Inside Story - JANET DAY discovers that solutions to problems are always twice as hard as they look when merging two law firms. Here She charts the IT course for the Berwin Leighton and Paisner & Co merger
|May 16, 2001 at 10:41 AM
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Have you ever owned a traffic jam? Because I have and I thought I was too experienced to have one, but this was my first personal traffic jam. I noticed it as I walked from Adelaide House to Bouverie House in London – the number 17 bus is the nearest connection and that only gets you slightly further than halfway, so generally I walk. It was raining (when in the past few months has it not been raining?) and I was concentrating on the issues I had to resolve when I arrived, rather than on what was happening around me. I crossed New Bridge Street and realised Fleet Street was stationary. Not knowing the traffic there as well as I do in the London Bridge and Cheapside area, I did not become concerned until I neared the middle of Fleet Street. 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 increasingly falling back on the facetious, frivolous and downright farcical – the slightly hysterical note probably reflects the barely controlled sense of panic. It does not mean I am not taking this topic very seriously.So where do you start to merge two disparate IT systems, two firms, which to the external world (and to 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 way, with two different house styles for everything, from operating their telephone systems to creating documents, and even their mousemats?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), 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 that involve 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, faxes and the panoply of printed material issuing from a legal practice must all look alike on Tuesday 1 May – why does it have to be a Tuesday, though?As I write, I think we have achieved a compromise about the envelopes – but tomorrow is sure to produce another weighty saga about… perhaps the date format in the footer of documents (I had better keep quiet as they may think it is a good one to debate). Mind you, there was one piece of good news – a sense of humour prevailed at management level – “Windows replacing Windows then,” quipped the managing partner.But, let me go back to the beginning.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 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 (yes, 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 – Bo in Florida (who owns the obvious address) started off as a country hick, but he soon learned by experience. Incidentally, for the more technically minded among you, think about your systems and work out how often the name or its abbreviation is hard-coded into products, even into the network environment and servers – then you will have a flavour of some of the below-the-waterline work going on.We also looked at the key operating components – for lawyers it is always the word processor and practice management system. We have become so sophisticated now 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, where we come from is different – and, of course, the document management systems are different.Both firms intend to complete the rollout of Office 2000 by 30 April. Although, as I write, I feel a sense of breathlessness as I contemplate the completion of the last BL training session at 7.10pm on 30 April. But why should I worry? That gives me more than four hours in hand.Then you start to think about the finance system – much smiling at the senior level on this one – plenty of reassurance for me, too (I must be starting to look worried – I wonder why) – “After all, this one will be easy – we both use Norwel”. Easy? We might both use Norwel, and indeed 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, neither server is really up to the job. We do not want to waste much money or time on the older system because it is going. There are thousands of other minute differences, each one needing to be debated and resolved. Yes, of course, we are migrating to Elite (and fortunately neither of us had started our projects, so we can do that one together), but that will not be before the end of the year – so how do we run between now and then?Did I say the devil was in the detail? Yes, it is again. This time on VAT invoices, their production, the numbering, the colour of the file copies (notional or otherwise). Yes, that has been the subject of many detailed e-mails around the buildings for the past few days.Then there is the document management system, with more than two million potentially critical documents to manage. Someone, someday 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 half a million WordPerfect documents. Then there are the client and matter numbering conventions getting in the way of merging the two databases.E-mail might be easy by comparison – after all, we have managed to create an environment where mail going to any of the potential address entities – paisner.co.uk, berwinleighton.com or berwinleightonpaisner.’anything you care to name’ can get through. Not so – here comes the devil again… What is the naming convention? Is it janet.day@, jday@, dayj@, day.janet@, etc? A single corporate standard going forward. Yes, we have one, so for those who want to e-mail me, try email@example.com. Please keep the comments on this article to a minimum, however, as my pain threshold is exceptionally low at the moment.The work going on between the technical groups to manage this transition would fill pages of a detailed technical textbook. This is not the place to list them. If you want to talk through how to create new Exchange services while not losing the present one – Dave Moxon and Andy Rice can be bribed to explain the detail.Of course, I threw in the comment about corporate identity as though it was an easy exercise. Not so. Both firms need new templates that will produce identical-looking documents, even though the back end is different. Here comes the devil again – different printers are in use on the sites, so all the template calls need to use different printer drivers – I still have this feeling that printing is a black art.The website is also a major project. Here, 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). The result, we hope, will be a site with a difference, clearly demonstrating the new corporate identity and showing the new shape and style of the merged firm. Did I mention the devil? Well, here it is again. This time in the naming conventions for working groups.Then there is the myriad of small systems that proliferate around most professional practices – some of them are spread across the firm, such as the absence planner, while others reside in a single department, such as litigation support – PSA access, for instance. Each of these systems has to be taken apart – re-identified to the new entity and whichever user community has never seen it before needs training. The number of projects, sub-projects and mini-projects increases daily – the will of the team is critical and I have never been luckier than I am with the one that surrounds me now.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.
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