Rising client expectations mean IT capabilities are increasingly crucial to the smooth running and competitiveness of corporate law firms. Kieran Flatt talks to four female movers and shakers in UK legal firms
Janet Day, IT director at Berwin Leighton, has more experience than most in the legal sector. Her 20-year career began after university as an administrative assistant at Allen & Overy, where she ended up running the firm’s worldwide IT services.“I thought it was time to grow up, so I took an MBA and started an IT consultancy, which is still running,” she says. “I have been with Berwin Leighton since 1996. I was working on the roll-out of the company’s new systems when I was offered a permanent post – but I retained the option to consult across the whole market.” She says her strength as a consultant lies in her versatility. “Many consultants tend to focus on either strategic or pragmatic solutions,” she says. “I am happy to do both.” Day is playing a leading role in the launch of Be-Professional, a joint e-commerce venture in partnership with Deloitte & Touche. Both companies are jointly investing £5m in the new venture, which aims to provide online legal and professional services to the small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector. “We started work on Be-Professional in the spring,” she explains. “WorldPay provides the hosting environment and the e-payment facility for the site. Clients can use Be-Professional to build privacy statements and register for VAT online, if they need to do so.” The VAT and tax advice provided covers all jurisdictions in the European Union, and although the October launch will focus mainly on the UK, Be-Professional intends to move into Europe.Day is also the driving force behind Be-legal.com, one of the first legal services websites. “The pre-launch was announced before Christmas last year,” she says. “We were thinking about how to change the mechanisms for offering things. I was working on a document automation project with Quentin Solt, a corporate partner, and we realised that what was missing was an efficient delivery mechanism for the client.” Be-legal is a web-based fulfilment service that cuts out the direct involvement of a solicitor. “Most sites are focused solely on providing web-based advice,” she says. “Be-legal is different because it delivers a completed document by using a series of structured questions with associated decision trees. We spend a lot of time considering what market research can tell us and the site will develop additional services as we identify new needs.”Day has seen a rapid increase in the importance of the IT professional. “Once upon a time, IT was a small, back office concern, but it has become much more of a frontline activity,” she says. “The people and the role have changed beyond recognition. So have firms’ expectations. The burden of responsibility has also shifted – we have to take on a multitude of responsibilities for what could happen, rather than just provide solutions for what has happened. It is a proactive role, where it used to be responsive. It has become more strategic, creative, analytical and business-oriented.”Day identifies three key priorities for the future: “To maximise investment and our comprehension of what IT is capable of; to use technology to help the firm preserve its relationships with clients; and to maintain – and continually evaluate – an awareness of what has been done and what technology can achieve.” She recognises the importance of forward planning. “The speed of change is awesome,” she says. “The rules two years ago are not the rules now.” Day attributes the speed of growth to the fact that all the processes in a law firm require an underlying technology structure, which shifts the IT director’s role to the hub of the firm’s strategic agenda. “It used to be embarrassing to be technically able,” she says. “Now it is a positive thing, the rock that underpins the delivery of legal services. For the first time, it is seen as as valuable and criticalas any other profession.” She predicts that “whoever joins the legal profession now is in for the most exciting 10 years of their life”.According to Day, as systems revolutionise legal practice, effectively shaping it and commoditising its services, “the number of lawyers in practice will diminish, but the firms that are left will be exciting places to work and the lawyers will be the best”. The casualties will be those practices that “have not bothered to look at the way they deliver services”. This presents more of an operational challenge for larger firms because the advantages of an economy of scale are outweighed by the complexity of keeping a large organisation up to date. “Smaller firms can more easily set about changing the way they apply specialist knowledge,” she says. “It is the dilettantes that will disappear.”
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