Anniversaries in the Real World

November 1, 1998

As SCL celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year, at George Davies and Co we arecelebrating our sixtieth. The founder of our firm George Davies was aprogressive chap. Had he been alive today he would have marvelled at theopportunities increased computerisation offers and he would have ensured thatnone of those chances were squandered. I recently re-read George Orwell’s 1984and I came to the conclusion that the proles were those who were unwilling orunable to embrace new technologies. They formed an under-class, excluded fromthe mainstream. In the current competitive market for the provision of legalservices one cannot afford to be side-lined and become a prole.

The growth of information technology in the law is like a runaway train whichis getting longer and longer and travelling at ever greater speeds. We at GeorgeDavies and Co are on that train but a little too far from the buffet car for myliking. The speed of change can be disconcerting. There is a tendency to defermaking a commitment to IT because you are frightened of taking delivery ofequipment that was state of the art when ordered and obsolete when delivered.Despite having had these fears we are about to undertake an extensive upgrade ofboth our hardware and software and reassess our whole approach to the use of IT.

We are committed to upgrading our train ticket and moving up in to the first-class accommodation so that we can sit in the same carriage as the competition.

Although a lot of the impetus to upgrade has come from within, we cannotpretend that the Year 2000 problem has not pushed us to accelerate our plans. Atthe moment our level of computerisation is typical of many firms our size. Werun a tailor-made accounts package on a Unix server. Our word processing needsare met by a mix of Word Perfect and Microsoft Word running on a variety of386s, 486s and some newer Pentiums, all of which are networked. Our clientdatabases and client reporting functions are run on a mix of Lotus Approach andMicrosoft Excel. A large proportion of the hardware and software is not Year2000 compliant. To stand still we would need to spend a lot of money simplyreplacing our equipment with compliant substitutes. We cannot afford to standstill – we are committed to upgrading our train ticket and moving up in to thefirst-class accommodation so that we can sit in the same carriage as thecompetition.

I am sure we will acquire a system that suits our needs. The objectives ofinvestment in IT are obvious to us all but those outcomes will never be realisedunless we get the people side of the project right. Different people willpresent different problems. The older members of our firm, who did not grow upwith computers, will present the greatest challenge. They will need intensiveinitial training but we must be inventive. A fee-earner with a large caseloadwho is used to feeling productive and efficient all day long may feel the new PCon his desk is more of a hindrance than a benefit. We have not yet formulatedour training plans but I appreciate that this is an area where a lot of timewill have to be invested. I hope the sheer weight of our desire to succeed willcarry us along if the going gets a little heavy.

Some fee-earners regard computerisation with suspicion because they feel ITcan have a deskilling effect. It will enable less experienced and less qualifiedstaff to undertake functions which had been the exclusive domain of thefee-earner. These people must be persuaded that the skills they have honed overthe last 20 years will still be needed and valued but just utilised in adifferent manner.

The growth of information technology in the law is like a runaway train which is getting longer and longer and travelling at ever greater speeds.

The younger fee-earners I feel sure will embrace the new world witheagerness. They come to the office having benefited from IT training atuniversity and at the College of Law. They must be encouraged to share theirskills and their enthusiasm. However they must be taught that increasedcomputerisation is just another weapon in their armoury and is not a substitutefor developing their expertise and talents. If we can blend the strengths of theyounger and older fee-earners through the medium of computerisation we would becreating a very happy and stable firm.

Our loyal support staff must not be overlooked in this planning stage. Thereis a tendency to feel, for example, that as the accounts staff have usedcomputers before they will be unaffected by the changes. The new wave ofcomputerisation arrives ahead of extravagant claims that the operators will beable to perform certain functions in half the time it took previously. Some willfeel that their jobs are under threat. We have invested heavily in these peopleso the last thing we want to see is the loss of faithful staff. We must ensuretheir skills are developed so that with the advent of new systems they will bemore effective and spend any spare time productively.

When the whole project starts to look daunting I run through my checklists ofbenefits we should derive from the project. Goodbye to the tedious duplicationof data inputting . No more trawling through our client list trying to rememberwho would prefer go karting to a night at the opera. How nice to be proactiverather than reactive, often being able to dictate the speed of a transaction orthe progress of a case. Even the monthly file reviews and audit proceduresshould become less onerous.

Many of the benefits I enumerate will mean that we have more time on ourhands. It will give us thinking time so that we plot our course for the next 60years. I confess that not all of my recaptured time will be dedicated to thefirm. It will feel good when I go to my boys’ sports day without feeling I amslipping further behind on the treadmill. If there is any time left after that Ishall spend it on myself. If I choose to spend it drinking warm beer with theproles in a non-themed pub that is my business!