John Irving is an associate director of BDO Stoy Hayward Management Consultants
Chambers are waking up to idea of networking PCs to share database information
Whenever I walk through one of the Inns of Court, a glance through the windows indicates that most of the offices, on the ground floor at least, are well equipped with PCs or VDUs. But stepping inside a chamber's doors often reveals a different picture.
The barristers' IT marketplace has been the province of a sole supplier for many years. Applied Computer Expertise (Ace) had, until recently, achieved a virtual monopoly with its chambers' accounting system. According to Rod Voyce, managing director of Ace, 285 sets are now using the system.
However, Voyce recognises that his company has now moved from a monopoly to a “dominant position” due to the emergence of Meridian Information Systems and the Falcon One system from Pimcroft Legal Software.
Voyce welcomes the new competition and points out that over the past 10 years a number of other competitors have also entered this small and highly specialised marketplace without success, often requiring Ace to pick up the pieces.
This time round it appears the competition is determined to stay. Managing director of Meridian John Willis says: “We are in the market for the long-term and are looking for a slow but steady sales profile.”
He adds that Meridian has so far installed its system in 15 chambers and has another three orders confirmed and awaiting installation.
Perry Coysh, a director of Pimcroft Legal Software, which recently formed an alliance with Good Information to develop its Falcon One system, says that he has five chambers already signed up and a good deal of interest has been shown by many others.
There are many aspects of IT in chambers where all three suppliers, and a number of barristers and clerks, agree that change is welcome and in some cases long overdue.
The structure and management of most chambers does not encourage a great deal of corporate thinking.
Summing up the suppliers' view, Voyce says: “Seventy-five per cent of all barristers are trapped in the lobster pot of barrister mentality whereby they think as individuals and chambers don't think as a corporate entity.
“The barrister marketplace is now more competitive, there are only so many cases at any one time, meaning the market will polarise and the sets which have not invested in IT to put themselves on a better business footing will suffer.
“Many sets have seen no change in their IT practices for 10 years and they simply use their computers to print out the fee notes.”
Coysh agrees with this. “Chambers have lost out on 10 years of PC culture because there was no other choice. What this market now needs is a good Windows-based product that goes further than just accounting,” he says.
Willis says: “Barristers now want more access to information which has been traditionally denied to them.
“Market pressures are forcing them to take a greater interest in the way they are managing their business.”
Barrister James Vine, of Hardwicke Building, Lincoln's Inn, whose set has been one of the leading users of IT for some time, agrees .
“The barristers' side of IT has not been given enough prominence,” he says.
The suppliers appear to have taken this on board and are offering new applications which should assist barristers to become more productive.
Ace has incorporated an integrated computerised diary facility into its Infinity product and it is currently integrating the LIX court listing system into both its PICK and
Infinity applications, which are currently in use at 30 solicitors' practices.
Meridian Law includes integrated diary booking and the management of single or multiple barristers, through to all billing formats, along with remote access and LIX.
Falcon One also provides as standard remote access to diaries and links to a number of on-line services such as Butterworths' 'Books on Screen' and law reports.
Why are these fairly common IT applications only now becoming available to chambers? Willis believes the answer lies in the increasing use of IT in the profession. “It is only in the last five to six years that PCs have become affordable to most barristers,” he says. “Lots of commercial and civil practitioners now have powerful PCs but many criminal barristers still do not.”
Voyce backs up this view. “In a typical chambers there will be two or three experts in PC use; some with general knowledge and some luddites, all with differing views on usage,” he says.
Many chambers are now waking up to the idea of networking PCs to share database information and expensive computer peripheral equipment to take advantage of economies of scale.
The White Book and Archbold are just a few of the publications now available on CD-ROM which can be accessed over a network by all connected workstations.
Other uses for networks are opening up all the time, such as the telecommunications advances which enable barristers to work from home and to transmit or receive documents from solicitors.
However the limited number of suppliers in the market may mean there is not a great deal of difference between the software packages available.
Familiarity with an existing system often results in a chambers sticking with the same supplier and system and deciding to upgrade only when it is really required.
“The future depends on the Bar educating itself on what it actually needs rather than being told what it needs,” explains Vine.
“The Bar has to understand that it has to invest in more than simply hardware and software,” he adds.
But not all chambers are convinced of this. David Douglas, chief executive at Littleton Chambers, Temple, says: “We looked very carefully at the new software packages available from Ace and Meridian and finally decided there was not a great deal of difference between the features that would be available on each.”
Although the set is in the middle of implementing a new system, Douglas says: “We are determined to make the best use of technology but not just for technology's sake and not at any price”.
Willis thinks the Bar is now in a Catch 22 position. “The Bar has generally seen a drop in income for the first time in 20 years and is also facing rent rises,” he says.
“The way forward for barristers is to improve their service and that requires investment in modern IT.”
It appears that the more forward thinking sectors of the Bar have, at long last, woken up to the opportunities of investment in IT, encouraged in part by the requirements of the Woolf Report. Equally, it seems that the equipment suppliers now have the tools and systems available to help.
As Vine says: “Chambers are becoming less of a profession and more of a business that requires up-to-date business tools.”
The need is certainly there and the systems are getting there. It remains to be seen if the two will be put together.