Small firm IT – a (better) service is needed

June 30, 2003

Commentators have discussed the possible potential for IT to counteract or offset the pressures which increasingly beset small firms in the emerging legal landscape, which IT itself is playing a major part in shaping. However, such small firms lack in-house technical know-how, lack the finance to employ third party consultants and cannot afford the time (even assuming they had the inclination) to develop their own technical expertise.

Thus small firms are the most threatened by today’s legal marketplace pressures but the least able to use IT to address those pressures. This is continually reaffirmed in surveys and research findings.

This article explores the idea that, although many small firms may disappear whatever support can be offered to them, possibly a little extra IT help would allow some to adopt the IT tactics that certain writers exhort them to, or give them the space to develop the strong client relationships or niche practice areas that others see as the route to survival for small concerns.

Under pressure

The threats to the future survival of many small legal firms in the changing legal landscape (brought about by IT amongst other things), as well as actual examples of the manifestation of these threats, are well-documented. Inability to keep up with IT costs, absorption by larger practices, loss of business to (commoditising) non legal enterprises, greater levels of customer service expected by clients, are some of the reasons, cited by Halliwell[1] and others, why we are witnessing a demise of small firms. Assuming that such a diminution is not in the best public interest, what can be done to stem it?

Theory is fine, but …..

Anyone who, over recent years, has appraised themselves of the views of leading legal IT commentators will be aware that, while all agree that IT should, indeed must, play an important role within any firm which wishes to survive, let alone thrive, there is divergence over the precise nature of that role. My own research, while examining these viewpoints, also attempts to glean from them some consensus and thereby arrive at a core set of factors which it is believed must form part of any firm’s strategic deliberations, planning and implementation.

However, what does not seem to have been squarely addressed by the aforementioned writers is the gap between their exhortations and the practical ability of a small law firm to implement them. Even for those firms which wish to embrace the IT age, the reality is, as is consistently revealed by surveys, that small firms struggle with IT; be it developing strategy, exploiting the full potential of what has been acquired, or, simply, understanding what is available, what can be done, and the IT needs of their business.[2]

In short, they need additional assistance. They do not have the time, even if they had the inclination, to understand the technology fully, implement it and customise it. Moreover, unlike larger firms, they do not have the financial resources to employ full-time IT staff, or employ legal IT consultants (many of whose expertise is more attuned to the larger concern) other than on an occasional basis.

Small firms in peril – should we care?

Some would argue that market forces should be allowed to take their course – and if that means the demise of many smaller firms, so be it. However, this “philosophy” misses the point, ie that the overriding concern, as regards how our legal marketplace is evolving, ought surely to be for the recipient of legal services – the client/customer. This article is based on the premise (which some would doubtless contest), that there may be a short-term benefit to the consumer, in terms of choice, price, etc, as larger concerns (which can benefit from IT economies of scale) enter the market and absorb the smaller firms’ business. However, the longer term would see reduced competition (due to the demise of smaller firms and consolidation among the larger concerns), plus the cutting of unprofitable areas of work by larger legal service providers, not to mention a loss of personal service, all of which would cause the customer/client to suffer.

Hence the view that, given the resource constraints facing smaller firms, something more needs to be done to give them a fighting chance to avail themselves of the opportunities which, many claim, IT makes possible for them, as much as the medium to large firms.

Available sources

The immediate retort to the above might be that there is already plenty of material available, of which a small firm can avail itself in developing its IT. This is not disputed. There is undoubtedly a lot of quality, focused material available from Web sites, e-mail newsletters, books, articles (much of which is discussed in my dissertation) providing guidance on such topics as Web site design and utilisation, or marketing for law firms. There is also less focused material from which useful insights can be extracted.

However, there is no single, centralised gateway to the quality material. It is necessary to extricate, from the mass of less focused information, that which can be of use. Additionally, no assistance with assessing the relevance of potentially useful material in a specific context (ie that of a particular firm) exists. All these issues constitute difficulties for small firms.

While names such as Cameron, Christian, Irving, Leith, Levison, Reevy, Susskind, Terrett, Venables, or the Law Society’s pages on IT strategy etc, and its annual Software Solutions Guide, will suffice to indicate what I mean by focused, quality material, an illustration of less focused sources, and what could usefully be obtained from them, is perhaps necessary.

Filtering and Focusing

Any firm planning for its future will be told that it must be cognisant of what is “on the horizon”, as well as what is already affecting legal practice. However, it goes without saying that a firm which has inadequate resources to deal with its immediate IT needs is scarcely going to be able to afford the time to monitor what may be “around the corner”.

It is generally accepted that the IT which is happening and being discussed in the US now (both generic and specifically law-related), will often affect the UK in the future. What might not be so well-known is that vibrant, US-based virtual communities (e.g. LAWTECH,[3] and The TechnoLawyer Community[4]) discussing, and offering peer support on, matters of legal IT (as well as everyday PC/IT hassles), are available for anyone to join now, and have been for some time.

Putting all these elements together one might suggest that subscribing to these US e-mail lists is the way for a small firm to assess such issues as: what can open source software offer it, whether it should be exploring ASPs, or other forms of IT outsourcing, or, how one should approach IT security policy and practice.

The problem with such fora, for the busy UK practitioner, is that they are verbose, and written in the context of the US legal system(s), and legal IT suppliers. However, they contain much which could be of use here, and hence a service to filter them and produce a digest of the resultant material with a UK, small firm focus, could be of great use to such firms.

Of course one might argue that, rather than rehashing what appears within US virtual legal IT communities, one specific to the UK would much better serve the needs of UK practitioners. That is a valid point, and such a UK forum is undoubtedly desirable. However, the fact is that such a UK community already exists,[5] but the activity on it is, to say the least, disappointing. For example, a request (13-12-2002) for assistance with getting Land Registry access working, when replacing dial-up with an ISDN line had, by the end of the year, elicited exactly zero responses. Moreover, the fact is that the US lists are well established, very active, and in the main discuss matters of relevance in any jurisdiction.

A similar filtering, focusing and digesting operation could usefully be performed on general IT industry debate. For example, it has long been asserted that open source alternatives to the Microsoft operating systems and Office suites are viable (eg in terms of compatibility, as well as cost savings) in certain business environments. Realisation of this has eventually permeated through to the UK legal community.[6] But could some firms have benefited from earlier knowledge and assessment of such open source products? Equally, could they not now benefit from evaluation, in their context, of current IT industry discussion (eg that concerning Lindows i.e. Linux for the non-techie; or that concerning the possible implications of some computer manufacturers now shipping Linux preinstalled on PCs, rather than Microsoft Windows)?

A (better) IT service

Above it is asserted that two major shortcomings of what is available to a small firm developing its IT are that:

  • There is quality, focused material available, but no centralised gateway or “portal” to that material, or assistance with assessing it or applying it in particular circumstances.
  • There is much verbose legal IT information, and general IT information, from which items of relevance to small firms can be derived. However, in its raw form such material is overwhelming, and small firms lack the resources to filter, condense and apply it.

The central argument of this article is therefore that, while it is accepted that each individual firm’s particular needs differ and that some will fail in the changing legal landscape that IT is helping to mould, whatever assistance is offered, something more can and should be done for the smaller firm.

My proposal is for the instigation of a centralised service to coordinate and focus what is available, which could in time be complemented by hands-on support. The aim would be to increase the chances of small firms closing the gap between the promise of legal IT, and its practical realisation.

It is not being suggested here that there suddenly appears a free IT support structure for small firms. But that if we and the professional bodies believe that the public will be ultimately more poorly served should small firm numbers drastically decrease (an issue which itself is, of course, debatable) then the fostering of the development of a suitable advice community should be initiated by those in the position to do so. And that should be done now.

It is easy to conceive of a technologically modest (and cheap) initiation of such a venture. A Web site, or portal, coordinating access to the various sources of quality, focused information, and providing a forum for digests derived from the less focused, potentially useful material, both of which could be complemented by e-mail newsletters. Obviously the financial outlay on the technology for such a venture would not be great. What would be important is the commitment of suitably technically aware individuals, conversant with law firm procedures and, particularly, the issues facing small firms.

Types of practical help

The sorts of area on which such a service might provide assistance, in addition to those which have already been touched upon, could include the following (certain of you reading this could, I am sure, identify others).

  • Links to sites which monitor, and comment on, relevant government and professional bodies’ IT initiatives and proposals. (This, and other functions which are already well performed elsewhere, should not be replicated.)

  • Monitoring of the innovative activities of the larger firms, and commentary on which of the legal IT thinkers’ ideas are being successfully exploited by such firms and which appear illusory. Views on whether, or how (ie by what manipulation) such firms’ IT initiatives would work for smaller ones and what general lessons can be drawn from these bigger players pioneering efforts (eg it is better to purchase off-the-shelf packages than develop a unique solution).[7] The aim of this function would be to make available (as much as possible) the gain of innovation, without the pain; recognising that, while the larger firms can afford to experiment (and fail) with IT initiatives, smaller ones cannot.

  • Concrete advice on standard, mundane, but nonetheless vital, small business/firm IT issues, eg backup alternatives, security policy and technologies, broadband, speech technologies, etc. and links to relevant material.

  • Equally practical advice on law-specific IT application areas. For instance, for a small firm, is dedicated legal IT software always (some might say, ever) needed for law-office-specific tasks? One example might be: is a dedicated customer relationship management/contact management system required for a small business/firm, or can standard database software be adequately applied to this end? If so, how would one do this? Articles on such matters do exist, they just need to be co-ordinated. Indeed one such article contains an assertion which might be quite a revelation to some firms “… we have one of the cheapest lawyers’ accounting systems available … and for virtually everything else we use Microsoft Office 2000”.[8] Financial economy is one of the reasons given for use of such industry standard software. How much more interesting now, therefore, would an assessment of open source software in this context be?

  • For a firm which has invested in a groupware product, such as Microsoft Exchange, advice might also be offered on maximising its utility for specific law firm needs, when building such things as workflows. (Again, even more appealing might be documentation on how open source groupware products can be employed in this sphere.)

The potential worth of all these types of practical advice is highlighted by the fact that failure to make effective use of existing software is something which surveys consistently reveal is a failure of small firms.[9]

Conclusion and caveat

While it is doubtless possible to find fault with the details of what is suggested in this article, my primary objective in writing it is to restate the precarious situation in which many smaller firms now, and increasingly will, find themselves; and to suggest that more can and should be done to enable them to benefit from IT. This is a view which I feel lies behind many of the concerns expressed by small firm lawyers on how they see the legal marketplace being allowed to develop.[10] Hopefully expression of this view might at least elicit articulation by those in disagreement of why nothing more should be done for small firms (although silence might be more revealing), or suggestions of better ways in which small firms can be assisted with their IT if my particular suggestions are seen as flawed.

Obviously, the sooner an IT assistance service such as is proposed here could be brought to fruition the greater the benefit which could accrue to the community of small legal firms. To this end, such a venture would undoubtedly benefit from the patronage of a suitable professional body, as this would increase the inclination of firms and others to contribute their expertise, while giving practitioners themselves the confidence to trust in the advice proffered by the service.

[1] Halliwell, T. Globalisation of Legal Practice – will there be any High Street Lawyers in 2010? 17th BILETA Annual Conference, 2002

[2] Singh, G. et al, An Empirical Study in the Use of IT by Small and Large Legal Firms in the UK, The Journal of Information, Law and Technology 2002(1)




[6] Trend for Microsoft alternatives growing. Legal Technology Insider 8 May 2002 p7

[7] Angel, J. Can Lawyers Make Money out of E-commerce?

Computers and Law, October/November 2002, p5

[8] Katz, A. Starting from Scratch Computers and Law December 2000/January 2001 p16

(Emphasis added.) Another example, from a different source. Using MS Outlook To Track Chargeable Time

[9] Singh, G. et al, note 2 above.

[10] e.g. The Future of Legal Services Forum: Report on Proceedings

15 Jul 2002