Certain tools are now considered essential to efficient and cost-effective business. For example, it is accepted as the norm for every member of staff in a law firm to have their own PC connected to the internal network.
While some may debate the effectiveness of fee earners typing their own documents, few would disagree with them making minor amendments to documents that secretaries have typed. Some fee earners prefer to get their words right and get their secretaries to worry about the presentation of the document and where to file it. Others like to finish the whole process after the secretary has typed the bulk of the document.
What, then, are the additional tools needed to aid productivity and when should you buy them?
Document management systems are a good investment if a lot of time at your firm is wasted looking for documents. A case management system is also worth looking at. If you know exactly what your next task is on every case and know all the important dates, then you do not need one. But if you said no to either of the last points then think about installing one.
If you are competing for volume business buy a presentation manager before the competition beats you to it. If you are not already giving presentations to prospective clients you know you are already behind the competition – because they are.
A laptop with integral modem and GSM phone allows you to read your mail and surf the net anywhere, anytime. But beware: you end up can becoming a slave to the machine.
Internet access is one of the things you should think about implementing in the office in the next two years. Once you can send documents to other people via e-mail, you will wonder how you ever did without it. It is like instant an DX service to non-lawyers.
But unless you are incredibly disciplined and have a high-speed line, surfing the net will result in a lot of wasted time – although you will learn a lot of useless information. For example, if you access Bird & Bird's web site you can find out about parrot breeding in Patagonia.
An intranet lets you set up your internal system to use Internet browser-style technology to access all the information within your firm. This is probably the best way of setting up a know-how system, although you can go a long way to setting up such a system with document management software.
An automatic dictation system takes down on screen whatever you speak into it. Discrete speech systems, where you have to talk like a Dalek, do not work.
Video conferencing works and is fairly cheap. Lawyers should be using it more often to talk to clients and barristers instead of travelling to and from them and wasting time.
If you have just invested in a lot of PCs, do not panic about all the network computers' hype. NCs are a subtle ploy by the IT department to get back to the days of the mainframe when you could not do anything without having to ask a hippy with attitude to do it for you.
The ultimate dream is at least five years away. The system of the future will have the following attributes:
the dimensions of your mobile phone;
batteries that last for ages;
wireless access to any server;
a holographic screen;
access to software from a huge library;
access to data from any server for a small fee; and
a built-in camera for video conferencing.
The first version of this device will cost a fortune but the price of subsequent machines will halve every six months until they come free with the services.
The Ultimate Dream will not, however, be infallible:
it will still break when you most need it;
you will probably lose it down the back of the sofa;
the bill for the fees will give you the same frisson your phone bill gives you;
you will send the wrong things to the wrong people because you did not have time to check;
the network will occasionally inexplicably slow down;
it will still need the aforementioned hippy, or a five year old child to fix it;
you can guarantee that somebody that you know will have a smaller, faster, lighter one in a designer shade of black, and;
there will always be someone in your firm who insists there is absolutely nothing wrong with a good old 286 PC.