Beware of the pitfalls of buying IT systems

Michael Chapman says buying a new computer system for a barristers' chambers is a minefield of jargon. Michael Chapman is a barrister at Barnards Inn Chambers.

Call it what you like – Y2K, the millennium bug – the problem remains the same. If a computer only looks at the last two digits of a year then, at the beginning of the next millennium, it is going to think it's 1900 all over again.

Cynics might say that stepping back a hundred years would suit a profession like the Bar, but the serious reality for all chambers is that Y2K compliant systems must be in place well before 1 January 2000.

At the same time, digital technology can significantly improve the service that a barrister provides to solicitors. A completed pleading can be e-mailed in a matter of minutes, rather than the day it would take to post. So at Barnards Inn we decided we would try to turn the millennium problem to our advantage, connecting every barrister's computer to a chambers network.

Unfortunately, it is not a buyers' market. For a start, the marketplace is far from crowded, with ACE and Meridian Law as the only two suppliers. But the worst blow to competitiveness is the millennium bug itself. Chambers have only 13 months to buy a new system from ACE or Meridian, so it's not a question of "if", but "when". This problem can only get worse as the deadline gets closer.

The other dilemmas are similar to those faced by anyone who has bought a hi-fi.

No matter how hard you research the subject, you are unlikely to acquire the level of technical knowledge of the supplier. Neither ACE nor Meridian made much effort to explain the technicalities.

Both gave presentations which showed off their systems' facilities, but these were accompanied by long technical lists of equipment, software, product licences, and services, not a description of what our system would do.

Of course you can always ask questions. The problem is, the more we enquired, the thicker the fog became.

It is unlikely that a layman will be able to fully understand the fundamentals of a computer network. That is fine, as long as you are confident that your supplier is not trying to take advantage of your ignorance.

It is very important to compare the competition's price tags. By buying our own server (the system's central computer) from Dell, we paid half the price being quoted by Meridian for a Data General server of the same specification – a saving of #3,000.

Once uncovered, these charging practices inevitably undermine confidence in the whole process.

The only way to avoid paying over the odds is to undertake thorough research, and then use the fruits of that research to bargain the suppliers down. But it is time-consuming, and only gets you so far. Ultimately, you have to take their word that you require a "remotely possible/32-NT for NT Server".

However, once we had signed on the dotted line, another familiar problem arose. Previously my phone rang daily. What followed was an ominous silence. The bland assurances about project managers, project meetings, and liaison with phone suppliers seemed to have been forgotten, and all the time the installation date was getting closer.

In fact, the roles were reversed, and I found myself continuously chasing people up, or waiting for calls to be returned.

At this stage we found another problem with the quotes. It seemed reasonable to assume that the fundamentals of the system we were buying had always remained the same. After all, we'd made our basic requirements clear, and nobody had changed that. So it was something of a surprise when we were told that connecting barristers' computers to the network was not provided for.

This was not clear to us, as laymen, from the original quote – apparently "pre-live system configuration" did not mean configuring barristers' computers. Eventually the issue was resolved fairly, but only after further protracted negotiations.

Having decided to upgrade the phones at the same time, our problems with the computer system were mirrored with the phone company. All the quotes were jargon, and once the system was installed, a vital feature was omitted.

Once again, it was sorted out, at no extra cost, but only after a considerable expenditure of time and effort.

It will be worth it in the end, but getting a fair price, and then getting the systems we had agreed upon for that price, has taken a huge effort. Nothing has been straightforward – I am sure things were simpler in 1900.