If at first you don't succeed...
Trial and error is often the only way to find an effective IT system, according to delegates at the Counsel to Counsel forum
“We have tried many IT systems. In fact we have had more pilots than British Airways,” said Eversheds partner Kevin Doolan. He may not have lightened the hearts of his audience of in-house counsel looking for an effective IT system but for many, trial and error seems to be the only realistic approach to finding the right system.At the sixth Martindale-Hubbell Counsel to Counsel forum, which was held in association with Howrey Simon Arnold & White and Eversheds, senior counsel from a range of companies discussed their successes and failures with IT management systems. The overwhelming view was that a good IT system is crucial to the provision of legal services and communication between counsel and company.A suitable IT system can enhance the running of the in-house department and the company it advises. It can also improve the department’s relationship with external lawyers.Finding the right system does not come without cost and frustration. The key to ultimate success is not to give up and always budget for the next version. The first step to getting the right system is to look at what you want to achieve with it.Andrew Vellani, group legal director of Scottish & Newcastle (S&N) and co-chair of the forum, said: “One size does not fit all.”S&N has 40,000 employees, but only three lawyers. He said the mother of invention – necessity – prompted the development of the company’s interactive site: ‘the devil’s advocate’. Vellani had a vision, told IT what he wanted and what started as an intranet now includes an extranet and a document management system. The site delivers a broad range of information that improves the relationship between claims managers and external lawyers.The home page has ‘the daily nugget’ – a joke that entices users in. Once logged on they are confronted with a ‘what’s new?’ section setting out the latest legal developments.The most valuable section of the site deals with external advisers. A claims manager looking for legal advice will be prompted by the system to enter the business division for which the advice is needed. The individual is then given a list of appropriate external lawyers. A photo and description of the work undertaken by the lawyer is also provided. The claims manager then sends an e-mail to the chosen lawyer, which is copied to the legal department.Vellani said the system allowed in-house lawyers to focus on other matters while still being able track files. The site also allows Vellani to monitor the lawyers his company has instructed. Not only is there a section allowing the claims manager to assess the lawyer, but the system can also conduct objective monitoring. If there is a sharp fall in the amount of work going to one individual, Vellani will investigate. He said: “I can easily spot a problem or trend, for example a problem with one fee earner. The system allows for efficient dissemination of information.” The system suits Vellani, who is happy that it allows him sufficient control of quality and cost while freeing his time.Simpler systems work best for others. The forum agreed that IT systems overseen by lawyers are invaluable for international companies that use the same agreements around the world. For example, a company that has hundreds of employees demanding non-disclosure agreements so they can start negotiations needs quick-fire document turnaround from its counsel. This means having a pool of standard documents in PDF form that trained legal executives or secretaries can amend and forward to employees. The best way of distributing these documents throughout a large company is via an intranet. One example given at the forum was that of an assurance society with customer branches across the country. Its lawyers can be certain that each branch is using the same and most up-to-date customer application forms by putting them on the intranet. So it is not always the complex systems that offer the best solutions. Getting an IT system up and running is just half the battle. There are two main elements to a successful system: one is drive from the users, and the other is up-to-date content.Jonathan Pearl, Sony UK’s chief counsel of European legal affairs, who co-chaired the forum, said: “There is a danger of implementing a sophisticated system just because the technology is available.”He said if the technology did not enhance the lawyer’s day-to-day tasks it would not be used regularly and momentum would be lost – causing the system to fail. Continual updating of content may be a bind, but it is also vital for a useful and used system, he said.But the panel agreed that maintaining an electronic library – and other IT systems -can be expensive. The challenge for in-house counsel is to reconcile the need to invest in IT with the company board’s desire to keep legal spending under control.The delegates at the forum came up with two ways of making full use of the resources available to corporate counsel. One idea was to employ students – especially those who are going to panel firms – for a few hours each week to help maintain databases. As well as being affordable, the students are given the chance to get to know companies that may become their clients as their careers progress, or they may even decide to take up a full-time post.The other avenue is to take full advantage of the willingness of firms to provide information to their clients. The key is finding the right balance of information providers. The forum agreed that while no-one wants to be linked to just one provider, having too many leads to information overload. One general counsel said: “We get loads of bumph from our lawyers. Each firm thinks they are the only ones sending us stuff. We have to train them to let us have what we need.”The overall view was that each legal services department serves a different function depending on the business operations of the company. Consequently each team has different requirements from its IT package.A lesson learned by a number of corporate counsel attending the forum has been to accept failures and make use of the knowledge learned from them. One lawyer and company secretary said: “There have been more failures than successes. But we have taken things step by step.”The only way to find the system that fits is to keep experimenting – funds allowing. Once the right package is in place the way to ensure on-going success is by keeping optimum momentum. This requires instilling the system’s users with the enthusiasm to use it on a daily basis by keeping content up-to-date. A final tip for the panel members was to keep an open and flexible mind. The needs of a company change and with change comes different IT requirements. IT systems must be flexible and regularly reviewed. When it comes to the efficient use of IT, there is no room for complacency. This is a report of a Martindale-Hubbell Counsel to Counsel forum that took place in London.
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