Doing the digital homework

City legal practices have always been new technology adopters – most recently they have been at the forefront of moves toward data-centric network environments. However, the willingness to adopt leading-edge developments has been tempered by a more typical legal market cautiousness in the form of mandatory checks and corporate procedures. But is the present rush to adopt Microsoft Windows NT over-confident?

While the general trend in the legal market is to merely dab a toe-tip in the muddy pool of new technology, around the Square Mile solicitors and their IT gurus have been falling over themselves to move from out-of-date systems to maintain competitive advantage. The trend is spreading as more and more practices evaluate their IT requirements and consider their equipment.

Legal firms are increasingly moving to centralised databases. Many now have powerful building blocks on their networks as a result of installing document management software. Yet a large number are oblivious to the power they already have at their fingertips through technology such as Microsoft's SQL Server platform, which is one of the most dominant databases for the Windows NT operating system.

So is this rush to embrace NT ill-considered? Certainly those proponents of Novell NetWare and Lotus Notes will be keen to suggest that this is the case. I don't have any doubt as to the capability, or flexibility, of the technology, nor of Microsoft's welcome development path for it. The danger seems to me to be in rushing headlong into installation before the 'homework' stage has been completed.

If the expectation is not clearly defined, or the installation properly planned and executed, then no technology, however excellent, can successfully deliver. Merely using new technology for the same purposes as earlier software will not necessarily result in the promised significant increases in productivity. Practices need to be sure the migration path is well defined and specifically for them.

The view that Windows NT can empower legal firms to run both processor or transaction-based applications in the front and back office is an immensely seductive one. If you then add in the attractions of low-cost training and the reduced outlay for hardware platforms, you realise that for approximately £500 today you can achieve everything in operating systems terms that would have cost you tens of thousands of pounds just a couple of years ago.

My belief is that NT has matured a great deal in those same two years, and now delivers practical, homogeneous tools. Ranging from its BackOffice Suite and Internet links, to SMS, the Software Management System which manages workstations on the network, Microsoft has listened to solicitors' cries for help over the difficulties of installing multiple upgrades. NT will ensure practices are well placed to benefit from network developments such as Intranets and the formulation of a common user interface for all applications.

Some practices are evaluating the practicality of discarding their existing email system and moving to Microsoft Exchange. The attractiveness of Lotus Notes seems to have paled somewhat, perhaps because Exchange now has the workflow functionality that was the domain of Notes.

But the real question for City practices is that of the cost of change. "How do we afford to move from proprietory, or Novell-based networks and manage the process effectively?" I would caution that it isn't simply a question of defining the network infrastructure.

My concern is that because the minefield of whether to go for Windows NT, NetWare, UNIX or OS/2 seems finally to have a clear path marked through it; because questions over where to store your data or what strategy you should follow seem less confusing, practices are neglecting the bigger picture.

Training courses need to be tailored to tasks. A uniform base level of knowledge is essential across the company. The whole project management task must be pre-planned and fitted to the needs of the individual practice. Only in these circumstances will NT be given the chance to generate the payback it is capable of.