Management commitment and a realistic budget have ensured that Wragge & Co is making technology work for the firm and its clients. Adrienne Margolis talks to Derek Southall and Matthew Cleverdon about the chosen path
Birmingham-based Wragge & Co has taken a different approach to IT from most law firms. Just over a year ago, an additional department was created to complement the work of the existing IT team. The strategic development unit had a brief to make sure IT was applied for the benefit of lawyers internally, as well as for the benefit of clients. The idea was to focus on the business and to make sure IT systems had greater functionality.Derek Southall is head of the new development team. The existing IT department is run by Matthew Cleverdon, the firm’s technology strategist.“The reason for the change is client-led, like many things at Wragge & Co,” Southall explains. “The division between myself and Matt came about because up until about a year ago, I was working as a corporate finance lawyer in the firm. I was assigned to cases such as management buyouts and decided to look at the quality of what was being achieved, through different working methods. For example, document assessment technology was coming onto the marketplace, which could improve efficiency and the speed and quality of service. To exploit it, we needed to focus on the legal job it would be applied to.”Southall and Cleverdon are keen to point out that the law firm concentrates on how appropriate technology is for their purposes, rather than being seduced by technology for technology’s sake. Cleverdon says Wragge is also different from many law firms, in that the technology that is used, both internally and externally, is driven by clients. “They are increasingly interested in how to get services delivered through IT,” he says. “Three or four years ago, the only question they would ask was whether we had a word processor. Now they want details of e-commerce, intranets and extranets. It is a huge shift.”Cleverdon is from a technical, not a legal, background. Wragge was his first major employer after leaving university and he has been in the firm’s IT department for five and a half years. The changes which have taken place in that time have been huge, he says.Until recently, IT in law firms had largely addressed internal needs, and suppliers have concentrated on that. But, as clients increasingly want to make use of what is in place too, this must be addressed. There is still a long way to go to meet client IT needs, the two admit, but they say Wragge has made a strong start.In terms of developing IT, all new products are assessed to see if they meet the criteria set by internal and external clients. As for how IT is delivered: “It has to be leading edge,” Cleverdon insists. “All our core systems are on the same database platform,” he explains. This allows for easy and speedy access to a wide range of information.Cleverdon’s IT department has a staff of 36. Southall has a staff of seven, with others seconded from areas such as marketing when needed. The teams cater to the 1,000 people in the main office in Birmingham and satellite offices in London and Brussels. When the London office moves later this year, the intention is to set up a range of services that will make it self-sufficient in IT terms. Southall’s strategic development team is responsible for the firm’s overall IT strategy. For example, it looks at areas such as e-commerce, with the clear objective of asking what the law firm will get out of its involvement. “This means we need to provide access to certain things for certain clients,” Southall explains. “Matt’s team evaluates the software. As well as the traditional roles, such as delivering technology, his focus is also increasingly on clients and service delivery.”The two reckon that when it comes to IT strategy, their approach of working on internal and client needs in parallel has given them a leading edge. “Our practice management, document management and case management systems are among the core systems on the same platform. We have a high level of data integrity,” Cleverdon says. This means there is speed and flexibility in how information can be delivered to clients, Southall adds. “We can meet clients’ aspirations because they do not have to get information from us from lots of discrete sources, which means we have a competitive edge.”Another advantage is that clients of all sizes can access the system. “There is no difference in the level of service to larger and smaller clients,” Southall says. “Our infrastructure is geared to being able to deliver to any client.”Most law firms are still aspiring to putting IT on a single database, a process Wragge & Co started almost four years ago. The firm and is now in a position to move on to other projects. Management backing and good project management are instrumental to making the strategy work, Southall points out, adding that it cannot be done overnight. “We are very fortunate that good strategy decisions have been made, in terms of where we are now. Also, there has been absolute commitment from management. Although Matt and I report to central management, IT is seen as key. IT is understood and seen as necessary. We are responsive to clients’ demands and can anticipate them,” he explains.How are the benefits of expenditure on IT assessed? “It is not just a question of returns – the process will always be on-going,” Southall says. “But we do monitor the extent to which we receive benefits. For example, we know how much a particular piece of IT is being used. We also get a lot of feedback from clients and that is very positive.”
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