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Law firms are spending more than ever on office technology but many are not getting much bang for their byte, a new survey concludes. Information technology accounts for about 6.6 percent of law firms’ gross revenues, on average, up from 6 percent a year ago, says Hildebrandt International, a consulting company to the legal industry based in Somerset, N.J., and the author of the IT/Business Process Improvement Survey. Hildebrandt offers tech training programs for law firm staffs. “Technology is becoming more and more expensive, and firms are not employing it effectively,” says Barbara Gerth, senior consultant, information services and practices in Hildebrandt’s technology group. “Lawyers still have this conception that technology is overhead and a necessary evil. They don’t necessarily look to technology as a way to cut costs. But you can use technology to streamline processes and cut costs.” Too often, Gerth says, firms buy and install technology and train somebody to use it without giving thought as to how best to utilize it. Some firms buy new software rather than evaluating how to use existing software more fully. Hildebrandt sent its second annual IT survey to 700 law firms in April; 10 percent responded. Among the consultant’s findings: � Attorney to secretary ratios rose slightly from 1.9 attorney to every one secretary this year, compared with 1.7 last year. The largest and smallest firms had the highest ratios. � Attorney to total administrative staff ratios varied depending on the size of the firm. “If ratios fall much below 1:1, which has traditionally been our benchmark, lawyers tend to take up the slack and take on a fair amount of nonlegal work,” the Hildebrandt report says. “While they still bill for their time, this practice tends to raise the cost of their legal services and lower the lawyers’ quality of life.” Firms with less than 100 attorneys reported 1.17 attorneys to every one administrative staff member. In firms of 100 to 250 lawyers, the ratio is 0.9 lawyers, and in offices with more than 500 attorneys, the ratio is 1.08. � End users to IT personnel ratios also varied. Hildebrandt’s benchmark ratios range from 22 to 32 users for each IT person, depending on the role of IT in the firm. The survey found that firms with 40 to 99 lawyers have an average of 37 users to every one IT person, an increase of 10 users from last year. In firms employing 500 to 750 lawyers, there are 26 users for every one IT worker, up nine users from last year. “These increased IT expenditures do not seem to have had a significant impact on the reporting firms’ organizational structures or staffing ratios,” the survey’s authors conclude. Nor has increased spending on IT resulted in paperless law offices. About 40 percent of survey respondents have an automated file-opening process, and only 25 percent have docketing systems that automatically remind lawyers of forthcoming docket dates, according to Hildebrandt. About 45 percent of the respondents use document assembly software to build standard forms or documents and 60 percent have a central scanning function that enables them to store documents to a central electronic file for litigation support. But only half store and index those images. “This suggests that a significant amount of document search and retrieval still requires reams of paper,” the report says. Financial management and accounting systems also remain labor-intensive, paper-based and people-bound, the consultant concludes. Fewer than half the firms that responded pass billing information directly from their accounting systems into word processing systems, the survey found. Little more than half of the firms index and store electronic copies of the final bills in their document management systems. Still, there has been some progress among law firms at automating procedures. Some 62 percent of the respondents say they send electronic bills to their clients rather than using the U.S. Postal Service. Last year, the number was 40 percent. Similarly, 75 percent of the respondents use an intranet to disseminate information within the firm, as opposed to publishing or updating documents and physically distributing and storing them. Last year, only 50 percent of the firms reported doing this. And 40 percent of the firms participating in the survey said they offer their clients electronic subscriptions or alerts on topical matters rather than publishing and mailing paper versions. Some habits, however, may be hard to break. New office technologies enable firms to do many functions in a fixed number of steps that take a fixed amount of time, the Hildebrandt report notes. Yet lawyers overwhelmingly continue to bill by the hour. “A lot of firms feel that clients expect to be billed by the hour,” Gersh says.

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