A set with vision needs a professional IT eye

About a year ago Hardwicke Building recognised the need to have its own in-house IT manager.

The set wanted to improve internal communications to encourage mutual support and the cross-fertilisation of ideas – two of the main reasons for having a large multidisciplinary set. And, with more than 70 tenants and 20 support staff, it needed a good operating systems to control workflow and billing.

The set was also keen to provide everybody in chambers with easy access to the Internet, take advantage of videoconferencing so as to cut down the amount of travelling the tenants had to do, and reduce the amount of paper the chambers processes. It also wanted to market its services on the Internet.

The existing IT facilities at Hardwicke Building needed updating, but the budget was a major factor so the set decided that the cost of an IT manager could be shared with another chambers. It recruited IT specialist, Dr Basileios Drolias, who was to spend three days each week at Hardwicke Building and two days at 9 Bedford Row, the chambers of James Goldring QC. Over the past 12 months, not everything has gone smoothly, but lessons have been learned. Both sets concluded that each needed a full-time IT manager.

At Hardwicke Building, new technology allows chambers to access quickly the data and financial information it needs to make business forecasts. More powerful computers have been installed in the clerk's room and the Meridian practice management system has been updated so that it runs Windows. The chambers is also part-way through getting all of the tenants linked to the network so that they have instant, real-time access from their office and from home to all the information they need.

Intranet and e-mail facilities have been made available to all clerks and tenants. Information is beginning to pass around chambers more freely, simply because it is quicker and easier to communicate. And clients are now asking for papers to be e-mailed rather than posted or faxed.

The chambers' library is equipped with CD-Rom equipment, and more and more essential reading can now be accessed using CD-Roms. The set aims to make it possible for barristers to access electronic books and reports on their computers in their office and at home.

The set's videoconferencing facility has also just gone live. Tenants are able to cut down on travelling for some meetings, but more of its clients need to install the equipment before it can take full advantage of the system.

Hardwicke Building is soon to launch its own Web site. It has been a mammoth task, not because of any particular technical problem, but because of the sheer time it took to get the 80-odd photographs and curricula vitae in place.

Despite the fact that Hardwicke Building had its own IT manager, it found that it took longer than anticipated to get things done. The causes are rarely technological. Important decisions have to be taken at every step, involving consultations at various levels. Negotiations with suppliers and proper licensing can also take time. And even with careful planning, there will be teething problems while any new system beds in.

When planning a major IT project, it is vital to be realistic about how long it will take and to constantly monitor the work in progress.

If an IT manager is hired, they should be set clear objectives which must be communicated to all tenants. There is a danger that an IT manager can be seen as a general “fixit” person who has unrealistic demands placed upon them. Tenants should not start demanding that the chambers IT manager mend their own personal equipment.

The role of a chambers IT manager is to agree an IT strategy and install and maintain the necessary equipment within an agreed budget. Hardwicke Building has learned that aims are clearer and progress is quicker if an IT manager is an integral part of the administration/management team, working closely with the chief executive.

Both Hardwicke Building and 9 Bedford Row have gone through something of a big bang over the last year. The systems the two sets have installed are as state of the art as they need to be. The next phase of the IT business plan is to concentrate on training staff and tenants to get the most out of these systems.