Increased usage of IT by legal firms – but there is scope to exploit IT better

April 30, 1999

He may be contacted at has advised legal firms on IT related issues for ten years and has been theauthor of all eight of the Robson Rhodes Legal IT Surveys.The last survey reportwas published in December 1998. Details of how to order the survey report are

I am pleased to have the opportunity to summarise a selection of the resultsfrom our latest survey and to comment on a few of the important trends that wehave measured since we commenced our research by IT survey in 1989. I shouldlike to thank all those firms that participated in the survey this year – theywill already have our full survey report and need read no further. For thosethat didn’t participate, please read on and then order a report copy to get thefull statistical picture.

First a word about the size of the survey. We do not issue the questionnaireto every legal firm. We mail-shot around 1,000 firms, which includes all theLegal 500 firms, but also includes a selection of smaller firms. Our responserate this year includes a good distribution of firms of all sizes. Respondingfirms employ around 19% of all the people working in the UK legal sector(representing over 16,000 fee-earners and a similar number of support staff).

The 1998 questionnaire consisted of over 100 questions covering the strategicuse of IT, electronic communications, business processes, IT applications and ITinfrastructure. We also included a number of questions relating to progressbeing made in Year 2000 projects.

Strategic Use of IT

When we first asked firms in 1991 whether they had a documented IT strategy,only 31% had one – now it is 70%. This sounds promising, but how are firms usingIT to support the business?

Our results show that there are some wide differences in how firms use IT andthat there is scope for firms to exploit IT better. Nevertheless firms believethat they are getting value for money from their investment in IT. Some of thekey statistics are:

  • Nearly half (47%) thought that they could survive in business for less than a month if all their IT systems failed, although almost as many (42%) thought they could survive three months or longer.
  • One-third said they were totally reliant on IT to deliver strategic information to the senior decision maker, whereas only 5% said they were not reliant.
  • 35% of firms said that they exploited their existing technology badly or not very well.
  • 89% of firms think they could exploit their existing technology better.
  • 23% of firms are keen to pioneer the latest technology to provide innovative services*

The last statistic is particularly interesting when compared with thethree-quarters of firms that believe the Web and Internet will change the waythat their firm works with its clients. Surely there will need to be more `ITpioneering’ firms in the future to satisfy rapidly changing client needs and toprovide themselves with a competitive edge – particularly since the top threechallenges identified by firms were:

  • improving efficiency
  • winning new clients
  • improving client service.

IT Spending

Only one quarter of firms intend to invest a lower proportion of their feeincome on IT in 1999 than they did in 1998.We noticed some significantvariations in the level of IT spending with 30% of firms spending less than 2%of their fee income on IT and 18% spending more than 6%. The average IT spendacross the whole sample was 2.9% of fee income – a bit lower than the 3.2%measured the last time we asked the question in 1995. The Year 2000 problem didadd distortion to IT infrastructure spending levels in 1998 and we also haveevidence of increased planned spending on replacement applications software inlate 1998/early1999.

We asked whether firms believed that they had obtained value for money fromtheir investment in IT. Only 5% said they had not, with more than 50% sayingthat they had. The remainder apparently had no means of assessing value formoney.

A number of the firms responded with details of the most cost effective ITapplications that they had introduced to date. Word processing, case managementand e-mail were the top three types of application. The emerging technologiesthat firms believed provided the most potential to exploit were :

  • the Internet (identified by more than 100 firms)
  • voice recognition (identified by more than 50 firms)
  • case management (identified by more than 30 firms).

In our previous surveys, case management has repeatedly been most oftenchosen as the application to be implemented the following year, but the realityhas been that few firms have implemented their case management applicationswithin the stated timescales or have realised all the planned benefits -indicating the difficulties that firms face in initiating and implementingchange. I wonder whether firms will find the introduction of innovativeInternet-based applications as elusive to exploit?

Fee-earner Usage of IT

The above suggests the need for investment decisions to be supported bystrong project management and extensive user training to exploit the maximumpotential from the chosen systems. In our past surveys, we have lamented the lowlevels of IT training given to fee earning staff. We were encouraged that thepercentage of fee-earners that had received no IT training in the last year hadreduced from 36% to 22%, but this has no doubt been influenced by the inexorablerise in the proportion of fee-earners that now use their own workstation.

The percentage of firms that equip all their fee-earners with a PC has risenin the last two years from 25% to 43%. We estimate that 53% of all fee-earnersin our sample now use a PC at work. This is almost a ten-fold increase since westarted measurements six years ago.

Our results are slightly higher than the 33-36% reported by the survey of 52practices by Lawnet/James & Cowper, which was summarised in theAugust/September issue of this magazine. We suspect this is because of theparticipation of larger firms in our survey.

We also make periodic comparisons between PC usage in the UK and the USA. Forlarger firms ( > than 25 partners), the 1997 American Bar Association (ABA)IT survey figures indicated that all fee-earners used PCs in 60% of firms. Ourequivalent figure for the UK was 62%. Our previous reports have indicated the UKto be about two years’ behind the USA but we suspect the gap has now beensignificantly reduced. However in the smaller firm category ( < 25 partners),the UK still lags behind – 37% of these firms equipping all fee-earners with PCscompared with 75% in the USA.

IT Infrastructure

As a mobile worker myself, I was interested to discover that more than 80% offirms have less than 10% of their PCs as laptops. Only 11 firms had more than20% of their PCs as portables. It will be an interesting topic for futuresurveys to investigate the reasons for low levels of legal portable usage givenrecent general research that up to 40% of UK workers are expected to be locationindependent by 2001. It may be that law firms need to make significant furtherinvestments in portable technology and the support infrastructure.

Unix usage at 60% is almost identical to that reported in 1996 whereasWindows NT Server usage shows a sevenfold increase.

As for WordPerfect versus Word – what a change a couple of years can make.Word is now used by 77% of firms (23% in 96) whereas WordPerfect has dropped to55% (71% in 96). In a third of firms, both packages are used suggesting many arepart way through migration. We were surprised however when we compared ourresults to the 1997 ABA large USA firm survey – this showed WordPerfect forWindows well ahead, being used by 59% of firms with Word for Windows being usedby only 40%. Maybe the USA lawyers have greater experience in doing their ownwordprocessing, but are more reluctant to retrain.

What about another vital element of IT infrastructure – the IT staff? Forthose 115 firms that gave details about their IT staff, the average IT staff perfirm was 6.9 and represented 1 member of IT to every 39 people in the firm.Although 60% of firms overall were not worried about their ability to retain ITstaff, amongst the larger ( > 25 partner) firms in our sample there was amarked divide with more than three-quarters being worried or very worried.

Legal Applications

More than a third of responding firms were planning to replace theiraccounting, time-recording and client database systems in the next year -compared with only 11% that replaced these systems last year. Are these firmsbuying themselves out of Year 2000 problems ? I suspect so.

Case management systems were used by 60% of our respondents , with 22% havingreplaced or introduced such systems last year. Only 38%of firms have their casemanagement applications integrated with their practice management systems,perhaps reflecting the myriad choice of system suppliers that operate in thismarket and the tendency for firms to select a case management product to meetspecific legal specialism requirements (to maximise operational benefits) ratherthan take a practice-wide integrated systems view.

There were no surprises regarding the most used system suppliers and littlechange to the satisfaction ratings given to the suppliers, 80% rated supplierservice as average or good – but only 4% rated service as excellent. What achallenge for the legal suppliers!

Year 2000

How else could I end this taster for our survey report. In summary, theresults show a wide disparity in firms’ preparedness. Only 47% of firms thatanswered the question planned to complete their projects by the end of 1998. 17%of firms are cutting it a bit fine with plans to complete between end Septemberand end December 1999. 55% of firms had not made provision to cater for theY2Kfailure of a major client or supplier.

In only 39% of firms did the managing partner receive regular project statusreports. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Year 2000 issue was ranked asonly the 12th biggest challenge that managing partners faced – for how long wewonder!