When I was at school, my dad was a solicitor in sole private practice. I used to visit his office, and was friendly with the two lady secretaries who battered out his reel-to-reel dictation on manual typewriters. If you wanted something photocopied (I am sure he still used the word “Roneo’d”) you had to pop round the corner to Nash’s and get them to do it. When I opened my first office in East Kilbride in 1987, I was the first firm in our building to have a fax machine. Charged other offices £1 a page sent out, 50p a page received. Within three weeks they all had one.
Now I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have email, smartphone, computerised case management or at least accounts. The law is a technology driven industry. Latest thing is the Cloud, and I even heard at a conference that Microsoft Word is now looking quaint as a medium for processing documents. Change is ever-present and exponential in IT for all trades and professions, and we are hooked as anyone.
In my experience, firms grow their IT. Few businesses will stop, take stock and say “Right, let’s change everything. Tomorrow is day zero and a whole new regime is coming in. Bin everything today.” More likely you will have grafted new technology on to your existing way of doing things, and each firm will have developed its own fingerprint, though with considerable overlap in ways of working. Our IT providers tell stories (not tales) of how clients of theirs – law firms and others – use the same equipment we have but in a totally different way. It’s partly about priorities, and partly about understanding. Firms sometimes buy systems and then don’t , or don’t try, to engage as fully and profitably as they might with the kit.
Solicitors are not necessarily meant to be tech junkies, though many are, and the point of this blog today is to suggest three things. (1) Don’t assume your IT supplier is trying to sell you stuff you don’t need or can’t afford. (2) Find out from other firms and friends how they use their IT systems and tools. And (3) always ask yourself questions about how you operate and deliver legal services for clients (with the implied question – could we do it better/cheaper/more profitably?).
There is (4), I suppose – investigate your own current IT setup to see how much more it can do. We’ve done this in our office, and know via both our IT people and other solicitors themselves, that the average case management system is only being used partially, and has the capacity to do lots more than you either know or use.
Solicitors traditionally don’t trust anyone else, least of all technology suppliers. It's axiomatic that the IT pros will describe and show a potential customer what can be done to save time, effort and risk by organising work through a network of PCs and servers, and may get a provisional approval from the solicitor who has watched the testing or demo, but as soon as it comes to a partners’ meeting, he or she cannot then sell the concept widely enough, or at all, to the others, who simply see a cost, not an investment. The old saying “What’s wrong with the way we do things just now/have done things for years?” is as obstructive as it is intellectually bankrupt.
By all means screw the IT guy down to a lowest price, certainly check with competing suppliers as to what they can do and at what cost, work out exactly what you need as a firm and don’t get sold a Mercedes for the job of a Meriva, but DO all that – don’t be passive or inactive.
Small examples: when we open a new client and input the data of name, address, email etc, the system will then on the press of a button immediately open up the relevant style of terms of engagement fully addressed to the client with a note of the case or transaction being commenced, so we don’t have to draft ad longam or forget to get round to it and get into trouble re conduct and service. If I as manager want to check how many new clients and/or cases we got last month from what sources, a three-click search will tell me all of that. If any of our solicitors want to check all their ledger balances, at their desk they click into their jobs on the accounts part of the same case management system and deal with them one by one without having to open files and bother other people. I can run a profit and loss statement to see where exactly we stand on any given day.
And lots, lots more. The downside is that if power goes off or the internet link has a fault, we can't do any real work. But if that’s the price, it's worth paying, as we save tens of thousands of pounds a year by having the right IT for our particular operation.
The message really is one similar to the medical advice. Regular self-examination reassures where reassurance is appropriate, but also is a call to action if there is something untoward. The right kit and the right methodology can make you money and save you money.