The Baskerville Drummond 10th anniversary has had me thinking back to the early days – well, one day in particular when I somehow managed to enter a meeting with the potential of becoming managing partner only to leave it some hours later with a severance package.

You know that fantasy you indulge in your idle moments? Yes, that one, the becoming your own boss one, and doing things your way, and adopting a ‘variety is the spice’ approach to your working life…well, suddenly that was me. My business card no longer said IT director. It said – once I’d had them niftily printed up round the corner – ‘Consultant’.

Yes, of course I worried about what I’d done. My dad left me in no doubt about the risk I’d taken on – going from a regular, well-paid job at a respected firm to a ‘hand to mouth’ consultant with no guarantee of income but with the set in stone outgoings of a mortgage and two children. Many suggested that I was a total idiot, but I was an idiot who was determined to give the consulting gig a good go. Looking back from the security of knowing it worked out ok, a decade’s decent success and a growing firm and reputation, it’s easy to forget about the tough bits, the doubts, the missteps, but they’re all part of it aren’t they? The formative stuff that builds you up personally and professionally, that’s what makes you a better consultant as each year passes.

I was reflecting on the biggest change that I have seen these past years and it’s probably the passing of the ‘most influential vendor (aka most expensive IT cost line)’ baton from the traditional Practice Management System (PMS) provider to the legal sector-focused managed service provider (MSP). It was always the PMSs who were said to ‘own the IT relationship’ with a firm, but not anymore. Increasingly firms have chosen to outsource their IT to MSPs – but in doing so many also chose to outsource their problems, which is the equivalent of a hospital pass.

For example, whilst many MSPs claim to be focused on the legal sector or have many law firm clients it is fair to say that they do not understand how law firms use the software provided, what functionality Is available or how the solution needs to be configured. MSPs are merely focused on supporting an application, not using or adopting it. The MSP is therefore reliant on the 3rd party application vendor, or the law firm staff to deal with the application layer. If they rely on the 3rd party vendor, it Is highly likely that the law firm will not receive the solution they envisioned. The change of power is leading to a breakdown in knowledge between those business-critical solution providers and the ‘commodity’ approach of MSPs.

It’s not for a managed service provider or indeed any enterprise software vendor to magically compensate for the lack of a cogent IT strategy. Indeed, most MSP-led IT strategies are developed around what they have to sell rather than what their clients need.

It is therefore essential that law firms continue to own their IT strategy. Only when you own it can you then sell your vision and your expectations to the MSPs. When you give them this sort of clarity, it’s very difficult for them to then fudge things if they start to fall short in delivery; they can’t play the ‘you didn’t make it clear’ card when you have made it perfectly obvious.

Sadly, even with this clarity of direction, there’s no guarantee of a bump-free road. At this level you need A-grade performers, but I’ve seen too many, after the deal is signed, just content to bring their C game. All of which has helped add even more infinite variety to the consulting and critical friend role. At times it feels more like marriage guidance: where once I negotiated with computers to do what I needed them to do, now I’m negotiating relationship breakdowns and fractured agreements. For consultant, read counsellor, mediator, referee, fair and impartial and not afraid to tell the paying client an uncomfortable truth. Equally, no fear either of telling vendors and fellow professionals – some of whom I’ve known for years – that things are simply not good enough, and that applies not just to service standards, but behaviour and ethics too.

The most rewarding part of doing what we do is taking a firm from a problematic solution through to resolution, building strong and long-lasting relationships along the way.

In many ways doing system selections to find the best solution fit for a firm’s requirements and aims is the easiest part of consultancy. It’s verging on ‘money for old rope’ which is why we systemised as much of it as possible, offering clients a fixed price for a robust and efficient process.

The areas of consultancy which really get my blood pumping are

  1. helping firms who have poorly performing systems, contracts, services and going through a process to turn the situation around, and
  2. the implementation of new solutions which are truly going to change the way a firm operates.

These two areas are richer and challenging now, with personalities and partnerships the human weft to the warp of cloud technology and hosted systems. And it’s keeping me gainfully employed and has a nice mix of short-term transactional work and long-term relationships. Which I guess makes me at least a useful idiot.