At the age of 22, Osman Ismail left university. He had not been a conspicuous academic success, but outside the walls of Aston University he was already a luminary. He sold his final year project, a slick mathematical routine for calculating the stress of buildings, to Wimpeys for £5,000.
Ismail's natural talent was applied maths, especially algorithms, sets of rules used for problem-solving. With the advent of micro-computers, his time had come.
Ismail, a 35-year-old gentle-mannered Cypriot, now heads DPS, the company whose Document Processing System software is installed in nearly 500 solicitors' offices and used by more than 3,500 people. Last year its turnover was £14 million, with just under 10 per cent of the total computerised legal market, and it is the market-leader in case management.
The software is developed in the company's Southgate premises, where DPS's 18 core staff work amid walls which once resounded to less sober pursuits – its last function was the recording studio of Ray Davies, The Kinks' front man.
When the company decided to set up a network of regional "legal centres" which could install software and train users, its profits plunged. Locating the right independent companies to contract with and training their staff in the use of the products was expensive.
"We don't want to do it all from here," Ismail says. "The one area most other legal software companies have suffered from is trying to do it all themselves. If I had to go and sell in Manchester, the cost of the selling, installation and training would be much too high for one location.
"The minute we adopted this attitude, our turnover and profits went through the floor. It was a really scary time for us because we weren't making any money. The reason we've gone back up again is because dealerships have now started working for us."
Civil engineering and legal software may not seem obvious bed fellows, but Ismail's family is steeped in the law. His father had been a lawyer in Cyprus. His elder sister, Duygu, is a solicitor and so is his younger sister and business partner, Djanan. She contributes the legal expertise to her brother's computer wizardry, but the software is designed to be idiot-proof. He says a lawyer who has never used a computer could press the 'on' switch and use it.
He is also a defender of the profession. Since he started dealing with legal firms, he says, he has found them surprisingly loyal. If they started small with him, they have grown large with him. He also feels firms get a bad press. "They have very poor PR and are terrible at stating their case. My garage mechanic charges £38 an hour, which is as much as a high street solicitor gets. The really big firms muddy the water for everybody else. Most solicitors are decent people and I like working with them."
The company's first foray into legal software came soon after Ismail left university and went straight into freelance software design. One of his customers, a London solicitor, commissioned a conveyancing system. DPS Convey then formed the core product of the new company. Most other front office areas have since been covered. DPS abandoned its other software applications – Ismail personally wrote the worldwide booking system for Holiday Inns – five years ago after a making a deal with IBM, which wanted to get into the legal market. IBM bought 20 per cent of the product.
Ismail does nothing unconsciously – his other passion is management, and his ethos contrasts markedly with current management culture. If his staff are late at work, he wants to know why.
He makes a point of not working long hours himself. If the workload expands, he takes on more people (from seven to 18 in two years) and the feedback this policy elicits from his customers, he says, brings him more business. "We sell brains here; this ain't a sweatshop. I have to make sure this is a happy crew."
Ismail's goal is to establish DPS as the industry standard, but he doubts that if or when this happens, his extravagance will escalate much beyond his Mercedes. He has not forgotten the business's infancy, when he had to rent a room belonging to his late father, and could not even pay the rent.
Lynne Curry is a freelance journalist.