The art of the possible

With ever greater importance being placed on IT, the technology of tomorrow has never been more important

Nathan Hayes
Nathan Hayes

Mark Webber
Mark Webber

By Nathan Hayes, IT director, and Mark Webber, partner and head of technology, Osborne Clarke

In today’s ever-changing legal market, the demands being made on a firm’s IT arrangements are changing at a similar rate. Providing an appropriate, ubiquitous and uniform service at an acceptable cost within legislative frameworks can be a challenge in itself. Of course, any IT system needs to be secure and robust enough to withstand the pressures of a modern legal practice, be they mergers, globalisation, pricing pressure or the myriad of other opportunities and threats faced by firms today.

It is within this context that IT leaders are developing the vision for law firms. There are a number of mechanisms that can be used to help develop that vision; one approach is to put yourself in the position of being responsible for developing the IT arrangements for a new law firm from scratch. To truly examine the art of the possible we will take the liberty of envisaging a future that allows us to fully explore the capabilities of both today’s technology and that of the future.

So what would we deploy for a new multinational law firm should we find ourselves with a blank sheet of paper and funds for an appropriate IT budget?

People, process and legislation

With the introduction of new technology into any law firm, cultural implications are always a significant consideration and in some cases will drive the decision as to what to use and how to use it. Within our new firm allow me the leeway to envisage a workforce that is very open-minded, involved in working practice changes and also embracing those changes.

In such an environment we could examine the processes underpinning the delivery of legal services and seek to automate them where appropriate. Real advantage could be gained if we were to codify our lawyers’ knowledge into appropriate processes, with document or other automated tools all operating within a collaborative environment inhabited with appropriate controls of both the law firm and the client. Such a holistic approach would also allow us to evaluate how best to equip the legal teams required to deliver the services. A good number of these processes could leverage legal process outsourcing (LPO), an option which, in some cases, may provide access to more appropriate resources for particular processes. Designing our IT systems in such a way as to allow LPOs to plug resources into those processes then becomes an important consideration. 

Another factor restricting our ability to leverage new technology is the legislative frameworks within which we operate. An example would be electronic document signature systems. While it is hard to argue against their appeal – their ability to deliver efficiencies, provide assurance that a document was signed and by whom – there are some adoption attitudes that need to be overcome and also a number of jurisdictions where the legal efficacy of such systems remains untested.

What to deliver

What actual IT services would we look to deliver to our new firm? An enterprise resource planning (ERP) or business management (BM) system suitable for a multinational law firm would be central to any strategy, and the proven solutions in the market today such as Elite 3E or Aderant Expert would be the obvious starting point. 

It can be argued these existing solutions still reside in the realm of practice management systems (PMS), but in the near term there seems few viable alternatives for larger law firms. These solutions are, however, continuing to be developed effectively from the ground up. Invariably this leads to difficulties around integration and high development costs, something that the legal market is not particularly well placed to bear because of its relatively small size, even globally.

Vendors would do well to embrace the shared IT delivery models that law firms are being encouraged to adopt by looking to the generic enterprise grade solutions already available in the wider IT market and then tailoring them to the needs of law firms. In the past various initiatives along these lines have not always gone well, SAP’s previous forays into the legal market come to mind, so it is positive to hear of Lexis Nexis’s intent to utilise the Microsoft Dynamics platform for its business management initiative for law firms, Project Nimbus. Thomson Reuters Elite seems to be doing an impressive job of building out its existing suite of legal applications by hoovering up the likes of FloSuite and bolting them together to create a true ERP/BM system for the larger firms.

We will avoid going through a blow-by-blow account of all the core legal IT system requirements such as document management, workflow etc, but the same issues around
the predominance of solutions built from the ground up and the desire to find vendors that are leveraging enterprise grade generic solutions tailored to the needs of the legal market hold true in each case. Though there is a myriad of choice, it is not always simple to put these together as a holistic IT service.

Even with a brand-new firm to work with, there are going to be certain legacy arrangements which are unlikely to be usurped any time soon. Microsoft Word and the Office platform is just one example. 

Along with email, document production is at the heart
of the law firm work product and the current lack of interoperability in this area with the Apple and Android platforms is the reason why we would seriously consider deploying Windows tablets and hybrid laptops into any
new firm. 

Additionally, it is hard not to use the solution adopted by the majority of the worldwide competition, as most legal deals involve the interaction of more than one law firm.

In the realm of smartphones, all platforms can now be effectively supported in combination with mobile device management solutions and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. 

So providing a ‘choose your own device’ option from a range of Apple, Android, Windows and BlackBerry devices can be delivered relatively simply and becomes merely a question of the extent to which a firm is willing to pay for choice. As for BlackBerry, with version 10 of its platform there may be life in the old dog yet, especially for those people wedded to physical keyboards.

This brings me to my first challenge to the legal IT solutions community: there should be more focus on developing mobility strategies that both reflect an understanding of the functionality that lawyers need while out and about, and an end point agnostic approach that gives individuals a choice of mobile platform.

Cloud Computing

How best to deliver 

Arguably the long-term future of technology delivery in law firms is likely to be almost entirely via Software as a Service (SaaS), a form of cloud service, where applications are hosted and managed elsewhere by a third party. Take-up is mainly being determined by when SaaS/cloud providers begin to offer the appropriate service quality, integration, vertical market tailoring and demonstrable legislative adherence. That is quite a list and I say ‘almost entirely’ since there will be certain data that needs be managed and hosted other than via any type of shared delivery model. 

We are already seeing vendors, especially in the US, embracing the SaaS model when providing ‘all-in-one’ IT services to smaller firms operating in a single or limited number of jurisdictions with more straightforward business structures. The demands of email management and archiving combined with the challenges of providing such services in-house and on-premises have forced a significant proportion of law firms of all shapes and sizes to move to the SaaS model as provided by the likes of Mimecast or Google. The concerns over which jurisdictions Google may choose to host Postini services from in future and the recent, although so far unique event in its history, of a Mimecast service outage mean that such SaaS solutions are not entirely the panacea that some would have us believe. Factor in something like the recent Prism story and it is hard to know what fallout this will create. Generally, though, those vendors providing IT systems to larger firms with more complex requirements seem to be lagging behind in offering SaaS.

The ‘best of breed’ approach of the larger law firms, where their applications integrate with others to create the full suite of IT systems, certainly poses an additional hurdle to adopting a SaaS approach as there is additional complexity in having to integrate with other on-premises and SaaS delivered systems.

That brings me to my second challenge to the legal IT solutions community: to develop and invest more in their SaaS strategies and construct them in a way that meets the needs of the larger and more complex law firms, particularly around interoperability. 

In the meantime, hosting existing services in a such a way as to be flexible enough to migrate easily and cost effectively to a SaaS delivery model when appropriate will be key for any new law firm, and the Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) cloud model lends itself to do this well. Within the IaaS model, a third party would run at least two geographically separate data centres, for business continuity purposes, and provide a firm with an IT infrastructure, in the form of processing capacity and data storage, to meet its needs. This capacity and storage can be scaled up as the firm grows or down as the firm chooses to migrate applications to the SaaS model.

Most law firms now accept that the role of technologists is to provide better value from technology rather than simply operating the IT ‘plumbing’. The IaaS model certainly moves us in that direction. In addition, and for all but the largest firms, it is rarely possible to justify the depth of skill and resources required to operating the IT plumbing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, worldwide, as most law firms now expect. Combine this with the dramatic reduction in the wide area networking costs that tend to be associated with such a solution and I would suggest that almost any new law firm should choose to secure the services of an IaaS provider in the cloud.

With data centres and services operating externally, we can turn ourselves to the IT arrangements of the offices themselves. The received wisdom that firms should connect offices using a ‘dedicated’ network can also be challenged. The tools that are now available to secure online traffic allow us to consider solely relying on internet connectivity to link offices to a firm’s datacentres, IaaS and SaaS providers, rather than using a traditional ‘dedicated’ wide area network (WAN). 

Such an approach provides greater resilience and bandwidth at a much lower price point. It has to be said, though, that many legacy applications and data-hungry systems such as video conferencing, can prove tricky to deliver sucessfully via an internet-based network. The networks in our offices – our local area networks (LANs) – are traditionally geared towards wired networking with wireless networking seen as an adjunct. This could and should be turned on its head within a new environment. On the basis that virtually all end-point IT devices such as PCs, smartphones, desk phones, printers and scanners are Wi-Fi enabled, the focus should be on a pervasive Wi-Fi network with a wired LAN being provided only where required.

This brings us to one example of what could be achieved when the opportunities presented by a new firm, technology, delivery mechanisms and a workforce open to new working practices are combined. 

With such a highly mobile workforce and the pervasive nature of mobile devices in law firms, we can seek to leverage these devices to reduce the one-off costs associated with setting up offices. The combination of a pervasive voice enterprise certified Wi-Fi network in the office means all mobile calls could be rerouted through landlines to keep costs low. The services of a SaaS provider could be engaged to deliver limited public switched telephone network (PSTN) connectivity and operate such a solution, thereby releasing the in-house IT team to focus on technology solutions that are of more value.

Of course there are many more aspects of a firm’s IT arrangements, and more details, which we have not been able to explore here. And, of course, a rigorous assessment should be made as to when many of the hurdles described are in reality likely to fall by the wayside. However, we hope this gives a flavour of one of the mechanisms that can be used to help create the IT vision and strategy for a new law firm.