IT person, but it is a fundamental issue to all organisations, not just legal practices. Since the early 1990s it has became standard practice for every application to have its own server. Inevitably the number of servers in larger organisations spiralled onwards and upwards, creating both a very significant management problem and, at the same time, a gnawing sense of waste – waste because it is commonplace to find that all the servers in a large organisation are running, on average, at less than 20% capacity, often considerably less!

Apart from the fact that waste is expensive, there are the power implications as well.

With global warming grabbing the attention more than ever, every organisation has to be mindful of its carbon footprint, and running one large server instead of 10 not so large servers saves money, power and management time, as well as allowing the IT department to contribute to the “greening” of the firm.

Crawford Hawley-Groat, IT director at Maclay Murray & Spens, reckons that completing the move to virtualisation, something he calls his department’s “must do” project, will both increase the firm’s “agility”, the speed with which it can respond to changes in the business, and increase its business continuity planning and disaster recovery options.

Mining knowledge

Another “must do” project, one that is already in hand but likely to take a good deal of time to complete, is to enable enterprise-wide searching of every scrap of data, from emails to documents and the firm’s time recording system. Mining the knowledge within a practice is one of the biggest long term challenges for any law firm, he says.

“In a small firm with a handful of partners, everyone knows who has done what and where the expertise lies on any issue. With a big firm, replicating that completeness of shared knowledge is extremely difficult. So much is invisible unless you can somehow get it out of fee earners’ heads and into a knowledge base that is available to all.

“There are so many different areas we could be moving in, from a new projects perspective. It is all about understanding what technology it is appropriate for us to be working with right now, then concentrating on those projects and doing them properly,”he adds.

Failing over gracefully

Richard Harvey, IT director at Harper Macleod, says that his firm too regards virtualising all its business-critical systems as the biggest technology change the practice is going through. “When we started looking at virtualisation, we ran a discovery process on the workloads on all our servers and we found that they were running way lower than 20%.” 

The practice uses VMWare, a middleware application which creates the virtual servers. It has the added benefit of allowing what IT experts call “a graceful failover”. If one of the virtual servers goes down, its workload moves seamlessly to another virtual server. Workloads too, can be moved around, so if one server is being thrashed by running a month-end report, the work can be moved to an idle server with no impact on the users.

Remote but secure

Many larger commercial organisations regard wireless technology as the big new frontier for their IT departments. However, Harvey points out that for many law firms, lawyers are a deskbound lot, with not that much call to travel outside the confines of the practice. This makes mobile working less urgent for many firms.

He observes that the most frequent users of the firm’s internal wireless network are clients who want to stop off while at the firm’s offices to check or answer their emails. However, that too could be about to change. With more woman than men joining the profession, the demand for homeworking is likely to grow  and grow.

“We can manage that at the moment via a secure virtual private network (VPN). If it reached the point where partners wanted to work from home regularly, we have facilities in place to deal with this,” he says.

With more and more information now online, access to the interent is now a critical business system. “It plays in all sorts of ways, via email, online documentation from the likes of Butterworths and Lexis Nexis, and even the Land Register is now online,” he comments. The Law Society of Scotland failed a few years ago in its bid to bring in digital signatures, but he believes that this idea has to make a return shortly. “Transactions need to speed up and currently the legal world is one of the few places where a physical signature on a document is still required.”

Productivity challenges

Every firm would like to move to the paperless office, where all documents entering the practice, be it post or email, are scanned and held as searchable electronic documents. Harvey says he is looking at this now. “We are not out of paper yet, but it is something we are actively looking at. But you have to be sure that you have the systems in place to scan everything and to distribute it to the right people,” he comments.

With today’s appropriate multi-function combination scanner, printer and copier devices, the technology exists now to capture every item. But Harvey points out that this kind of exercise needs careful management. “Any change on this scale within an organisation is critical. It would have to be managed carefully and not forced on people,” he says.

For Raymond O’Hare, Microsoft Scotland regional manager, insofar as they are thinking about how to do away with paper files, the law firms are starting to broach what he sees as the biggest environmental change on the way, namely the onwards and upwards march of mobile technology that combines voice and data.

“In terms of increased productivity for the legal profession this is going to be huge,” he says. O’Hare adds that while exact figures are hard to prove, studies carried out in the US suggest that the average fee earner in a legal practice could save up to four hours a week.

There are still real challenges for software and technology providers, he acknowledges. They have to come up with still more intuitive, easy to use systems. One area that interests him is gesture recognition allied to voice recognition. “This kind of thing takes up huge amounts of processing power, but we have that kind of power coming through with new multi-core processor technology.”

Information capture

Part of the future for legal practices is about automatically capturing fee and billing information from fee earners’ everyday activities, including telephone conversations and emails. That project too, is under consideration in a number of practices, but it is not yet at the forefront of the queue.

Richard Elson, chief information officer at Dundas & Wilson, says that there are probably many areas in most practices where the firm involved is not in a position to leverage the best of current technology. Knowledge management, he suggests, is an obvious example. “We have a knowledge management portal, but clearly, the degree to which it is exploited within the practice depends heavily on the quality and quantity of resource we are able to apply to it. It is a good starting point, but to try to use it to the fullest extent would depend on how information is captured, marked up and presented.”

He points out that it is a long and difficult process getting good clean data in that kind of system. “Technology will enable the exploitation of knowledge more efficiently, but we are still talking about knowledge in people’s heads, and that is always difficult to get into a system,” he says.

Managing relationships

However, the practice is putting a great deal of work into CRM (customer relationship management) and this project is being led from the managing partner down. “This is a big current project for us,” he comments.

Jason Nash, product marketing manager for Microsoft Dynamics CRM, says that the company is having a number of conversations with law firms, largely because these firms are already familiar with Microsoft Office, Outlook and Diary, and want to extend this into better relationship management. “They want a system that staff will not have to relearn. Firms like Dundas & Wilson are looking to deliver a different level of customer engagement. There are products on the market that are very legal centric, but they lack the ease and familiarity of the Microsoft family,” he comments.

Again, the idea is to capture all telephone calls, emails, meetings and time spend on a client matter inside the CRM system. Much of this can be automated if the practice chooses, and it can flow through into the time recording system. “Today, legal firms are very much about compliance management and tracking time and materials, but the standard for interactive systems is being set by internet based web systems like Amazon and Facebook. These are the benchmarks that all organisations will need to aspire to, including legal practices,” Nash says.

The Author
Anthony Harrington is a freelance business journalists
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