Sound foundation for innovation

Installing a practice management system is not a task to be taken lightly. Owen Williams explains the process.

No one should embark on the process of introducing a practice management system without very good reasons.

DJ Freeman had an accounts system that was showing its age. The hardware was being pushed to its limits, was not year 2000 compliant, and spare parts were becoming more difficult to get hold of. Attempts to improve the way the firm managed its business information were constrained by the limitations of the software, which was due for an overhaul.

The firm decided that something needed to be done. It decided that to spend money, time and effort merely to solve the original problems without achieving improvements in efficiency and increasing profit was a poor choice.

Rather than simply upgrading its accounts system, the firm wanted to obtain the added value that would follow from giving its lawyers the flexibility to access information and generate bills and reports from their desks.

From the outset the project team at DJ Freeman involved staff from the accounts and the IT departments and the executive committee.

Mark Gorringe, a business analyst in the IT department, was chosen as the project manager. John Irving, an IT consultant with BDO Stoy Hayward, was brought in to advise on tendering for the new system and to help select a supplier.

The responses to the tender were reviewed with the dual objective of improving efficiency and carrying out business process re-engineering.

A shortlist was drawn up from the responses and a preferred supplier was then identified. At this stage the Keystone system had not been considered because it was new and had no installed sites, making it a high-risk option.

But when DJ Freeman sought references from its preferred supplier's other customers, it discovered that several had experienced considerable implementation difficulties with the system that had been installed.

It seemed that while many appeared to have achieved improved efficiency, none of the firms had given their lawyers the capabilities DJ Freeman was looking for.

So Keystone was invited to respond to the tender and to present to the project team as a comparison with the preferred supplier's system.

As a result DJ Freeman decided that the Keystone system was the one most likely to provide the innovative process and productivity gains that it sought. However, there was still concern about the lack of installed sites.

Gorringe was consequently dispatched to New Zealand to visit the Keystone organisation on its home ground. With a favourable report from the antipodes, and with the expectation that Ashurst Morris Crisp would go live with Keystone in the UK at least six months ahead of DJ Freeman, the project team gave its unanimous support to the system.

At an early stage the firm recognised the need to make existing staff available for the project. It boosted the IT department by one and the accounts department by three. This allowed existing accounts staff to spend time on the project and it introduced new skills into the IT department.

The project team was made up of in-house staff and a contingent from Keystone, who were managed by their own project manager, Niamh Eadie. It also included David Johnson, who represented DJ Freeman's partners.

In addition, a steering group was set up with the task of keeping finance director Vince Potter and chief executive Jonathan Lewis fully informed of the project's progress.

The project proceeded through various stages. First an analysis was conducted of how the firm's existing system managed its business information. Next a model was drawn up of how the firm wanted its business system to manage information in an ideal world. The model was then adapted so it could be run by Keystone while also ensuring that it took advantage of all the system's technological capabilities.

Once this had been achieved the system was put through an extensive period of testing. This included "a day in the life of" exercise, when all the events that could conceivably happen to the system in a day were tested on the system to see whether or not it could cope.

Meanwhile, David Johnson had the system installed at his desk so he could test it from the fee earners' point of view.

When the news broke that Ashursts had decided not to complete its implementation of Keystone, DJ Freeman had already undertaken sufficient testing to be confident that the software would meet its requirements. But without Ashursts going live, it was felt additional testing would be needed so two more people were hired to help conduct further tests.

A key difference between Keystone and the other practice management systems on the market is the degree to which it empowers fee earners and secretaries.

Many of the activities which fee earners traditionally do on paper, such as time recording, or rely on other administrative departments to carry out, such as billing and setting up client accounts, can be done on-screen. For example, the production of bills is now entirely in the control of fee earners.

The system is also easy to use. However, DJ Freeman appreciated that its added capabilities meant that it was important to get the whole firm using it, to the fullest extent, as soon as possible.

The firm believes that in order to get the best out of IT training, staff must have immediate access to the system they are being trained on. This meant that some of the training would have to take place after the system went live. The staff were trained in batches over an eight-week period which spanned the system's start-up date – 14 July.

An essential element of the training programme was the intensive training of about 40 key personnel before the system went live.

These people were carefully chosen to ensure that they were spread out around every department to make sure that everyone using the new system would have someone near them who they could go to for advice and help.

The firm was also careful to establish a clear set of interim procedures to ensure a smooth transition between the old and the new system.

Keystone went live very smoothly, with many of the lawyers taking to the system like ducks to water. DJ Freeman is confident that it has not only changed the way its office works but also laid a sound foundation for future innovation.

Owen Williams is IT director at DJ Freeman.