IT MANAGEMENT: Our IT friends in the North
Adrienne Margolis talks to three IT managers from national firms who elaborate on their particular strategies
Pinsent CurtisColin Smith, IT director at Pinsent Curtis, has been at the firm since 1991. “I came from a purely IT background. I had done programming and technical support for companies such as ICL and software houses.” After working on the sales side, he decided to move to a more professional environment. He judged that IT policies within law firms had not been fully formulated, which meant he could have some input.Smith spoke to a couple of law firms and realised that their IT strategy was determined by senior partners. “Legal-specific software houses were reactive, and there was no real moulding of strategy,” he says. Smith discovered he could make his views heard because IT professionals within law firms have a different set of skills from lawyers. “You can devise an IT strategy that the company can grow with, but senior management needs to be supportive,” Smith says.“You have to sell yourself, and keep a positive frame of mind. You also have to align yourself with various partners, and understand the politics of the organisation.”Smith believes there is a range of standard IT support systems that national firms need. “Inter-office communication is critical,” he says. Intranet, extranets and e-mail can all be used. “E-mail was the easiest to install. It took off in the firm about four years ago. Now 98% of the staff use it.”Smith acknowledges that partners are funding IT improvements out of their own pockets. During the last two years, management of the IT budget has become very specific, he says. “I have to make a strategic case, although on-going maintenance is underwritten. Projects must have business benefits, a time frame and be assessed for the training that they might involve.”Another critical aspect of IT is project management, he says. “For example, Pinsent Curtis has introduced a Lotus Notes package specified for its own use. I have always steered clear of in-house development. I prefer to customise from off the shelf.” There have been a few major issues that the IT department has had to deal with in the last 18 months. “We have undertaken major tasks such as replacing the practice management system, putting electronic time entry on every lawyer’s desk and dealing with Y2K,” Smith explains. “The key has been forming working practice groups and following a laid down method for each new programme.”The one area that tends to be overlooked is the impact on working practices, Smith says. “Because we have spent two years educating lawyers in IT, it is easy to miss the need to maintain the quality of support.” As the emphasis shifts to client needs, a bigger team is on the agenda. “We have the right broad skills,” he says. “Now we are recruiting individuals with specific skills. We are keen to move into information services for example, which will deliver research material to the desk for lawyers.”“We are also looking at electronic packaging of legal expertise. Our own house is in order and our lawyers are comfortable with technology. But we have to keep drip-feeding training, and we need to keep assessing it. We do a lot of floor walking to see how people are coping.”
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