Firms 15 years behind in IT use, says survey

LAW firms are up to 15 years behind their accountancy firm rivals in the deployment of information technology, according to an academic study.

Research conducted by Warwick Business School portrays law firms as trapped in a “catch-22” situation when it comes to improving their technology, with small and medium-size firms in the “dark ages” of IT.

“Many law firms are not spending enough to get the full benefit of technology and so are not willing to spend any more,” said MBA post graduate Tony Reed-Jones, who based his study on a survey of 90 firms. “Without a doubt the firms need help with information technology, and the light is slowly dawning that something needs to be done.”

The survey showed half of all employees and 40 per cent of fee earners had PCs on their desks, a “low” result compared to other white collar industries. But the number of PCs per employee was not related to the size of the firm.

The most desired new product was a flawless voice recognition system. Current systems are often inaccurate, claimed Reed-Jones, adding that a good system could revolutionise productivity. Other suggestions included a “thought-processor” and a system that could “discard junk e-mail unopened”.

According to the survey, IT had not brought savings in administrative staff. Reed-Jones suggested a number of reasons for this.

It was possible that: PCs gave no benefit; or the benefits had not been realised because law firms were an immature market for IT; or administrative staff and lawyers benefited evenly so there was no change in the ratio between the two; or any benefits could not be measured by the survey.

All 90 firms surveyed said they owned word processors. Only 15 per cent used scanners, an instrument of obvious use to lawyers needing to access long documents, 90 per cent had accounts software systems, 70 per cent had client databases, 60 per cent used spreadsheets, 60 per cent used networks to link PCs, and 40 per cent had on-line databases.

More than 85 per cent of the firms surveyed admitted to not having a dedicated IT staff and, among firms with more than 50 employees, some 40 per cent revealed they had no IT staff.