Janet Day discovers that solutions are always twice as hard to find as they look when merging two law firms. She charts the IT course for the Berwin Leighton and Paisner & Co merger
|May 16, 2001 at 08:03 PM
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Have you ever owned a traffic jam? I have. I noticed it as I walked from Adelaide House to Bouverie House in London. I crossed New Bridge Street and realised Fleet Street was stationary. That traffic jam was mine – the road was narrowed by digging – the access for the fibre connecting Berwin Leighton’s Adelaide House to Paisner & Co’s offices at Bouverie House. It is a first: my very own traffic jam.“You will be able to integrate the technology, won’t you?” There is no answer to this except “of course” – and then you get down to reality. While keeping this diary, I found myself falling back on the frivolous and farcical – the slightly hysterical note probably reflects the barely controlled sense of panic. It does not mean I am not taking this topic seriously.Where do you start to merge two disparate IT systems, two firms that to the external world (and most of those working in them) share a culture and work in the same way, but whose swan-like paddles under the surface operate in such diverse ways? Two teams of people achieving the same ends, but used to doing things in their own ways, with two house styles for everything, from operating their telephone systems to creating documents. First, the key issues: making electronic links between the offices; providing the outside world with single points of access; integrating the applications (and migrating information and users where necessary); and dealing with the roll-out, the back-ups, the training and the timetable.The devil is in the detail. Today’s moment of hysteria hangs around window envelopes – one practice uses them as a matter of course, the other does not. There is no right answer, but advocates for both need to decide between the relative merits and reach a conclusion. One will have to change, and change entails a degree of friction and concern. Then there are the new templates to support the new corporate identity, which involves change for everyone. Corporate identity is part of the technical interlinking. And the printing cannot start until the URL, e-mail naming convention and telephone numbers have been secured and approved. Letters, documents, memos and the panoply of printed material issuing from a legal practice must all look alike on 1 May.I started by working out how to link the sites – ideal world version and how to link the sites if all else failed. So I had a plan that depended on various carriers delivering everything from LAN (local area network) 1000 connections to ISDN 30 links for voice traffic. Different carriers are involved, so if one carrier loses service, everything can carry on. We try negotiating in the dark with the carriers; in advance of the merger I got some of the carriers to quote. “Yes, we want to link this site to another site within a 5km radius.” Interested carrier responds: “Where?”. “Ah,” I said, “towards the West End, but before you get there…” Needless to say, in the end I swore them to secrecy about the A and B ends of the connection. I presume the beans about any merger could be spilled by telecoms carriers worldwide – an opportunity for corporate espionage?Did I say the devil was in the detail? It was true with this as well. One of the early decisions the integration committee (every good project has at least one committee) had to make was about phone numbers, fax numbers, DDI numbers and e-mail conventions. We spent some time amusedly negotiating to try to get a more memorable name than www.berwinleightonpaisner.com without much success. Mind you, the negotiations were fun. We also looked at key operating components – for lawyers it is always the word processor and practice management system. We have become so sophisticated that we have all forgotten how key the word processor choice is. Fortunately, Paisners and Berwin Leighton were moving to Word 2000 at roughly the same time. The trouble is that the document management systems are different.Both firms intended to complete the rollout of Office 2000 by 30 April. Then you start to think about the finance system – much smiling at the senior level on this one – plenty of reassurance for me, too: “This one will be easy – we both use Norwel”. Easy? We might both use Norwel, and we might both record time against clients and matter, but that is where the similarities end. We number clients with an alpha/numeric code, Paisners with a numeric code; some of the clients are common clients, and neither server is really up to the job. Then there is the document management system, with more than two million potentially critical documents to manage. Someday someone will explain to me why lawyers hang on to documents ‘just in case’ and why they are convinced that a document they have not seen or touched for at least two years cannot possibly go to near-line storage because it is critical. Not just different products, but different approaches and about 500,000 WordPerfect documents.The website is also a key project. Marketing and IT sit side by side and everyone has had to work exceptionally hard (and these days that means more than the standard 26-hour day). We hope the result will be a site with a difference, demonstrating the new corporate identity and showing the new shape and style of the merged firm. One good thing is emerging – the firm (merged entity or not) is starting to see how critical IT is for – well, just about everything. In the future, that could come in handy.Janet Day is IT director at Berwin Leighton Paisner.
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