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Whether it’s referred to as the information technology department or the information systems department, most techies agree that working in firm technology is much more demanding than a similar job in the corporate environment. “Law firms have, for right or wrong, the idea that computers had better be running,” says Bruce Hatch, director of information systems at Dallas-based Baron & Budd. The firm has 575 users, with 14 people devoted to support and another nine who write software. “When you make changes, you can’t really be disruptive. They don’t want to see the seams. “I think information systems is in a position to dictate at a lot of corporations,” he says. “In a law firm, it’s a supporting role. The kind of weight you carry is not like in a corporate environment. You don’t even attempt to dictate. That gets right to the core of why this is more challenging. You have to design the smooth transition.” Tim Armstrong agrees. He’s director of information systems at Houston-based Vinson & Elkins where the user-to-staff ratio is about 23-to-1. “A law firm is much more demanding than any other environment I’ve ever been in,” says Armstrong, who previously worked in financial services and manufacturing industries. “Attorneys and the people they work with are very demanding. You can’t say no, and they want it all yesterday. It makes our support and project models more difficult than what I’m used to outside of this industry.” Armstrong says a response time of 15 minutes is expected at V&E. Also, downtime for upgrades and maintenance is not tolerated easily, he says. Tony Armendariz can relate to how frustrating it can be to schedule downtime with a firm. Armendariz is the information systems manager for Austin, Texas-based Clark, Thomas & Winters where the user-to-staff ratio is about 26-to-1. “Even trying to get a window [of opportunity] to run backups has become a challenge – much less maintenance or time to do upgrades,” he says. “We make people mad but we get to a point where we don’t have a choice — we have to schedule downtime.” But, downtime must be planned properly to achieve tolerance, says Thunder Denton, network administrator at Houston-based Dow, Cogburn & Friedman. The firm has 78 users, and Denton is the only techie. Denton’s previous experience includes hospitals and air routing systems — systems that put people’s lives in danger when they go down, he says. “It’s much easier to get things done in a law firm, in my opinion,” he says. “Attorneys do have kind of a prima donna attitude, if you will, but, unless you’ve worked with doctors, you have no idea about attitudes.” Denton recently scheduled system downtime over Easter weekend. “People came up here wanting to work,” he says. “They understood [they couldn't access the system] because it was scheduled. They make allowances.” Since time is at a premium, it’s important to develop as many shortcuts as possible, Hatch says. That means doing software upgrades through log-in procedures and through Web browsers. “With a browser-based interface, people don’t have that learning curve,” he says. “People don’t feel like they’re learning new software.” Armstrong agrees that this method saves time. “When I build something that has a Web interface, I don’t have to do a software deployment,” he says. DRIVING FORCE So, who’s driving the technological changes in firms? Denton believes it comes from three sources: attorneys, clients and the tech department itself. “There’s definitely an attitude of keeping up with the Joneses,” Denton says. That’s because many attorneys like to have the latest and greatest items. “But it’s also client-driven,” he says. One reason to change technology is to gain a competitive advantage, Armstrong says. “Whether they’re at home, at a client’s … if they can have the same productivity they have at their desks, then we’ve done a good job,” he says. “Clients expect attorneys to work better and faster than they did 10 years ago. I think we’ve achieved that. But there’s always room for improvement.” That’s where savvy information systems people come in, Denton says. “If an IS person will look toward the future to see where the trends are going and plot a path to get there, they can keep the law firm on the cutting edge,” he says. However, it’s important not to overwhelm the end-user, Armstrong points out. “The users just basically want to do their jobs,” he says. “They get burnt out with too many changes.” And people often are afraid to make a change from a system that works, Hatch says. “Because no one wants to take a chance, you lock in on what you have,” he says. “We’ve been successful in getting away from that here.” In the past, due to that attitude and the many glitches arising in first-edition software, people tended to shy away from trying new programs. That attitude also has changed, he says. “A long time ago, there was the theory that you didn’t want to buy the first-year model of cars,” Hatch says. “Car manufacturers have come a long way with that, and I think software manufacturers have, too.” An area for improvement is in communication between departments, Armendariz says. A common problem in dealing with nontechnical people in all industries is the language gap, he says. Denton agrees. “We’re in a different business, and we use different words,” he says. “Attorneys can’t really judge us.” That’s why he recommends an outside audit of the technology department at least every two years. “The only way for law firms to find out if their IS department is competent is to have outside audits done,” Denton says. “IS departments can rob you blind … . Audits also help the IS department justify the need for new or different technology. It’s a win-win situation as long as the IS department is doing its job.” However, Armendariz believes such audits are a waste of money. “That’s money we can use elsewhere,” he says. “If something’s drastically wrong and that’s the consensus, the changes will be made that are necessary to correct the problem — be it in personnel, software or hardware.” As challenging as it is to work in the technology department of a lot of firms, there are a couple of reasons that make it all worthwhile, Armstrong says. “We are very well respected by the executive management committee,” he says. “They look to us and listen to us … . We have a good group of people who have worked here a long time. “Vinson & Elkins embraces managed change,” he explains. “We get to work on a lot of new projects. There’s not as much flexibility in some other environments. It’s very challenging and every day’s a little bit different.” The main challenge in a law firm is remembering that you work for everyone — from attorneys to secretaries, Hatch says. “If you can remember that, I think you’ll do a much better job as an administrator working in a law firm,” he says. “Try to remain humble and don’t get arrogant.”

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