End of the millennium blues

If you have just received instructions on a matter likely to continue into the new millennium, you may find your system will not register dates and hence operate correctly after the end of 1999. This is because the year 2000 IT problem is rooted in the dating methods used by computer systems.

Until recently, computers were constrained in respect of the space they had available to store programs and data. This meant that programmers went to great lengths to be succinct and cram everything into whatever space was available.

Savings could be made by omitting the '19' when referring to the year date. As a result, problems arise where a date comparison or calculation of duration spans two centuries and the '19' or '20' prefix is not included in the calculation.

With practice management systems, the problem will affect most management reports, year end reports, case management systems, diaries and VAT reports. So your business may be unable to produce the documentation that you rely upon every day. The problem may also affect any other system controlled by a computer.

How the problem affects data can be illustrated using the example of chasing an outstanding debt in June 1996, which arose in November 1995. The computer may have carried out a simple computation, as shown in figure 1 (above), converting the years to months in order to carry out the comparison.

While calculations omitting the '19' have worked for many years, this approach breaks down when we reach the year 2000. Imagine the same debt incurred in November 1999, which is unpaid in June 2000, as shown in figure 2. Here, the computer will not highlight the debt as it will never become overdue. This would not be a problem if the '19' or '20' was included in the date, as shown in figure 3.

The end of the century is now less than three years away and action is required to ensure that programs are updated and data is converted in good time.

The table below shows a sample of popular legal software packages and whether or not their software conforms to the millennium date change. It does not include all software sold to legal practices, so if the software you use does not comply or is not on the list, we suggest you adhere to the following rules:

Don't ignore the problem. It won't go away and time is running out. Appoint an individual or a team to examine or create a complete inventory of computer hardware and software, and anything else that may be electronically controlled.

Contact systems suppliers to establish affected areas and what needs to be done to ensure compliance. Ensure their response is written and that they know you will be relying upon their advice.

Arrange for the author/developer of any systems written in-house to find out if the systems comply. This may require examination of the programming code and documentation and may take more time than you think.

Check with any clients who may have access to your systems for exchange of electronic data, that their data formats are not affected by the problem. It will do no harm to ask and may help to demonstrate a good client care service.

Where non-year 2000 compliant systems are identified, prioritise the problems and decide what needs to be done. For example, should the systems be upgraded or replaced? It may be a good time to review existing systems – you may find some older systems need replacing to reflect new business methods.

Treat the year 2000 issue as a management project and create a plan of action leading to completion by 1998 to provide some breathing space if things do not go according to plan.

The date problem is not restricted to application software, but may apply to hardware and operating systems. This could mean some systems will have to be replaced in their entirety, while others may simply require a software upgrade.

It is possible that the application software you use will conform but the operating system may fail. This could mean your existing hardware may be unable to support any later versions of the operating system. Indeed, some older PCs may have to be replaced as they may prove uneconomic to upgrade.

Amazingly, recently purchased branded PCs using the Pentium chip have been found to use a time clock which will not work after 1999. This can have serious consequences on the application software which will use the system date in order to date stamp data files or use the date in calculations or reports, such as the 'today' date function used in spreadsheets.

The problem also affects other office equipment which records or uses dates, including video recorders, time locks on vaults or buildings, telephone switchboards, fax machines, time recording devices, heating controls and lifts. The list is endless, so as part of your year 2000 preparations, do not just look at computer systems.

Start year 2000 preparations now to ensure your firm is able to continue computer operations in the 21st century, leaving you able to enjoy the party.