Practices need IT

Bibi Berki examines a new solution to help high street firms get to grips with IT. Bibi Berki is a freelance journalist.

Whichever way you look at it, the Law Society's recent IT record is not one to be proud of. Its own much-heralded system Regis was labelled a "complete disaster" as much by those inside Chancery Lane as those looking on.

The subject became a political hot potato because of the vast expenditure associated with it. There were criticisms that the system was simply not right for its users and was growing outdated by the day.

The society's next large-scale venture into IT was the High Street Starter Kit, aimed at supplying small practices with a uniform software package. The idea was scrapped early last year after £220,000 was spent on the project.

The society's deputy vice-president, Robert Sayer, believes small practices need advice and the confidence to choose systems of their own, not tailored packages.

He says of the Starter Kit experience: "It was just too ambitious, just impossible. There are so many things on the market that you don't need to go and re-invent the wheel."

He does acknowledge that firms liked the idea of a system that was reliable, endorsed by the Law Society and affordable.

Now the Law Society has decided to follow the US example and introduce a "technology centre". The idea, says Sayer, is to get both hardware and software companies to demonstrate their products and packages in a designated area at the society.

Practitioners could try out systems for themselves and put their questions to the experts without committing themselves or having to dealing with the hard-sell. To this end, the Law Society's IT people are commissioning research and it is hoped that a technology centre will be up and running this year.

After a string of disasters the idea has engendered enthusiasm. As one society insider put it: "We had insisted on being the provider. We should have been a dating agency instead."

A Law Society spokeman says that lessons, although expensive to the profession, have been learnt. "The High Street Starter Kit started off for a very good reason. The Law Society just bit off more than it could chew."

The high street itself is crying out for help. A survey conducted by Deloitte & Touche for The Lawyer a year ago, found widespread dissatisfaction among law firms with their computer packages. It found that the systems did not measure up to firms' needs.

The findings highlight negative feelings in the profession for "back office computers" or the systems designated for keeping tabs on a firm's smooth running as opposed to those meant for aiding legal work and providing information. It is this unhappiness, coupled with a general mistrust of technology which means that buying into IT is perceived as a risky business.

But shopping around for an IT package instead of waiting for the Law Society to deliver one has served one firm very well. Buckinghamshire-based Davis Walker & Co is a specialist criminal practice with around five fee earners.

The firm's principal, John Davis, installed a network system at his office and says the change it has made to the practice is revolutionary.

IT is used for accounts handling, the diary and CD-Rom facilities for Archbold, Blackstone, the White Book and weekly law reports. Davis and his staff are on the Internet and make use of e-mail. He has also invested in voice-activated software so he can dictate notes straight into his computer. The cost: a capital investment of around £25,000 over five years.

If that sounds steep for the average high street practitioner, says Davis, think of the savings. Davis Walker has recouped its expenditure several times over in increased efficiency and lower staff overheads.

The firm is also installing scanning equipment so that scenes of murder, for example, can be produced for jury use. Thousands of documents can also be scanned instantly.

The software packages supply the firm with word-processing and accountancy facilities. Davis is particularly enthusiastic about the latter. Billing is processed straight away and, as he puts it, "the quicker you do your billing, the quicker you get your money".

However, as a parting shot he warns: "One of the dangers is that you will get people trying to sell you a package when they don't appreciate your needs. They will try to adapt things. So you have to get to know what your needs are."