People are the problem with legal IT

In the first of a series of articles, consultant John Irving says fee earners and IT professionals must work together. John Irving is an independent IT consultant. He can be contacted at john@jdirving. demon.co.uk

Not too long ago, battles to move IT out of the back office and onto fee earners' desks were in full flow. Without doubt, the IT pioneers have won that war, although there are still some mopping-up campaigns going on here and there.

We are now into a full- scale systems invasion urged onwards by competitive pressures. Why is it then that we still hear so many moans and groans about fee earner acceptance of their law firms' IT systems?

I believe that we have moved on from an "it can't help me" to an "it won't help me" debate – a major shift of emphasis which is not appreciated as much as it ought to be.

There are very few managing partners who do not recognise the benefits that IT can offer, but there are many who are struggling to achieve even basic results because of numerous minor technical and people-based problems. In fact, people issues now represent by far the biggest and most difficult challenge for law firms.

If you had asked me 10 years ago to identify the greatest obstacle to the successful use of IT in law firms, I would have easily ranked technology above people. You would have got a similar response to the same question five, and possibly even three years ago. So what has happened to make me change my views?

In recent years, the legal systems market and the IT industry as a whole has matured considerably. Law firms and chambers looking to upgrade their IT are now presented with options based on established technologies that work.

Gone are the days when law firms were forced to install different, incompatible pieces of technology which were based on obscure hardware and software platforms that no one knew much about.

I do still occasionally encounter such systems, but they only serve to remind me just how far we have progressed. Today, providing you stick with industry standard hardware, networking, database and software products which have been developed by reputable suppliers, it is difficult to go wrong. As long as you are using your systems for their intended purpose you should simply be able to switch them on and leave them to get on with it.

This has allowed the cultural issues to come to the fore. No doubt they have existed all along, but were put aside while the technology battles were raging. People-based issues are softer and less tangible. It is a tempting thought, but you cannot resolve people problems by simply switching fee earners off and back on again, as you often can with a PC. You have to gradually coax people to accept new ways of doing things at a pace they are comfortable with.

Lawyers, as a breed, are unforgiving customers who can be hard to please. They are trained to be fussy and pay attention to detail. They may well reject a whole system because of a minor glitch which people working in other industries or professions would gloss over. Then again, they would have a valid point because one incorrect date could derail an entire case.

Even if the system is right, the good lawyer will require a Rolls Royce service. It will be of no use if it is not available late into the night, or if it crashes when an important client is on the telephone.

Given their nature, it is not surprising that lawyers are hard taskmasters when it comes to IT. But I sometimes suspect that some of the resistance to new technology within firms can be put down to the fear of being replaced.

And, for law firm managers there is an additional concern – the danger that a new system which substantially affects working practices will cause discontent among the troops.

How do you combat the people issues that dog the legal IT industry? The answer is simple. IT directors and suppliers must ensure that fee earners have no justifiable reason to complain about their IT systems.

First they must provide the best possible training so that fee earners know both what their system can and cannot do. And once you explain exactly what new technology can do, fee earners should be reassured that the new technology is designed to make their lives easier rather than to replace them.

Then they must provide an excellent support service so that if things do go wrong the problem is dealt with as swiftly as is humanly possible. This is especially important when dealing with case management systems where the adage "time is money" could never be more appropriate.

Finally, the IT professionals must keep in constant touch with fee earners to ensure they are providing them with the right systems. They should go to the fee earners at regular intervals and insist they tell them exactly what they want. All too often, fee earners are so taken up with their immediate work they don't have the time or inclination to think about IT.

But it is a two way process, because the IT department must also keep abreast of new developments so fee earners know what is on the market.

There have been a number of well-documented systems failures in recent years, and I suspect a great many more have been kept quiet. Doubtless there are more to come. In my experience, it has been mostly people-based issues, and not technical failures, that have been behind these problems. Expressed in percentage terms, I would estimate that 60 per cent of failures can be put down to people and 40 per cent to technical problems, and I believe the gap is widening.

That is why it is so important to tackle the people problems head on.