Whilst there may be debate as to the degree, it is fair to say that the Legal sector does have some unique IT requirements.
Therefore, it is important for IT Managers and Service Providers operating in this sector, and equally Partners of law firms themselves, to appreciate the subtle differences from other industries. I’ve described some of the challenges particular to this sector here.
Firstly, most lawyers are not technical and they don’t need to be as the service they provide is not related to technology.
They do, however, rely on IT to produce documents which are, in most cases, the end product and need to be accurate in both content and presentation.
The production process must be as efficient and reliable as possible, while the information contained is almost always confidential.
Having said lawyers are not technical, it is not uncommon for law firms to customise standard software and even write bespoke software themselves. This is often done by in-house IT staff, acting as part-time software developers. This approach may make sense for the very large firms, who could justify an internal software development department, although it does seem incongruous for a law firm to develop their own software.
Any organisation writing its own software needs to ensure that the software development is sustainable - that’s to say, best practice development methodologies are employed; that the software is not tied to an individual or small group of people such that the product is not impacted by a change in staff; and the software needs to be supported and maintained throughout its lifetime, typically ten years or more.
In that context, it’s hard to argue with implementing third party software, where the vendor has multiple clients and the software evolves and improves over several iterations. While the initial outlay and on-going maintenance might seem prohibitive compared to a couple of in-house IT staff who can set something up alongside their daily activities, the overall end-to-end financial impact is usually much more favourable.
Typically, rigorous development methods are not used for bespoke software, such that the software is only compatible with current systems and equipment and cannot easily be adapted in the future.
Even worse, little or no documentation is prepared or retained, so it becomes difficult to move on from the bespoke solution, as updated solutions become available.
The attraction of bespoke software is that it can be written to accommodate custom requirements, often in a shorter time frame. This should prompt the question, “Why do we have custom requirements?” The legal sector is well established in terms of technology so third party products should generally cover most requirements. The next question should perhaps be “What do other firms do?” IT departments in law firms are surprisingly collaborative and most are happy to discuss these issues.
Clearly, regulatory updates may demand mandatory changes to processes, which need to be reflected in corresponding software and systems. However, it is then the third party supplier’s responsibility to implement these changes in their software in the required timescale.
Since lawyers spend a large part of their time preparing legal documents, any efficiency that can be gained here looks attractive. For example, shortcuts that save time when building, formatting or printing a document should be worthwhile. However, again, caution needs to be exercised. Like bespoke software, customisations here may lose their initial shine once long term compatibility, support and maintenance are taken into account. In this case, a shortcut may be an indication of a different issue, such as a substitute for training or the underlying document automation processes.
For example, if you need to print the first page on headed paper, which is in printer tray 1 and subsequent pages on continuation paper, which is in tray 2, you could create a shortcut to perform this task. This means that all your printers need at least three trays (including plain paper) and your shortcut will probably only work on your current printers. Alternatively, you could educate staff on how to perform the task manually, or create templates with the required information on each page. If these alternatives are not suitable, a third party solution may be available, which could accommodate the requirements.
The security of information an organisation holds on its clients is essential for all organisations, no more so than for a law firm. In many cases, client information is central to the service the law firm provides, for example, in an employment matter or commercial negotiation. Inappropriate disclosure of client information may significantly impact the service the firm is able to provide. The financial and reputational damage could be significant, even before any authorities impose any penalties.
There is always a balance to be found between imposing strict security controls and impacting staff productivity, however, in many cases, it is often the culture towards security that needs to change.
For example, entering a set of credentials in the form of a username and password should not be seen as a barrier, but a proof of identity. Appropriate rights should be granted to that identity, rather than requiring the identity of someone who has those rights.
It is also important to understand that information security is not just an IT issue; there are many operational aspects to information security, not least because lawyers are in the documentation business and tend to work from hard copies. So while the soft copy might be secure on the file server or document management system, it is impossible to set access permissions on hard copies.
Understanding Legal IT
Delivering an efficient, effective IT service requires a good understanding of the business in any sector, especially for a law firm. IT is not a core competency of any law firm, although lawyers have a strong dependency on IT. Therefore, the IT department facilitates standard solutions to common requirements, while the requirements themselves may need to be “standardised” to fit with available solutions. A Service Provider that can integrate standard solutions is essential to a law firm’s success.
Written by David Mallett
David Mallett is the IT Manager for the Plan-Net Outsourced IT Department of Davenport Lyons, a top 200 law firm. This Plan-Net team was last year nominated as a finalist at the UK IT Industry Awards in the category of IT Department of the Year for its achievements.