Computer Training for Fee-Earners – WHY BOTHER?

June 30, 1998

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To those who are unfamiliar with the procedures, language and formalities ofcourts, the law can be a pretty intimidating business. It is the same with IT:to many of the uninitiated IT is the stuff of nightmares. But love them orloathe them, computers are an integral component of modern commercial life;consequently, the old adage ‘adapt or die’ is just as appropriate to lawpractices as it is to all other types of modern business.

However, like everything else from the switchboard to the coffee percolator,nothing works unless it is installed and operated correctly.

Making Your Investment Work

Nowadays, an investment in IT does not usually require mountains to be moved.Computers are about as common in offices as paperclips and even the mostDickensian of law firms would acknowledge that a computer system, howevermodest, is desirable. However, merely investing in a sophisticated system doesnot necessarily guarantee that the practice will be technologically advanced.Nevertheless, there are many organisations who limit their investment to thecomputer system itself, believing this is all it takes. The tendency then is torely heavily on the enthusiasm and inherent knowledge of staff to get the systemto perform the required tasks.

This contravenes the second rule of technology: IT is for everybody – notjust for the favoured few. If it is to have a positive affect on theprofitability and efficiency of a commercial enterprise then everyone employedby that enterprise needs the skills to exploit the system’s capabilities.

So what’s the first rule of IT? Well, that can be summed up in one word:training. No matter what a salesman might tell you or however substantial yourinvestment, the system will never serve you properly without formal structuredtraining. Without this support, it is scarcely the fault of employees if thesystem does not work. It is akin to introducing a company car scheme into a firmof non-drivers without teaching them how to drive. Result? A car park full ofdepreciating vehicles from which no one – except of course the car salesman– is gaining any benefit.

Getting the Right Approach

‘Training’, however, is not a magic word that instantly brings forthappreciative nods of approval right down the line. Lets face it, we’re dealingwith human nature here – older than technology and far more complex.

Partners and other fee-earners up the scale are sometimes inclined to leavethe responsibility for learning new technology to an assistant or secretary. Andif one is tempted to try strong-arm tactics, the chances are one will be metwith a multitude of excuses. It could be the immovable object excuse –‘I’ve been doing things in a certain way since the Pleistocene Age andit’s always served me well’. Or the Doubting Thomas excuse – ‘I simplydon’t believe this will have any benefit for me’. Or there’s thecontradict-this-if-you-dare argument – ‘I simply haven’t the time’.Finally, it could be just plain fear – ‘I don’t understand it, and I neverwill’.

It takes tact and diplomacy to meet these objections. There needs to be apositively professional approach to the whole business of training. It shouldnot be carried out casually with snatched hours from busy days. Let’s behonest with ourselves: if there is something to learn and no structured trainingframework, most of us never get around to it.

Whetting the Appetite

So how should one initiate training? However attractive it might be to wasteno time in putting together an intensive program, there is little point inmapping out an agenda that directly conflicts with fee-earners’ schedules. Itwill not be conducive to good learning and be sure to create reluctance andscepticism on the part of trainees. Start slowly but deliberately.

Good IT training begins with computer awareness. A short presentation tofee-earners is a constructive opener. Let them know why the firm has purchasedthe system; what that system is supposed to achieve; how the system will be ofbenefit to them; the implementation programme; why training is necessary toachieve effective use of the system and what the training programme will be.There should be a degree of informality to these presentations so holding themduring a lunchtime or early evening will help start things off on the rightfooting.

When the time comes to implement the actual training, it might be better forbeginners to start with a short separate session involving basic PC training andkeyboard/mouse awareness. Not only does it create a useful basis for furthertraining, it also helps to get over any initial inhibitions. Should anyone wantto improve their keyboard skills, consider installing a computer-based typingtutor such as Mavis Beacon. Designating a training room is useful too becausetraining can then be set apart from the routine of the office and therefore beless prone to interruptions. It also provides fee-earners with a facility topractise their skills outside prescribed training sessions.

The Extent of the Training

The next question to consider is what the content and scope of the trainingshould be? That depends how well set up the practice already is. Some firms arejust embracing word processing for the first time. Other offices would make BillGates proud, with everything from image processing and document managementthrough to video-conferencing, Internet access and integrated office suites.Some may even have a facility allowing the operator to talk to their computers– and not just so they can mouth oaths to the screen!

It also depends very much on personnel. Some may already possess basicskills; others may be reasonably proficient. On the other hand some may not evenbe acquainted with simple terminology.

Consideration and Tact

It is best to keep people with similar skills and training needs together.Grouping people together for the convenience of a timetable or to save a fewpounds on the budget is counter-productive and can lead to embarrassment andfrustration. Diplomatically, it may also be better to group trainees together onlevels of seniority. The senior partner may not take kindly to sitting cheek byjowl with a junior clerk. And the junior clerk might not be too happy about iteither.

While we are on the subject of groupings, it may be inappropriate to have ablanket course for all departments. Conveyancing users may well need to utilisethe computer system in a different way to litigation users. It is essential tomake the training relevant to the fee-earner’s needs.

Structure of Training

Starting from basics, trainees can quickly graduate to more work-relatedelements such as time-recording (essential for all types of legal practice) andperhaps electronic diaries and e-mail. These sessions should be restricted totwo or three hours during the day. Other than for informal presentations, theevening is not a good time to learn about technology. Patience is worn thin,attention spans narrowed and minds are more focused on the wine bar or how soonone can get home. There is also the risk of sending a negative message – ‘ITis not that important which is why we’re slotting it in at the end of theday’.

Clearly, some subjects do not lend themselves to short sessions and therewill undoubtedly be times when a couple of days or so are necessary if one is todo justice to a topic. However, try to take into account the people’s workschedules – it is usually best not to tie fee-earners down to two or moreconsecutive days.

There is also a lot to be said for the short one-to-one session, but to workeffectively this should be carried out away from the trainee’s desk. It avoidsinterruptions and concentrates the trainee’s mind. However, it is essential toplan this in advance and not to arrive at the desk with ‘Hello, just passing.Thought we might fit in an hour on the computer’. In other words, theone-to-one session is also part of the formal training programme and must beplanned accordingly to achieve the desired objectives.

When the training course is complete, the trainer’s job isn’t. It isimportant to follow up the sessions to see whether people are using the systemand whether they are doing so effectively and efficiently. It may be necessaryto have one or two short refresher courses on a one-to-one basis either at auser’s desk or in a workshop situation. Training is an on-going process.

Choosing a Trainer

Finally, it may be supposed that any old trainer will do. However, life, asany legal adviser knows, is not that simple. Ideally, your trainer should havean understanding of legal firms and how they work. The trainer should also befamiliar with how the particular system might be used. Resourcing the localcollege or a general PC trainer may seem to be a good idea but it is notnecessarily cost-effective. There are two sides to specialised computertraining: the system and the client’s business. If the trainer only knows thesystem, they are only half equipped to do the job.

If the system has been customised in any way, it is imperative that trainingbe carried out on your system. And by using an experienced specialised trainer,you have an additional advantage: you can brief the trainer to safeguard thefirm’s standards and requirements. For example, just because new-foundknowledge enables people to change the standard font of a document from TimesNew Roman to Palace Script does not necessarily mean you want them to do so.

Open the Box

A computer system is like a wonderful box full to the brim withlabour-saving, creative tools. But the key to that box can only be gained aftera proper course of training from a suitable trainer.

So there’s a choice. You can waste a substantial financial outlay and staylocked in the commercial doldrums, or you can gain competitive advantage andrecoup your investment in a relatively short time.

In the final analysis, whether or not your investment in the desktopequivalent of the company car actually earns its keep, or merely attracts dustand depreciation, is up to you. The right training will not only give youremployees the confidence they need to operate a system competently, but instilin them an eagerness to learn about emerging technology. That can only be goodnews for the future development of the firm.