A problem shared

Taking part in a user group not only helps you to get the most out of your practice system but also allows you to share your expertise with others, says Boyd Holmes. Boyd Holmes is managing partner of Cartmell Shepherd in Carlisle and chair of the AIM Computer Users Association (ACUA). Making effective use of computer technology is important to the survival of law firms. Taking an interest in computer technology, rather than having computers in the office just for others to use, is now the key to professional progress. Computer user groups can offer a channel which helps lawyers learn how to get the best out of their firm's investment.

Newly-qualified lawyers are normally well aware of the part that technology will play in their careers. Keyboard literacy is taken for granted. A previous generation of lawyers, now rising towards the peak of their professional careers, will have a mixed attitude to IT. But what is certain is that familiarity with the day-to-day and strategic use of IT in legal practice is becoming an essential requirement for lawyers wishing to earn an appropriate return in tomorrow's profession.

In the largest firms there will be an IT department to lean on, not only for the important decisions about which systems to buy but also for the day-to-day problems of which button to press to get the system to do the things you want. In a medium-sized or smaller firm, lawyers are more or less on their own. Being “something of an expert” with computers is not enough.

Off-the-shelf word processing, database or groupworking packages are not sufficiently specialised for legal practice. They still need a high degree of customisation specific to the legal profession, a further layer which is specific to your firm, and another layer specific to your particular specialism. For many legal tasks, including central accounting and practice management functions, there is no real alternative to a software package designed specifically for the legal profession.

The great mistake that many lawyers make when approaching IT in this specialised area is to assume that a good supplier will be omniscient and will have all the answers at all times. In fact, the legal office market is very small when compared with the mass market for basic computer packages. It cannot be expected to support lots of specialist suppliers who have the resources to answer all the technical questions and an in-depth knowledge of the needs of law firms.

At this point there needs to be a fusion of the knowledge and experience of the lawyer and the law firm with the technical skills of the supplier. Ideally, this is supplied through a user group dedicated to a specific system or family of systems. Users and suppliers who participate should benefit immediately as well as in the longer term.

Users share a common interest in a piece of technology which they and their supplier are familiar with. To make their investment effective, firms need to implement their systems properly.

Fortunately, most law firms have a relatively similar structure and their information and processing needs are also similar. They can usually make easy use of solutions developed by, or for, other law firms. Users of a specialist legal package can therefore learn a lot from each other about its effective implementation. After a while, users collectively will have spent much more time using a system than the supplier will have spent testing and demonstrating it.

Few computer training agencies run courses on the use of practice management systems and you can rarely get help from consultants on how to apply a system to some of the more unusual situations that occur in a practice. Only existing users or the supplier can help you – legal practice is too specialised a subject for the open market to tackle.

Legal practice is changing faster than ever and suppliers need to keep in close touch with those changes so that the next generation of their software packages keeps up with developing needs. Software is a flexible product, allowing relatively simple changes over a short space of time. The development process, which is predominantly technical, needs constant piloting by those who will use the product.

Law firms find it worthwhile to devote time to computer user groups because they offer a unique and valuable learning experience for users and the suppliers. It is often beneficial to invest a little time in regularly learning from other users how to get the most out of the existing system and in communicating with the supplier in a structured and sensible way about where the software needs to go in the future.