Time for innovation

Staff must be involved in any implementation of IT in the firm, says Andrew Levison. Andrew Levison is head of legal IT at The David Andrews Partnership. Firms have had some success in automating standard procedures such as accounts, time recording, debt collection and uninsured loss recovery. However, only a tiny minority of firms has attempted to manage technology, particularly case management, in innovative and strategic ways.

First generation systems, that required fee earners manually to record time, which was then input by support staff, delivered increases in profits of up to 20 per cent. Second generation time recording allows fee earners to post time online as they work. These systems have delivered similar gains.

More ambitious IT projects, such as introducing workflow techniques (case management), allow work to be pushed down to lower-level staff and enable fee earners to supervise and process much higher volumes of work that follow predictable patterns. The result is a lower cost base and resultant increases in profitability.

Systems like these also give firms the ability to expand rapidly as the market for their services grows. On closer analysis, however, it can be seen that these systems are not pure automation. They actually involve significant changes in working practices.

Before the first generation, time may or may not have been recorded at all. Second generation systems cut out the delays and errors caused by manual recording.

Case management systems have required even greater changes in working practices, staffing structures and firm culture. Simply automating existing manual systems could mean automating existing chaos. The advantage of these workflow systems lies in the fact that they force the firm to review working practices and to make fundamental changes.

The market for legal software is maturing rapidly with many firms now third or fourth generation users. These firms are extremely effective at managing the "spec and select" phase of IT procurement. However, where firms miss out on the potential benefits of IT is in the implementation phase. The tendency is either to take the supplier's structure as given and attempt to shoehorn fee earners' working practices into that; or to have the system tailored to the firm's existing practices.

The first approach will undoubtedly maximise fee earners' resistance to the new system. Lawyers all have their own way of working – attempting to impose a new system on them is doomed to failure and cost and time overruns.

If it is necessary – as it may well be in the future – for lawyers to change their working methods, it must be handled carefully and at a pace that will accommodate their ability to change. Tailoring a system blindly to existing working practices may forego the opportunity to review working practices and eliminate duplicated, redundant and non-value adding activities. The introduction of IT systems is an ideal opportunity to reassess the fundamentals. Why are we doing this? Why are we doing it this way? Is it really giving clients what they want?

Our suggestion is that IT partners and directors have a responsibility to challenge basic assumptions about the way things are done and to invite fee earners and support staff to review their working practices with no holds barred.

Keys to success include the following points:

Clients' needs should drive the project from start to finish. Our experience is that lawyers say they understand their clients' needs. In practice, client surveys prove that the lawyer's understanding of their needs is not terribly reliable.

Involving all users, partners, fee earners, secretaries and support departments at the earliest possible opportunity and helping them to redesign their own working practices will ensure their commitment to any changes that are required.

Analysing the firm's culture to assess where resistance is likely to come from and planning how to deal with it.

Managing change by anticipating that people will move along the "transition curve" from initial denial that change is required, through depression that old and familiar ways of working are no longer appropriate, to experimentation with new approaches and, finally, effective implementation of redesigned working practices.

In summary, law firms can achieve significantly greater benefits from innovative implementation of technology than they do at present.

Too many firms leave responsibility for successful implementation with the software suppliers. This abdication will cost firms dearly as they invest increasingly large sums in systems without maximising the benefits that are there for the taking, given a little extra effort and commitment on their part.