Without method IT's madness

Often firms waste money on systems not suited to their needs and, more importantly, which do not help the practice run more efficiently or profitably. The return on capital invested in these cases is likely to be minimal.

In the smaller firm this is particularly critical. They may not have a managing partner, are unlikely to have an IT manager and may not even have a partner responsible for IT or anyone IT literate. If a partner is charged with this task where do they start?

Typically, the partner will phone some suppliers, gleaned from the legal press and magazine articles, who will gladly help, sending bundles of colour brochures and offering to demonstrate how their system is just what the firm requires. Then, and often in a state of confusion, the partner will settle for a combination of the system and the supplier that seems least off-putting and has the boxes with the most attractive colours. There is a better way.

Long before money changes hands, questions must be asked before deciding what is needed.

There has traditionally been reluctance to reinvest in legal businesses. When they discuss investment, partners are often shocked in matters that in an industrial enterprise turning over similar amounts of money would be commonplace. But, unless they are determined to invest in the next five years, many will not be around to tell the tale.

So are you prepared to invest? Not simply in buying the equipment, but rather to ensure training programmes are planned and to supply the infrastructure to make it work.

And you should not just buy for today's problems – a three to five-year technology strategy based on the firm's business plan, reached by means of detailed consultation throughout the firm, is required. You must decide on future areas of need, applications and numbers of users. Are you getting the best from your present systems, manual and computerised? Where do you want to be in three years' time and how will you ensure that you are able to continue to provide your current services at a competitive rate? Can your current systems be improved to meet foreseen demand?

It is essential to carry out a detailed review of the way in which fee earners operate, analysing their methodology and paper flows, looking in depth at areas which seem to repeat regularly or take a considerable amount of time to prepare. And careful planning is required to ensure the investment is made in the area where the greatest benefit will be felt, and so return in capital is likely to be derived.

Once these questions have been answered the firm is in a position to formulate its IT strategy. Knowing where you are trying to go, you must identify how you are going to get there. Consider where technology can make its greatest impact for you.

You must not ignore the benefits nor disadvantages when reviewing costs. Look at all the issues involved: impact of change, cultural dimensions, people, training and success criteria, which may include the ability of fee earners to increase work loads and hence increase their fee earning capability.

Recommendations should be made based upon the cost/benefit analysis and, if necessary, the practice must plan a phased implementation to meet budgets. The system must be there to support the practice, not the reverse. Once the strategy is in place, a plan to implement the recommendations should be drawn, including timescales and who is responsible to ensure each part of the plan is achieved. This provides the practice with a reference point.

Selecting new hardware and software is likely to be necessary. You must document in detail your system requirements to form part of an invitation to tender (ITT) document and will be part of the contract negotiated with your supplier.

Preparation of this document is essential, detailing exactly what you expect the computer to do and how you expect it to operate within your practice. It will provide a standard for comparing proposals returned and will clarify the partnership's understanding of the role the computer has to fulfil. Spend time on its preparation. Do not always expect suppliers to answer in the manner you

requested, but make it easy for suppliers to respond to your requirements by setting out your information in plain terms.

You need to select up to six suppliers to send the ITT to. This is where time spent looking through brochures may pay dividends. The ITT should include a request for information about the company, including the last three years' trading accounts.

Before looking at the suppliers' responses to the ITT, prepare and document the factors by which you will assess them to allow you more confidence in the final selection.

Having reviewed the responses you will probably have questions for the suppliers. Arrange demonstrations of the most promising systems. Plan the demonstration beforehand, request the suppliers to demonstrate what you want to see, not what they want to show you.

Finally, carefully plan the system implementation as this is usually the most fraught phase of the process. Arrange the preparation of your building, preparation of staff through training and production of easy to understand manuals. Communicate with all staff: inform them of what is happening and when changes will occur.

Without a strategy and a plan to implement the strategy you will almost certainly end up with the wrong system. This is a major project. It needs proper project management, leadership and commitment on the part of all the partners and staff.

There is no alternative to the strategic approach to technology, whatever the size of firm. The benefits are immediately obvious. You know not only the most urgent business requirements to be addressed, but also the long-term scheme into which solutions must fit. You know the full range of applications the firm is likely to address during the lifetime of the systems you are considering purchasing. You have the benefit of knowing the options have been assessed, a competitive tender has taken place and the system is not just chosen because it is the easiest option.

In smaller firms it is essential to realise that formulating and managing an IT strategy is not just understanding the IT issues but also their organisational impact. Firms of this size who cut corners and avoid completing a strategy when making investments in IT are likely to be making a costly mistake. With their slender resources, these firms are even less able to withstand the cost and consequences of making mistakes than are larger firms.

Andrew Levison is head of legal information technology at the David Andrews Partnership, the legal consultancy of Grant Thornton.