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To buy or not to buy?

12 February 07

Some priorities for those who prefer to leave the office computer to someone else, but who think they might need to upgrade

by Brian Allingham

The largest law firms in Scotland are already making considerable use of information technology (IT) in their businesses. They have whole departments devoted to making sure that your computer terminal has all the styles and legal resources that you could possibly want, and a few more that you don’t want. There is an IT manager and a squad of geeks, poised, spanners in hand, to inspect the guts of your computer when the screen goes blank, and, of course, it was nothing that you did which caused the problem. Or, more likely, they just switch it off and back on again and Hey Presto!

The massive websites of the largest firms are full of interesting information, and you can sign up to receive newsletters on particular subjects. Maclay Murray & Spens, for instance, has an excellent employment law service (Lawline) which sends me regular articles on recent cases, information about law changes and invitations to free seminars. I am on edition 130 and, despite only a passing interest in the subject, I still read some of it every time it comes in, so it must be good. Visit their website (www.mms.co.uk) if you want to receive this service, although there are many other firms offering similar services.

Many smaller firms also have good quality websites and IT, particularly where one of the partners has a serious interest (and a degree of ability) in the subject. A two-partner firm in the north east, for instance, operates very successfully over a wide area using high-quality IT to contact clients and carry out conveyancing cases referred to them by a number of introducers, all without a warehouse full of paralegals.

Shop local

Other small firms have very good websites, some home-produced, others purchased from suppliers. A local supplier is probably the easiest to deal with, and there is the advantage that, when things go wrong, you know where to get hold of them. Check out other websites from your area (not just those of solicitors) and contact the builder of the site (whose name can usually be found on the site) to ask them if they can do something similar for you.

But IT is a lot more than just websites. Although pressure on conveyancing fees has fallen in recent years, there are bad times just around the corner. Smaller firms have already lost the remortgage business to larger firms with “conveyancing factories”, who do the necessary for the lenders and charge them tuppence a time. The small firm cannot and should not try to compete with that. The fee-reduction route leads only to catastrophe, and, for most small firms, the path to success is paved with good quality, personal services.

The next target of the conveyancing factories will be the first time buyer or, indeed, any borrower, with HBOS being rumoured to be about to offer free or cheap conveyancing to borrowers. Once again the firms with major departments, stuffed with paralegals and computers, will be the beneficiaries, at the expense of the smaller firms.

Never too old to learn

While we’re online (and most of us are, even if we don’t all have websites), let’s have a look at the email system. If you are dictating emails to your secretary, then it’s you who needs upgrading, not the email service. Take a course and learn how to use your computer. Even for older solicitors, contemplating retirement, being able to use a computer is a skill which you can use for decades ahead. When your family have all fled to Australia, you will be able to keep in touch with them on a daily basis, and won’t they enjoy that? (Or is that why they emigrated?)

Not so long ago, email was demanded only by the geeks. Now, the large majority of clients are disappointed if you respond to them by “snail mail” when email is so much faster. If you don’t want to look old-fashioned, learn to use email properly and take that quill pen off your letterheads.

For firms with a couple of offices or more than two people involved in the estate agency department, a property marketing database could be useful and Q Legal have just developed one called “Property Tracker”.  For information, email Ian McKenna at ian@dimck.com.

With ARTL almost upon us and online conveyancing already a reality instead of a dream (or a nightmare, depending on your point of view), the need to have the appropriate IT in place is imperative. For the dinosaurs with no computers on their desks, your time has come. The asteroid is rushing toward you at the speed of a court messenger, and a lingering death awaits as your clients drift off to another cheaper supplier of conveyancing services.

Of course, it won’t happen as suddenly as all that; but it will happen and you need to have your defences in place, in the shape of conveyancing systems which will deal with most of the work (including client contact, indeed particularly client contact) quickly, easily and cheaply. Graeme Gibson at Kirklands specialises in providing services for smaller firms (have a look at www.artl.co.uk to see what you have been missing out on).

Decide what for

With case management, of course, comes networked computers, and even most small firms now have networks which allow everyone to have access to the styles and information necessary to get the job done.

But, if you haven’t got any of the above, or if you think you ought to have more IT than at present, stop and think before committing your spare cash (or extending the overdraft) to make a purchase. This stuff is not cheap and your money will be wasted if you haven’t worked out, before committing yourself, just what it is that you need.

If you haven’t got a website, then you do probably need one; but for what purpose?  Work out why you need one and what you want it to do before you start talking to the salesman or the computer engineer.

If you’re not doing a lot of conveyancing, do you need to spend a lot of money on a conveyancing case management system, and what do you want it to do once you’ve got it?

And what difference will networking your computers make to your business?

Many firms have spent large sums of money on installing IT which they don’t really need or which they do not have the necessary skills to use. The computers won’t do the work or make the decisions for you.

The value proposition

And, if, as I believe, the best way to improve your management of your firm is to improve your understanding of what your firm does, perhaps your first stop on this shopping expedition should be your cashroom computer. Is it telling you how much you are earning from each service, or how much each of your fee-earners is billing each quarter? If not, do you need to upgrade the system, or do you simply need to upgrade your understanding of what your current system can do for you?

What you should be getting from your cashroom is a set of easy-to-understand management accounts on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis, preferably consisting of a single page and concentrating on the valuable information. It doesn’t really matter what your telephone or your photocopier cost you last month. It does matter a lot what fees your conveyancing service brought in last quarter, compared with the same quarter last year.

Many firms aren’t getting full value out of their existing IT because they don’t know how to work it properly and extract full value from it. Check out what you’ve got before you start spending valuable time and money on installing new equipment which, perhaps, you still won’t be able to exploit properly.

    Brian Allingham is a solicitor now operating as a management consultant to small and medium-sized law firms throughout Scotland. e: brian.allingham@virgin.net