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Any survey of information systems at law firms would reveal they have invested heavily in a range of such systems that cover most areas of the business and practice. It is also equally likely to reveal diverse ways in which such information is held and managed in at least some, but probably most, of the key systems. It is only to be expected that new or replacement systems initiatives would be undertaken at different times because firms cannot renew all their systems at the same time.

However, with few exceptions, each system initiative (be it document management, practice management, client relationship management, knowledge management, records management, intranet, extranet, portal, case management – the list goes on) is undertaken with a different focus and motivations and is often led by different parts of the organisation. This leads to disparate data collections, not always managed strategically – leading to duplication, inaccuracies and inefficiencies.

This is not surprising. Each of these initiatives is often approached as a unique and self-contained exercise with its own set of objectives, unrelated to anything else that goes on in the firm. There is, of course, a realisation that every technology initiative has to fit into the organisation’s overall business and working practices, but the reality of a large system implementation project is that it is, unsurprisingly, focused on the immediate objectives and priorities of one or a few of the business areas – but not all the key areas.

So how can firms focus on the information ‘big picture’ and create a common thread to pull together all their information? The answer is the ‘information model’; a map of the organisation’s information containing details of all the firm’s different information elements and the way they relate to each other. This is an over-arching information systems initiative that is primarily concerned with integration and strategic information management, rather than any specific business or functional area of the organisation’s activity. This exercise delivers direct benefits to the business by enabling the removal of information duplication and inconsistencies between systems, but it requires a vehicle through which to deliver the benefits.

Ignore at your peril

A technology initiative that is being pursued by increasing numbers of law firms is the fee earner’s portal or desktop. This, put simply, is the provision of access to all information resources and tools (for various tasks required by fee earners) from an easy-to-use single access point (typically using a web-based user interface). However, the very objective of providing easy access to multiple information sources can bring about confusion and frustration to those the portal is supposed to serve, by making the differences and inconsistencies between these sources visible.

Those firms that attempted to implement a fee earner’s portal/desktop solution without dealing with the differences between information structures in different systems have made the task far more difficult for themselves (both now and in the future) and are not achieving the full potential of their systems. The creation of an information model that allows the information to be presented through the portal in an integrated and rationalised way is not only useful but also essential to a successful portal solution, since often badly presented information can be worse than no information at all.

How to get the show on the road

The information model essentially provides an abstraction of the information requirements in the organisation and provides a high-level logical representation of all the key information elements that are used in the firm, as well as the relationship between them.

What does this mean? Firstly, it needs the building of a list of every data item captured in any and all of the firm’s systems; secondly, establishing the relationship between all these data items; and thirdly, documenting the life-cycle processes for the creation, modification and deletion of all this data.

To create your firm’s information model you need to start by identifying and understanding the differences between your information domains. This is done through the steps of discovery and analysis of the information held in the various domains. It is then followed through in a design step to rationalise the relationships between seemingly disconnected information elements and creates a new ‘layer of commonality’ to bridge differences between information held in different systems and makes it easier to manage and use information in a consistent way.

The information model becomes a tangible product through the number of ‘deliverables’, such as agreed definitions and metadata (an agreed convention for describing and classifying information) for all information types across domains and a taxonomy, thesaurus and controlled vocabulary to provide consistency of classification, as well as a high-level logical data model (a map showing the information links and hierarchies within and across your information domains). These deliverables become the firm’s information standards to which existing information systems need to conform (although this process may take some time to achieve and the urgent areas need to be prioritised), as well as the standards for any new information systems and for creating and maintaining automatic links between related information in different systems.

Information integration at the delivery layer can often successfully mask integration issues between different information domains. It allows organisations to provide an effective information delivery solution without having to first address the more complex task of full integration between the firm’s core systems that can be tackled over the long term.

Gathering the fruits

It is perhaps unlikely that an organisation will embark on developing an information model without it being a part of some system implementation project but, even on its own, it can bring the benefit of providing the clarity necessary to offer better information integration and efficiency.

The benefits of the information model become manifest when integrated and seamless information is provided through systems which are not focused exclusively on a single information domain. An obvious example is a fee earner portal, with a comprehensive search facility, that finds related information from different information domains which, as a whole, provide a complete picture on the subject matter, such as a client (current documents from the document management system, recent costs and billing data from the practice management system, recent contact information from the client relationship management system, etc).

An information model that includes a sufficiently thorough information auditing and rationalisation system will enable the delivery of truly integrated business information in a useable format, rather than as separate islands of information that simply expose any conflicts and inconsistencies between different sources.

Selling it to the partners

Building an enterprise information model is no easy task – but even more difficult is trying to articulate to the partners of the firm what the benefits will be of an exercise that is inherently intangible: an IT project that costs money and delivers no new functionality. The trick is explaining how the exercise will assist in the strategic management of all the firm’s current and future data, assisting to procure new systems and integrating existing ones. Furthermore, the information model will provide direct business benefits in these keys areas:

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