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There is no doubt about it, technology can be a rewarding investment that can deliver mass savings and improve customer service. But what does the future hold in store for law firms and where will further financial and productivity gains come from?
The main battle has been won; client server, open system computing is widely accepted and installed throughout the profession; killing off proprietary systems, that held so many to ransom, has been a major breakthrough. Now, popular core software applications are independent to hardware and will run on most computers. PC LANs have evolved to manage the front office tasks and Unix-based systems are being widely installed to manage the back office functions.
By accident or design, solicitors have been instrumental in establishing an open systems IT infrastructure and this foundation will prove critical for future technology integration.
However, there is one frontier to be crossed and it is the one that will bring the greatest return in terms of productivity, service and profitability.
To cross this line will require the greater acceptance of IT systems and in doing so, increase the personal productivity of fee earners and partners directly. This will be achieved by bringing the full power of the firm's management information to the desktop, with access through a common graphical user interface.
Such an interface has to be easy to use and intuitive, requiring minutes and not days to learn. It should mirror the way in which a solicitor likes to organise his case-load.
As an emerging technology we are now seeing the first Windows-based accounts and case management applications.
It is easy to see how much more efficient and productive the billing process could be - currently it involves a myriad of staff who physically handle endless pieces of paper. By connecting the fee earner directly to the core information and cutting out the middlemen involved in preparing, drafting, approving and issuing bills, time will be saved, costs will be reduced and accuracy and quality will be assured.
Changes in the firm's organisation and structure will be necessary because the adoption of a common interface used by fee earners and partners will reduce the function of existing support staff.
Another benefit of open client server systems is the possibility to integrate workflow applications. However, a quality case management tool will encompass this requirement and will be the route to effectively handling voluminous workloads.
The key to successful integration of workflow and other future technologies, hinges on a central core database that forms the heart of the management information system within the practice. Every part of the firm relies upon information, often the same data used in a variety of forms.
For example, a client contacts database is essential to the marketing and and accounts departments, and fee earners. The database is critical to the evolution of a practice. It is a rare organisation that has had the foresight, let alone the opportunity, to insist upon one single repository to act as a central source of information for all its departments. Typically, multiple databases are instituted to meet the needs of individual departments.
There is no good reason for deploying multiple databases, which by their nature also offer a variety of user interfaces - it only results in duplication of data and effort. However, managing the database is fundamental to the success of an integrated system and requires skilled computing personnel to execute the administration.
A strategic approach to IT is vital and the foundation for future innovation will need a robust computing infrastructure in place.
A case management application that seamlessly connects the PC via a Windows-based graphical user interface to a core database will provide an easy method for fee earners to automate everyday tasks, schedule future events and prioritise the case load.
The outcome for the fee earner will be remarkable because nothing will be left to chance. This infrastructure is critical to the introduction of future technology. While today we are getting to grip with the Internet and other on-line information sources, in the next two years we will start to demand video conferencing facilities that connect a desktop PC with individuals. This will revolutionise the way in which litigation cases are handled. Video conferencing will further reduce costs and by integrating it as an information source, report generation will be become an automatic function of the system.
The last frontier is within our sights, it concerns people and not technology. Technology is designed to serve people, not the other way around. It is up to the technology vendor to provide fee earners and partners with an environment which is totally acceptable to them and their firm's needs.
Until vendors deliver complete solutions that offer a minimal learning curve and guarantee that personal productivity will be increased and therefore, overall profitability, fee earners and partners will no doubt justifiably remain averse to change.
Doug McLachlan is development and marketing director at Axxia Systems.