IT's a question of support

Skilled computer staff do not come cheap. But how much do you really need them? John Irving offers a few pointers. Striking the right balance between providing too much in the way of IT staff or not providing enough is always a tricky issue.

Law firms are "law shops", not software houses, and skilled IT staff with law experience come at a price. The increasing sophistication of packaged software and standardisation of technical approach means there is no longer the need to maintain a huge IT presence to develop and maintain a law firm's own systems from scratch. But, as any managing partner and finance partner will recognise, most of the annual IT expenditure is still in the wages bill.

Many firms may never need to establish a formal IT department as a means of ensuring that their computer systems continue to work efficiently. The existence of a computer system does not necessarily imply that an IT department is needed as many of the systems now available are designed to integrate with a firm's normal working practices.

Other firms demand a more formal approach to organisational structure and management practice.

The golden rule is that the IT should be resourced in direct proportion to the business risk placed on it.

If a firm's business strategy is centred on IT, it would be foolish not to ensure that its IT is more than adequately covered. But if IT is not placed so high on the agenda a firm may be able to exist with a lower level of support capability.

The answer to IT staffing varies, therefore, according to circumstance. The answers to the following FAQ (frequently asked questions in IT parlance) gives some guidance:

Who should the IT department report to? – Finance, usually. This can work well if most systems are accounts-based but, with the advent of word processing and case management systems, a firm's IT is now broader based and critical to the operation of the business. The IT function, therefore, becomes the overall responsibility of the managing partner who may delegate it to a partner. Larger firms have appointed an IT director who reports directly to the managing partner and sits on the firm's executive board.

What technical skills are needed? – You would be foolhardy to drive an expensive and complex car without it being regularly serviced by a qualified mechanic. The same principle applies to complex IT systems, except that the skill requirement ranges from technical to human issues. Some IT suppliers now include a job specification for an IT person in their conditions of sale. The table (below) outlines the functions that should be covered.

How many IT staff are needed (or what is the minimum number that a firm can get away with)? – The table establishes the functions that should be covered, so we need to see how many "heads" are required to support the functions. A broad rule of thumb is that, for every 100 users, at least one full-time support role is required. Bear in mind that not everyone takes holidays or sick leave at the same time, and support cover should be provided whenever the users are working (evenings and early mornings). This means that IT support needs a back-up so we are up to two IT staff for every 100 users. From experience, there is a minimum level of about 20 to 25 users where an internal support role is required, although this could be part-time.

The question of when an IT professional is required will depend on business risk issues. Once an IT presence is established, do not neglect their training and development needs – out-of-date knowledge can be more dangerous than no knowledge at all.

How do you support IT in other offices? – The IT staffing issue can be complicated where firms have one or more offices in separate locations.

Scottish firm McGrigor Donald, for example, has offices in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London. Finance director Bob Gibbons says his firm handles the problem by using quasi-IT staff in the remote offices.

"Our IT department is headquartered in Glasgow and, while IT staff make frequent trips to all offices, our large IT network often creates troubleshooting requirements on the spot," he says.

"We have identified secretaries who have shown an aptitude for IT – the individuals to whom we turn if there is a problem – and have trained them to sort out all the minor operational problems that can waste so much of an IT specialist's time."

Gibbons also takes the pragmatic view that you have to work with what you have got.

"Although we have recently introduced a full-time IT support person in Edinburgh, you have to work with the skills available at the time, and we expect all our staff to become more IT-literate as time goes on," he says. "It's a balancing act. IT staff are expensive, but you can waste a lot of fee-earning time and money if a system failure means that your lawyers can't be productive."

Can you rely on external computer support? Off-the-shelf systems can be supported by off-the-shelf services, but the service level expected should be clearly defined.

External support services tend to treat your minimum level as their "agreed" service and anything else is extra.

Paul Harrison, director of finance at Browne Jacobson, has tried both internal and external support services. He says: "External computer support is an important part of the maintenance of any computer system, even if there are internal staff.

"The issue is which parts of the support should be provided from outside the firm; even in a large firm, support for the hardware and core accounting software will come from external sources."

At Browne Jacobson and many other firms there are numerous daily operational situations and problems which are best dealt with internally.

"The use of experienced internal IT staff provides for a quicker fix of minor IT problems, essential where a firm relies on IT to any degree," says Harrison. "It also improves the relationship with IT suppliers as internal IT staff can often better communicate the firm's needs."

In my view, which appears to be backed by Browne Jacobson, a mix of internal and external support is best, particularly for large firms with complex systems. Skilled internal IT staff who have their own firm's best interests at heart, rather than external help with their own profits and targets in mind, are best suited for daily operational issues. External support can be called on only if all else fails.

What skills do IT staff need? – Excellent technical skills are just the starting point for IT staff in a law firm.

"You can't do it unless you have the right technical and interpersonal skills and attitudes," says Owen Williams, IT director at DJ Freeman.

"You have to be able to deal with the user at their own level; that can range from a secretary with a relatively simple word processing problem, the financial director who has a complex accounting problem, to a partner who wants it 'now'. Each is important but you have to have the confidence to direct your efforts to things that are critical to the business."

Williams also points out that, as the IT department is often seen as the agent of change within the firm, it is vital to "grow" your IT staff to meet the new requirements. This means continued training.

"This is easy to say but difficult to achieve if your existing IT systems aren't stable," says Williams. "You need to create a stable environment for your user community first and then promote growth."

Can IT ever be a profit centre? Some managing partners may be tempted to turn their firm's IT skills into a profit centre in its own right. However, this can be a dangerous path, not just because it may lead to more competition in the consultancy market, but because it may tempt IT staff to lose sight of the primary reason for their existence – to provide a service for their users. But there may be other areas of chargeable activity that can help IT to pay its way.

Williams agrees. "There are now ways in which we can provide IT service to complement our legal services," he says.

"IT staff use project management tools and techniques which, if applied to any large project, allow for a better use of resources and a clear indication of the critical activities required. The problem is exposing the fee earners to these tools and methods in such a way that they are accepted and their value exploited."

There is no magic answer to any of these questions. It is clear that IT resourcing is an important issue for many firms and cannot be ignored, especially where IT is being increasingly used for fee earning. There also appears to be some recognition that IT professionals can contribute outside the computer room.