June 29, 2009

With legal businesses almost wholly dependent on IT for their day-to-day running, typically law firms tend to deploy multiple technology systems. This can sometimes create complex IT administration issues for their ongoing management but, more importantly, lead to unnecessary inefficiencies for users – the very problem they were deployed to overcome in the first place.


However, the trend of integrating different technologies to create a unified business environment within law firms is gaining momentum. The current difficult economic climate may have something do to with it. A single, integrated business environment delivers operational efficiencies, cost savings and facilitates knowledge management.


For instance, a number of law firms are looking to integrate their digital dictation systems (DDS) with their practice management systems (PMS). With DDS having become mainstream and its co-existence with other technology systems widely accepted, it makes business sense to streamline IT, extend the core functionality of these individual systems and, by doing so, maximise technology investments.


To this end, there are a number of key issues that firms should bear in mind when considering a DDS-PMS integrated solution.


Working Practice-based Approach


Prior to any technology deployment or integration, it is crucial to first identify what working practices are followed internally at the firm and where the challenges lie so that the technology brought in addresses those specific needs.


When integrating a DDS with a PMS, there are two technology integration approaches that a firm can take – it can either look at off-the-shelf integrated solutions, or work with individual technology suppliers to develop bespoke solutions. Invariably, the off-the-shelf solutions are bespoke integrations developed for a firm, but then have been subsequently packaged for deployment at other firms with similar needs. For instance, nFlow’s DDS has been integrated with Pilgrim Systems’ PMS LawSoft for Central London firm Magrath LLP and is now available to other legal firms too.


Some firms prefer bespoke integrations, which may be more time consuming and require a larger investment but deliver an exact solution. When taking this route, firms should thoroughly investigate all the software developer interfaces available and the associated purchase costs. The costs of software developer interfaces vary widely, with some technology suppliers in the industry charging exceptionally high fees of (as much as £5000 for the Software Development Kit alone – the cost of the actual integration is additional).


Core Technology Platform

Another key area of consideration is the technology platform upon which the DDS and PMS applications have been developed. With technology underlying legal business today, a future-proof platform will deliver the highest return on investment in the long term.


For instance, applications developed on say the .NET platform are future-proof as not only are they supported for the long term, but the core code can work seamlessly with different user interfaces including Desktop Client, Microsoft Outlook, Web Browser and Windows Mobile. Further, suppliers of complimentary .NET applications can, in the future, more easily and cost-effectively integrate their solutions using .NET web services, a best practice technique regarded as a much more open, flexible and future proof than traditional methods of integration.


Measurable Returns


Undertaking a realistic cost-benefit analysis based on firms’ working practices and existing technology investments is key. This will help quantify the business gains that can be expected from such an integration.


Consider the following scenario as illustrative of the business benefits of an integrated solution. A fee-earner selects a client matter in the PMS and a letter format for a digital dictation. A new dictation automatically starts pertaining to this matter along with a time clock that records the time spent by the fee-earner on this activity. The digital dictation subsequently reaches the fee-earner’s secretary for transcription. When the secretary opens the dictation, it automatically opens it in a letter format with the correct client reference, matter reference, address and other details already embedded in the document. On completing the transcription, the secretary saves the letter in the client file within the document management system using the matter reference attached to the dictation. The fee-earner may then open the document either for a final review or perhaps to dictate edits before sending the letter off to the client.  


In this scenario, both the fee-earner and secretary benefited from productivity and efficiency gains – there was no need to input data into two separate systems. Accuracy of data was ensured as all the information was stored in a single, central source. Also, because both technologies are workflow-based, time capture, billing and document management was completely automated. Simultaneously, the IT administrators were maintaining only a single system, freeing up IT staff time for more strategic requirements. Finally, there was reduced storage cost as there was no need to house duplicate data.


This is just one simple example. For legal firms that are spread across multiple sites, such an integrated solution can facilitate centralisation of secretarial and IT administrative staff, greatly reducing headcount and other associated expenses. In fact, some firms are deploying such solutions to facilitate a paperless office.


Talking from his firm’s own experience, Nick Doughty, IT Manager at Magrath LLP, says, ‘To us, an integrated solution for digital dictation and practice management makes a lot of business sense. We have reduced IT administration support for these technologies; facilitated enhanced efficiencies for fee-earners and secretarial staff, and in doing so further improved our customer service.’



Key Functionality


A DDS integration can offer a range of functionality, depending on the individual requirements of a legal firm. Some key integration options that firms can take advantage of include:

·         ability to look up client matter data directly from the PMS

·         automatic profiling and storage of documents in the DMS – which means that when a document is stored, the system automatically profiles it in terms of client name and who the fee-earner is, making it easy for secretarial staff to work on it

·         creation of dictations directly in the PMS or DMS itself – therefore, when the dictation is created, it already has associated with it client and matter information such as reference numbers and contact details

·         integration with Microsoft Active Directories or HR systems enabling automatic user provisioning and de-provisioning for the DDS solution (eg if a new fee-earner joins a firm, simply by creating a new user in the Active Directory, the new joiner can log into the integrated DDS solution automatically)

·         complete 360-degree integration with third-party outsourcing transcription services – thus when the service provider completes a transcription, the DDS solution is automatically updated

·         integration with the firm’s voicemail, unified messaging and call logging systems – this allows routing of telephone call recordings for transcription (eg when taking an instruction over the phone, a fee-earner can record the call as a dictation, which the secretary can work on for transcription thus eliminating the need for the fee-earner to dictate to the secretary)

·         integration with the firm’s CRM system so, for example, when corresponding with a client for marketing purposes, the solution allows a letter to be drafted or dictated directly from the integrated solution using an existing template with all the client details such as contact name, and address.


The productivity and efficiency gains from already deployed technologies can be further accentuated by streamlining disparate technology systems – especially DDSs and PMSs, which today are amongst the most well established technologies in the legal sector.


Rob Lancashire is Sales and Marketing Director at nFlow