IT in Small Firms

April 30, 2000

Paul Berwin is the managing partner of Berwin Bloomer, the smallish Yorkshire firm with offices in Harrogate and Ilkley. He can be contacted on, and at 2 North Park Road Harrogate.

One of the partners in my firm is secretary of our local Law Society. He confounded committee members when he started taking his laptop to committee meetings to take minutes. Such futuristic technology had not been seen at that august organisation’s events. At his year’s AGM the retiring president joked that Chris only brought the laptop to use the president’s firm’s electricity to recharge the computer’s batteries. The incoming president retorted that such a ruse would not be available during his term of office. The computer’s charger didn’t work with round-pin plugs.

The old established firm with round-pin plugs may be one caricature of the small solicitors’ firms harboured by SCL members. At the recent Working Groups launch at Clifford Chance’s offices, I introduced the small firms’ groups proposals by referring to those (in a world unknown to Clifford Chance, Baker & McKenzie, Linklaters and so on) drunk on the exhilaration of using WordPerfect 5.1 – or who think that a golfball is the latest in typing technology, not something to hit at the Aon stand at the Solicitors Office Technology Exhibition whilst waiting for the Law Society to give the insurers something to flog us. Just as we littl’uns broadly think that all Big Firms are the same (Big) so I expect do the Big Boys have a generalised and hazy notion of what gives at the grassroots. In terms of IT for lawyers, it may be useful to separate out some of the varieties of experience at the smaller end of the scale. Before I leave the point, I do actually know that Big Firms are not all the same – and, for being bigger, they may be only bigger, but no better in very many ways than the rest of us.

By smaller firms, I mean firms with less than, say, 50 bodies on board – this is the most general of generalisations, and takes no account of the number of partners. (To some firms, 70 partners is small.) The first type to think about is the round-pin firm. This firm is likely to be long-established, proud of its long service to the local community, with an enviable will bank and probate practice. Quality assurance doesn’t need to be externally assessed – no incomer could hope to measure the true quality that this firm believes it possesses and gives. There may be some individuals in the firm who look longingly at the IT pages in the Gazette, but they know that these new fangled gadgets and ideas will never wash with the patrician leadership of their firm. Their clients know better than to be seduced by computers.

Such a firm – and there are plenty – may not be without a computer on the premises. There may be a computer in the accounts department. The secretaries may have computers, acting simply as typewriters. Generally there will be no network in place, and no notion of a strategy. E-mail may come eventually, but is seen as something like a fax – collected every now and then on the machine of a secretary who likes these kind of things, printed off, and placed on a fee-earner’s desk. Using e-mail as a principal tool for communication will not be on the agenda.

The problem with these firms is as much mental as physical or financial. Without an influential champion, and with unwilling leadership, the barrier to thinking in terms of IT as a critical means of building a business may be insurmountable. It is difficult to see such firms do other than live off their probates, and their wealthy older clients, for so long as they can retain client loyalty – perhaps this will see the more senior partners haltingly through to retirement. This may be an unfair and negative picture; but I would expect anyone at such a firm, with an inkling of the way the world is going, to be looking for a way out, or a white knight to rescue what can be saved, whilst it can be.

The opposite end of the spectrum is a dramatic contrast. Everyone will have a screen, with training in the firm’s use of IT. There will be a server-based network, hosting case management, accounts, word processing, internal and external e-mail, electronic diaries. There may be knowledge management via the firm’s own intranet, holding information, precedents, documents. The firm will have an interesting, active Web site. The fee earners will be comfortable with their keyboards – perhaps even using voice recognition – and will communicate with clients and other firms by e-mail, passing documentation around by that means. In order to do this, the firm is unlikely to be able to afford a dedicated IT manager, but it has to be populated by enthusiasts – not necessarily IT wizards, but those willing to give those with the ideas the room and resources to develop the firm’s potential in this area. This firm may be a younger firm – or one which someone has taken by the scruff of the neck and dragged forward. Over the years, earnings will have been ploughed back into the firm. The partners’ earning may have been restricted in the short, or even the medium term, but the firm’s future looks pretty good. Those on the outside, looking in, know that this firm is going places. In this firm, a leading member of the management team is reading this article. He may even have written it.

In between, every variety of firm practices, some more and some less successfully, but most have grasped the notion that the proper use of IT may be the future. The struggles here are many. There may be conflicts between partners about how far IT should go. There may be an imperfect grasp of what IT can achieve. There may be a feeling of having missed the boat, of wanting to catch up but having only disjointed notions of how to go about it. Many firms are reasonably equipped in some areas of the business but not others; or have a partner in one department who pushes ahead, whilst others lag behind. The potential for frustration is great – the sense of excitement (which our second example firm has) is absent. What this firm needs – and what the group working on this area at the SCL Working Group launch identified as a need – is independent advice, and financial assistance, the carrot of money from grants or beneficial financing schemes and the stick of failure if it doesn’t get it right. And the mindset that decides to grasp the nettle of this mixed metaphor, and of this challenge.

I refer to bigger and smaller firms, but in discussions we have had with lawyers from various firms it is apparent that size truly isn’t everything. Many larger outfits have a poor IT infrastructure, with the IT law department doing, or trying to do, whizzy things, and other departments failing to see the benefit, and holding the organisation back. The oil tanker analogy applies here, and to the benefit of the smaller firm. Turning the bigger firm round takes time, huge resources, strategic persuasion, blood and tears; the smaller the firm, the quicker it can turn.

The SCL Working Group hopes to help small firms turn quickly, effectively and in the right direction. If you want to work to help us to do that, contact Ruth Baker at SCL Headquarters.