I was recently invited to speak at The Law Society’s Law Management Section conference. My topic was “Getting value from IT investments”.

Quantifying the return on investment from IT projects is a minefield many of us have tried to address, but while those efforts are often used to build a business case prior to embarking on projects, it is often the case that these justifications are not a true reflection of the cost / value that technology investments represent and nor are they assessed post go-live.

While preparing the presentation, I was reminded of the “Man in a barrel” gift that Christel Aguila, IT Director and Partner at Winckworth Sherwood LLP brought back from the Philippines for her team and the need to never make assumptions!

Despite the bad press, we find that most lawyers remain optimistic about technology and enthusiastic about the advantages it could bring.  Firms therefore start their technical journey full of optimism and enthusiasm about how technology will solve their business problems, lead to additional work or increase profitability via efficiencies.

It remains the sad truth that most IT solutions go through a journey of being perceived as a silver bullet that will solve a myriad of problems to being seen as a disappointing overhead as the firm forgets why the solution was introduced and the project’s initial aims.  Sometimes this journey can take several years (or decades).

It is the journey from silver bullet to burdensome overhead which is key to how the value of IT investments are perceived.  When a solution is initially decided upon, those making the decision are clear about the reasons behind it and its hopes and aspirations. However, the reasons and benefits are often lost over time as firms are often faced with a disappointing reality.

An over optimistic attitude and lack of consideration of the amount of work a project will require often lead to the start of this journey as firms buy technology but don’t follow through on the full adoption.  They become excited about the possibilities of the future but over time, due to project challenges and changes of staff, lose focus on why the technology solution was bought in the first place.

During the presentation, I suggested that 80% of law firms didn’t fully use the technology that they had in place.  Not one of the delegates objected to that proposition and there was a general agreement from those in the room that it was a fair representation of their experiences.

It is certainly the case, when we initially engage with new clients, that they speak of the disappointment and frustrations with previous IT investments. I believe it is due to one of three factors:

  1. either the deployment of the wrong technology
  2. the lack of adoption of the technology, and a failure to follow through to its original aims.
  3. the lack of awareness of a technology’s capabilities leading to either basic use and unfortunately user frustration also (actually stems from usual lack of training)

So why is the adoption of technology in law firms so poor and why is that situation almost accepted as the norm?

  1. Most firms do not think clearly enough as to their needs and expectations prior to embarking on their selection of new technology solutions and can become sales led in their selection process.
  2. Often firms embark on a new technology project without a plan for the ownership, continual assessment and training of the solution both in terms of usage and in the business advantages / objectives that it delivers.
  3. It is also often the case that during selection processes, IT vendors talk a lot about partnership and growing / working together but do not follow-up on these commitments once the deal is signed.
  4. Additionally, during the sales cycle, some vendors may not as transparent as they should about the true cost of owning their solutions. For example:
    1. detailing the amount of resources a firm needs to implement and then maintain the solution
    2. the additional time taken for testing upgrades,
    3. and so on.

One CEO recently commented to me that following the need to significantly increase IT resources following implementation of a new practice management system, he feels like he is running a software development company and not a law firm.

When implementing any new technology,

    1. it is essential that the firm is clear about its needs and expectations and key success criteria and keeps fully focussed on the business objectives.
    2. The selection process must be undertaken in a positive, but realistic and risk averse way, ensuring that enthusiasm is not dampened.
    3. The supplier should prove it can deliver to your objectives and are willing to be held accountable for the promises made during selection.
    4. Clarity about the resources needed to implement and maintain the solution is essential.

Most importantly, you must only enter into any technology project when you are able to own the solution, not just buy-it (more on this next time).

So, what’s all this got to do with a “Man in a barrel” from the Philippines? As the Winkworth Sherwood team delights in showing visitors to their office, you remove the barrel at your own risk.

To summarise, projects should be approached in a risk averse way with a ‘buyer beware’ attitude and since Christel’s present, I will be now using the “Man in the Barrel” metaphor. When selecting technology, avoid surprises. As the old saying goes, “don’t judge a book by its cover”, it’s what’s inside that counts! …