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Large Law Debates: Is IT Strategic for Law Firms?

Large Law Debates Is IT Strategic

Is IT a strategic resource for law firms?

In classic legal fashion, the short answer is “it depends.”  It depends on who is asked. The discussion, and seemingly the perspective of attendees, shifted on the merits of the arguments made during the ITLACON session “Large Law Discussion.”

The following paraphrases the conversation from notes taken during the session and from a myriad of contributors that participated in the conversation.

Case:  IT is Strategic for Law Firms

It’s hard to compete on staples of the industry such as quality, experience, outcomes and pricing – differentiation is a constant challenge. IT is arguably the one area where law firms can do things differently – to find new ways to deliver services, with analytics or business intelligence for example.

More importantly, corporate clients are scrutinizing law firm IT ever more carefully – RFPs commonly contain a competitive IT section today.  Disruption flows from clients.

Fixed fees are a case in point, according to one attendee. He noted law firms entertain the idea of fixed fees, but tend to avoid the discussions about the efficiencies – like IT – that are needed to provide more efficient services.

It leaves the question, how do technologists shift law firm culture, especially at the leadership level, to view IT as strategic?

Participants provided two illustrative techniques.  First, over the last few years, law firms have seen “pockets of innovation” stemming primarily form “client relationship lawyers.” These attorneys largely already view that IT is strategic and can be a valuable advocate for technology.

Second, there are existing mission critical systems already in place that can bolster the case.  Disaster recovery is a prime example: It’s incredibly important to law firms and can be used to illustrate or “bubble up” the strategic importance of IT.

Case:  IT is NOT Strategic to Law

“IT is not strategic,” argued one dissenting IT leader. “We are infrastructure.  What we call innovation and disaster recovery is basic core infrastructure.”

By way of analogy, if a law firm removed the desks, chairs and computers from a law firm’s office, it’s true work might in effect stop.  Having space to work is clearly important to operating any business, let alone a law firm, yet it’s a hard case to suggest chairs or desks are strategic.

His point had a lot of heads in the room nodding in agreement. And then silence.

“How do you sell that to the staff?” asked another attendee, making reference to recruiting and retention.

“[Being core infrastructure] doesn’t prevent you from being innovative,” he countered.  “Staff retention and excitement are completely separate.

“We are not behind our clients [in technological innovation]. We are doing [IT] work our clients wish they could.”

An Alternative View:  Demonstrating Value

In study after study, and in interview after interview, if there’s one consistent challenge we hear from corporate counsel, it’s proving the value of the legal department to the business.

It seems fitting then, that a third argument made in this discussion centered on IT proving its value the law firm business.  He noted he could acquire any new technology for his law firm, but unless he could map that tool to how lawyers work, it’s a challenge to demonstrate value.

Law firm CRM provides a case in point. Attorneys want the system, but struggle to share a vision for what a holistic CRM program – people, process and technology – “looks like.”  Video conferencing on the other hand, is simple:  lawyers in his firm simply want more consoles in conference rooms and that can run up costs quickly.

His point being, legal IT needs to conceptualize – to develop use cases – how IT can be used in a law firm and make the case to attorneys. Whether it’s strategic or not, IT is more than running wires and providing helpdesk support, but technologists need to provide a consultative service to keep firms competitive.

“We [IT] need to contribute to the bottom line,” he said.

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Photo credit: AF GlobalStrike (CC BY 2.0)

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About Frank Strong

Frank Strong
Frank Strong is the communications director for the LexisNexis software division located on NC State’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh. In this capacity, he leads communications efforts in support of software products for law practice and law department management and also litigation tools – across large law, small law and corporate counsel segments. With more than 15 years of experience in the high-tech sector, Strong previously served as director of public relations for Vocus, which developed marketing, PR and media monitoring software. He has held multiple roles both in-house with corporations, ranging from startups to global organizations, and has also endured the rigors of billable hours, having completed gigs at PR firms including the top 10 global firm Hill & Knowlton. A veteran of two year-long deployments, Strong has concurrently served in uniform in reserve components of the military for more than 20 years, initially as an enlisted Marine and later as an infantry officer in the Army National Guard. Strong holds a BA in Film and TV production from Worcester State University, an M.A. in Public Communication from American University, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University. He is a PADI-certified Master Scuba Diver and holds a USPA "B" skydiving license.
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