New IT systems require trained users

New IT requires investment in training to maximise its potential, a fact lawyers have yet to grasp, says Graham Scrivener. Graham Scrivener is sales and marketing director for Tuition Computer Training.

COMPARED to other businesses the legal profession has traditionally taken a very considered approach to new technology. While the financial and retail industries, for example, have leapt to embrace the benefits of new gadgetry, the legal industry has retained a more careful attitude towards technology which has, on occasion, bordered on technophobia.

Do law and technology mix? The legal profession is, by nature, cautious and traditional. New technology must be bought via partners who are often not computer-literate.

The commonly held perception is that the profession lags behind other industries when it comes to embracing technology.

This perception is increasingly out of date – just look at the growing amount of direct mail from technology companies that now piles up on your desks.

Consider that 40 per cent of the top law firms are now mig-rating to Windows NT4 – the operating system of choice for IT top dogs in the financial sector. Others are moving towards Office and Windows 95.

Larger firms, in particular, are confidently installing video conferencing facilities and high-cost document management systems.

When you think about the fact around half the larger firms already have an Intranet in place, it seems the IT revolution is not just underway, but reaching advanced stages.

The increasing number of full-time and contract IT staff employed by firms is one of the most obvious signs of change.

But law firms often have an unrealistic idea of what a change of technology entails – expecting tangible benefits in a short space of time, and failing to understand the importance of training staff in how to use the new technology.

The most important part of any system is the user of it and that user must know what he or she is doing. Untrained staff and new systems are a mixture which can lose companies money rather than maximising investment.

Firms now recognise their investment does not stop at hardware and software and are looking to outsourcing for answers – the theory being that to migrate and work smarter is far preferable to migration alone.

The top 100 London firms have in-house trainers, but the underlying trend now seems to be to take a more strategic approach to using them. Two trainers cannot transfer skills quickly and effectively to a whole company of 1,000 employees so, by using in-house staff to brief and work in partnership with a third party, firms get specialist training skills alongside in-depth knowledge of their own business.

This often involves working in tandem to develop a company-wide "Training Needs Analysis" (TNA), followed by a strategy specially developed to cover this.

Methods range from short, highly targeted sessions for fee earners who do not have the time for day-long courses off site, to more general, longer courses for office staff and legal secretaries.

In large firms, an effective partnership is essential in order to ensure a quick transition to a new application or operating system and maximise time spent in the classroom. In smaller firms, third-party support can be crucial to their very existence.

It seems it is a lack of in-house technical expertise rather than and actual desire to move on which hampers progression in this area. A recent direct mail exercise to smaller firms conducted by our company prompted far more general enquiries about network installation rather than about training.

These companies are victims of the skills gap. Lacking the buying clout and staggered uptake of their larger counterparts, many find themselves forced to change – but with larger migration leaps, for example from older systems such as DOS or Wang to Windows, rather than the shorter leap of Windows 3.11 to NT4. This means a huge cultural change – making training even more important.

But value for money is crucial for all firms, whatever their size. Most legal professionals would admit they are not IT experts. Partners therefore need evidence of tangible benefits to sanction changes, with IT staff needing to secure their buy in with a strong business case. This is the lot of the legal IT manager – trying to win a business case against professional lawyers.

The value of training in this process is that it empowers users to make the best use of the tools at their disposal, so it really should be thought of as a logical extension to the installation of new systems. Since many law firms have already skipped a generation of IT development, any investment will now reap rewards quickly.

The main decision most legal professionals now face is whether to embrace technology, use it to its full potential, or just be hit by it when their competitors do.