IT system fulfils Crutes' business wish-list

A powerful new networking system has allowed the northern firm to avoid taking on more specialists, writes John Park

IN 1989, the north east firm Crutes recognised that its business aims were only realistically achievable by one of two routes.

At that time, the firm employed partners and fee-earners in different offices skilled in each of the areas in which the company worked – civil litigation, company and commercial work, conveyancing, family matters, probate and related affairs, and health authority and NHS trust work.

We had two choices: we could either employ more specialists to populate each of the offices or find a viable way of sharing the knowledge.

We investigated what Crutes' current computer system was capable of and the solutions available.

The first step the firm took was to widen its 'wish-list' and set out criteria against which to measure any computer solutions proposed.

First glance identified the need to install a computer system that could handle the accounts, time recording and office administration.

Crutes also specified an ideal: if a customer came into the firm's office in Carlisle and wanted representation in a geographical area in which none of the resident fee-earners or partners had specialist knowledge, any one of the lawyers should be able to take a brief and provide quality service and advice.

We wanted the ability to connect to all our other offices instantly. The Carlisle lawyer would be able to contact a specialist colleague based in Newcastle, gain verbal advice and then have all the relevant information and facts relayed to him immediately.

Such a capability would ensure that we could offer each of its customers a first class service in every office without having to invest in additional solicitors whose time would be under-used.

Evaluation of its then current system, an old IBM 34 used for accounting purposes and time sheets, resulted in the conclusion that it had to be replaced. Bought in 1978, the IBM's technology had been superseded substantially and the firm had doubled in size since its implementation.

There were many contenders. But on closer inspection and after thorough evaluation by the company's practice administrator, Jane Lister, it appeared that most proposals were either prohibitively expensive or had insufficient capabilities.

A network between each office was a necessity. Running the whole system via PCs was a cheap option but it was also slow and unreliable.

The firm chose a multi-user, multi-tasking computer from manufacturer Alpha Microsystems. We wanted to manage the storage of all the support information needed, network communications and office administration.

The vendor offers a range of minicomputer-powered systems that are in a similar price range to powerful PCs. Alpha Microsystems' solution was also attractive to us because the company provides a 'one-stop-shop' approach.

We opted for a system with a full suite of administrative software (word processor, database, spreadsheet, basic accounts and electronic mail), training, network communications, and ongoing consultancy and support.

The Alpha Microsystems operating environment also meant that we will not suffer compatibility problems when expanding and upgrading the system in the future. The new system gives the firm the flexibility to increase the number of users and capabilities.

An IBM RS/6000 computer was also selected on which to run the accounts and time recording, communicating via TCP/IP and sharing information with the Alpha Microsystems network host computer.

The Newcastle office now houses the Alpha Microsystems AM-4000 and each of the other three offices is equipped with a smaller AM-3000. Throughout the offices are PCs networked to the AM-3000.

Each PC can access the Alpha Micro software and communications capabilities and can be used to evaluate and run commercially available legal software, such as Laserform. The four offices communicate via BT lease lines using Jaguar Z-net communications software on a wide area network (WAN).

The network allows the expert knowledge of specialist partners and associates to be shared and it is also being used to ensure that lawyers' time at court is being used effectively.

Prior to the implementation of the system, several Crutes lawyers could be found at court at the same time. They might each have only 10 minute minor hearings within a short time span.

We ended up paying for the time used by perhaps four lawyers from different offices to travel to a short, incidental hearing that required no specialist knowledge.

Now, we have a master diary showing the commitments of all partners and fee-earners as well as the court hearings that have been scheduled.

As soon as the electronic diary is updated by one person, the new data is available to everybody.

This means that if there are a number of minor hearings at the same court within a small time frame, they can all be attended by just one lawyer, reducing the resources and time that we have to commit.

In addition, if a court hearing is scheduled for Middlesborough, but all the papers have been held in Carlisle, the system can be used to 'squirt' all the relevant documents to a lawyer in the Middlesborough office to enable him to handle the case effectively – again, costly time and expensive resources are saved.

From any office, ledger sheets and diaries can be quickly accessed on any of the clients and employees.

County court rulings are input into the Alpha Micro system which ensures that everyone is aware of forthcoming deadlines for things such as

exchange of witness information, notice servings and defence filings.

The return on investment offered by the firm's commitment to information tech- nology is clearly shown by the availability of up to date information from all four offices, improved communications, instant access to critical information and the more effective use of time and resources.

But the firm has been able to go beyond its original system requirements by capitalising on the flexibility and compatibility offered by the Alpha Micro system.

Partner John Hunter has developed his own software and integrated it into the Alpha Microsystems office productivity applications.

Called 'Boxsoft', Hunter's application includes, an interest calculator feature and VAT calculator. Client bill calculations are also available, despite the use of seven different rates.

The Alpha Microsystems AlphaWRITE software has been used to store legal information such as court fees, land registry information, changes in legislation and the FILER database holds our personnel details, client information, will and a library of rarely-required reference books.

There used to be a time when the implementation of technology was a tactic to gain a competitive edge. I believe that we are now fast approaching the time when it is a necessary tool for survival.

John Park is managing partner at Crutes.