In practice, choice is difficult
25 February 1997
Have you ever taken a child to a toy shop and asked them to choose what they want?
If you have, you will know that the exercise usually ends in tears. And the experience of choosing which practice management system to buy for your firm has the potential to end in the same way. So how should you go about it?
The consultants will tell you that you should begin by analysing your needs for the future, and if possible, have an IT strategy for your firm.
But it is usually difficult enough to maintain a minimum level of investment in vital areas such as word-processing, litigation support and library on-line information services, without gazing five years or more into the future.
I am sure there are some firms for which the investment in a practice management system is the next step in their five-year IT strategy. However, for most of us it will be forced upon us as a result of existing outdated technology no longer being able to cope with the demands we are placing on it.
So, assuming you have decided, as managing partner, that your firm needs a new practice management system, how do you go about convincing your partners to spend the hundreds of thousands of pounds that a new system will cost? It does help if the old system collapses from time to time and cannot be restored easily. If not, then you will have to work hard to demonstrate the benefits that modern technology will bring.
Usually, the financially astute amongst your partners will ask how many staff the investment will save. When you tell them "none," you are back to square one.
As lawyers, it is not part of our daily life to come across super salespeople. We tend to deal mostly with fellow professionals. But be prepared - there is another breed out there in the big wide world.
They are brilliant at selling, and we are prey to their techniques. After each presentation they will leave you convinced you have just seen the ideal system for your practice, which will solve all your firm's problems far into the next millennium.
But even if you do manage to select between them, and convince your partners that it is the right investment to make, you are only halfway there.
Within your organisation the IT department and the accounts department are probably not used to talking to each other at length, yet to succeed in choosing and implementing your new system, they will need to work in harmony with one another for months.
If by now you are feeling overwhelmed with the task of selecting your practice management system and are wondering whether you need a computer system just to sort out the problem of ordering it, do not worry.
There is an army of consultants and suppliers who will be happy to take all the problems out of your hands. Do not take this the wrong way - consultants and suppliers all have their place. However, the managing partner, or an equivalent, must stay in control of the process, so that no one loses sight of the factors which are imperative for the business.
Whatever you do, make sure that you take your firm with you in making the decision. This means spending time with colleagues who have reservations, and being open about the pros and cons of each system. It will be a major task and upheaval for everyone to install a new system, and it is important to secure commitment from the whole firm at the outset.
The world of information technology is moving rapidly. There is a real temptation for lawyers, who are generally cautious individuals by nature, to choose a system that is well-established and used by many of their competitors.
However, if you are one of those firms who are looking to the future, you may consider more innovative systems which offer something different, and may even bring a competitive advantage.
It is important when you have completed your research, your tender process, and listened to the best advice available, to weigh up the risks.
At the end of the day, the risk analysis will be different for every firm, but there must be risks. Solicitors' firms are supposed to be run as businesses, and success in business is all about taking the right risks at the right time.
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