IT’s evolving role in an evolving legal sector

The context for IT in the legal sector is changing. Legal Aid cuts, new flexible legal service providers, referral fee bans, new ABS and the Big 4 accountancy firms form an increasing threat to the typical traditional mid-sized ‘partner-led’ legal firm.

A higher level of freelance and temporary legal professionals and growth in outsourcing creates new cost-pressures and new threats, but also new opportunities.

The winners are those with, amongst other essentials, a defined IT strategy where IT spend is targeted at driving their business performance. Firms must determine their vision; for example simply to use technology to drive automation and cost-savings; or to free up partners and equip them to leverage their personal relationships and to provide the highest levels of personal service.

How can IT make this happen? We see the following areas of focus for our clients:

Optimised Practice Management & Reporting – Smooth-running, effective and efficient processes are the bedrock of a well-run firm. Systems need to provide clarity on matter and client profitability, billing, WIP, expenses and cash management and to free up highly-paid professionals from excessive administration. Firms living with ageing Practice Management Systems need to untangle their processes, identify a clear Target Operating Model and select and implement a PMS to make that a reality.

Mobility – Some firms still need to move from a paper-based, solely office-based culture where senior staff assume IT is for junior staff! This means ensuring that the IT works well, for everyone, anywhere, anytime. It means good access to the full range of systems and collaboration tools for people working remotely or on the move. All staff need proper training and support and need a positive and enthusiastic attitude.

Sales & Client Engagement – Effective CRM and relationship nurturing initiatives go hand-in-hand. Successfully implementing these initiatives is partly about technology but also about process, training and behaviours. Changes to organisation and incentive structures may be required.

Cybersecurity, Risks & Compliance – Reputable law firms can easily lose their reputation as a result of technology-based fraud or IT catastrophe. Adoption of security standards and external audits can help drive programs of security and business continuity planning. Getting these right often involves getting a wide range of technology and process issues sorted out, so this can be good all-round. But there is no end to the money that can be spent, and a commercial and real-world attitude is needed.

Innovation – Most firms have very unremarkable websites, and are not taking advantage of on-line marketing or sufficiently leveraging client portals. Forward-looking organisations are already embarking on a journey to automate ‘low end’ activities using machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). Mid-tier legal firms must be wary of another cycle of ‘IT industry hype’ but also need to avoid being left behind as gradual change can overtake them!

In every case the key issue is IT leadership and culture. IT must be at the top table; all senior leaders must be engaged with innovation, but there must be healthy scepticism and constant attention to ROI. The aim of IT must always be to deliver business outcomes.

IT needs to be owned by a confident, competent leader, well connected and influential around the firm. Good IT can significantly contribute to a unified and collaborative culture; and this can be self-reinforcing as more unified firms tend to adopt good IT more effectively.

Adoption and commitment are often the key factors in successful IT (and perhaps in success more broadly!) and strong IT leadership is the basic ingredient.

Read our Managing Partner’s Briefing on IT’s role in the Legal Sector here.