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When it comes to IT, the bar continues to lag way behind law firms, but what do barristers really need? Gareth Mason assesses their requirements

Network? Firewall? Email? Internet connection? Central servers? Microsoft NT, Outlook and Word? PCs used by everyone? Web-based remote access? Yes to all of these at most commercial chambers. IT support staff in-house? Yes in a few. So how do barristers' chambers compare with City law firms?
In fairness, there are major differences, but they are not to do with equipment. To understand the differences one needs to step back into the businesses themselves to identify their drivers. First we ought to recognise that the same question asked three years ago would have rightly focused on the same list of equipment and received a different answer – law firms had it and, by and large, barristers did not. The reason for the change has been the arrival of Microsoft NT, Outlook, Exchange and Explorer, with affordable servers from the likes of Dell and Gateway that work day in, day out without considerable IT staff intervention. At most leading commercial sets, every barrister has a top-class PC or laptop in chambers and at home, with access to the major requisite information sources. That, from my quick telephone 'straw poll', is pretty much true of most commercial chambers.
So what are the differences? Back to what the respective businesses need. Consider medium to large law firms and medium-sized commercial/chancery chambers, both operating at the complex high-value end of the scale. I have three differences, one surprise and a plea.
Document management and its volume
The respective roles in the legal process determine business needs. Documents in law firms comprise masses of relatively short client letters, faxes and memos and large complex documents which evolve through collaboration between people in different departments and the client. Tracked changes and version control, as well as well-defined document labelling (profiles) are needed. In contrast, chambers have relatively few letters and smaller documents, be it advice or litigation. Documents are created and honed mostly by one person before being despatched, often by email, to the client. A law firm needs an industrial-strength document management system at its heart; a chambers does not. (Microsoft Explorer is fine, provided the documents are saved on the central server with good back-up procedures for disaster recovery.) From my law firm experience, the document management software and its integration was at the root of many time-consuming problems and user frustrations.
Information and research
In law firms, it is the trainees and younger assistants who predominantly use library resources, both hard copy books and online. Partners manage the problem and structure the resources. Every PC does not need online applications, which can be on one or two central library PCs or on one PC per floor. Not so in chambers. Individual barristers predominantly do their own research, so books need to be near at hand and online services on their PCs.

I miss what I had in a law firm, and even then used to moan that it was not good enough. But it was hugely better than what I get now

It is a business imperative that every barrister must have the best information and knowledge at their fingertips. Traditionally that has been books, but the future is online, particularly as the internet affords accessibility to information resources irrespective of location. There are problems, though, that are only just beginning to turn around. Most on-line providers have yet to get their pricing structures matched to the bar's one-person business structure. If they can, then there is a much larger market here for them. They need to make it affordable for the chambers. My set, Wilberforce Chambers, has recently completed a six-month negotiating game with one supplier for a suite of services. Initial quoted prices would hardly move to the suggested acceptable figure, but we eventually got there, while they got a sale and enthusiastic advocates. That has to be right.
IT staff
Law firms have them and chambers tend not to. Wilberforce has a permanent IT manager, as do a few other chambers. It may be something of a trend now, although there is a critical size below which it is probably not feasible. Being a small organisation compared with law firms means that it is a judgement call rather than a 'no-brainer'. The alternative is that the clerks tackle problems as they arise, but that takes them away from their critical client service job, and barristers spend ages on telephone support lines sorting out their PC problems, taking them away from what they do best. Strategically, it may be better to have an in-house specialist rather than struggle to believe what every IT supplier says you need (which always seems to have plenty of noughts on the end of it). Using an external 'outsourced' specialist is a halfway house.
The surprise
Barristers (in Wilberforce anyway) are probably more PC-literate than many lawyers. Doing most of their own research, which is increasingly web-based, and daily internet use, together with keyboard and document production skills, contrasts with law firm partners and their support structure. Almost all barristers at Wilberforce do their own typing and document formatting. And that is supported by my straw poll of four other commercial chambers. Voice dictation has not taken off in the commercial bar, and from what I am given to understand, it never will.
The plea
The major deficiency of chambers IT versus law firm IT is in the dearth of management practice information. I miss what I had in a law firm, and even then used to moan that it was not good enough. But it was hugely better than what I get now. Running any business requires immediate fingertip access to knowing what comes from where, who to consider and when, and deciding where to focus client service and current and future business development. In a professional services business made up of individual one-person businesses, it is even more important to be able to see the picture easily, as it is not just the instructing firm but the individual in that firm who is the client. We need to be able to 'cut' to specific information simply and easily. Chambers practice management software is way behind in this respect.
And what of the future?
I cannot yet see case management systems being installed in a chambers, as that is currently the province of law firms – although it will be interesting to watch the next step in the Office of Fair Trading game and where it leads. What I can see is that, as an integral member of the dispute resolution team with the law firm, barristers having access via the web to the case management system for their particular case is a logical extension of playing for that team and for the client.
Gareth Mason is the chambers director at Wilberforce Chambers.