Research Highlights IT Issues for UK Legal Sector

April 30, 2003

Commissioned by business improvement company Boxwood and carried out by an independent third party, the research revealed that 50% of law firms believe the gap exists and that it could have serious implications for the health of their business in the future. Respondents included managing partners, partners, financial directors and IT directors. The research findings also suggest that some of the problems the profession encounters are inherently linked with struggles to modernise the professional services structure and culture that is prevalent in many UK law firms

In many companies there is both a requirement for, and a resistance to, change. One of the primary challenges in the legal sector is the increasing pressure on lawyers to get closer to their clients. Lawyers must respond quickly to the evolving needs of their clients and must make the best use of technology to do so.

With this issue firmly on the agenda for most legal firms, the research suggests that, now more than ever before, law firms must find new ways of leveraging the potential of technology and realising as much value as possible from available systems. We found that in many instances IT was not included as part of corporate strategy formulation. In these firms, IT was perceived to be a business tool or enabler that played a critical role in making corporate strategy happen, but did not have a part to play in its inception.

For all those respondents who recognised a gap within their own organisation, poor communication between corporate and IT decision makers proved to be an issue. Closely linked to failings in communication was a lack of understanding. IT decision-makers complained that their input was misunderstood. Simultaneously, lawyers felt that this problem was exacerbated when ‘power-users’ or ‘techies’ were seen to drive IT forward out of personal passion, rather from a full-knowledge of the business need or user requirements

Even in firms that claimed to have optimal technology installed, there was major dissatisfaction regarding user competence. Those responsible for using the systems day-to-day appeared to be the key to whether any particular system was seen to perform.

Five Issues to Address

For organisations exhibiting any of these symptoms, there is no doubt a gap exists. The research also confirms the strategic importance of IT for law firms, I can identify five clear issues that must be addressed if the gap is to be bridged:

IT as an investment – For those businesses sampled, investment in IT was substantial. Respondents typically cited investment at around 6% of turnover. With such a significant proportion of corporate wealth being pumped into technology, all eyes are on the IT function to perform.

Supporting complex management challenges – Stiff competition, pervasive technologies and a shift towards a more litigious society will lead to an increasingly complex and competitive market space. With so many challenges to address, legal firms are facing a time of significant upheaval and change. The key to future success is to put the customer at the forefront of every business and IT decision – this is the primary competitive pressure that will separate the winners from the also-rans. But for professional services organisations, many steeped in tradition, the leap from a ‘clients who need our services’ perspective to one that recognises: ‘we need our customers’ business’ may not be the easiest transition.

Tackling current challenges and preparing for the future – With the pressure to become more client-centric, the law firms surveyed cited numerous current challenges. Many of these centred around harnessing Web-based applications to increase business efficiency, but this also led to a host of security concerns. For other organisations, document and knowledge management was critical ¯ especially for those firms occupying multiple sites in both this country and abroad.

Successful implementation and project management – With so many potential projects in any one firm’s sights, effective project management and successful implementation of IT projects is also a priority. However, it is vitally important that organisations are able to measure their success in this area and many do not yet know how to.

Return on investment (ROI)- Less than one in four firms questioned claimed to have any measure of ROI for technology. Many respondents recognised the benefits that such measures would have in building support and trust for technology projects. However, actually being able to do so seemed to be out of reach for many firms. With so many pressures to increase client rosters and secure more work, the failure to measure could become a burning issue as firms realise that they must be able to do so in order to manage more effectively.

Bridging the Gap

Many of the firms spoken to as part of the research appeared to be close-knit organisations, despite some operating internationally. Some had a fully developed IT function, whilst others had a partner driving IT through the business.

The challenge here is to manage the change process well, regardless of job title. The IT director may be short of both the time and the skills to create a clear vision for the future. Asking him or her to ensure that plans and aspirations are communicated and understood throughout the whole business may simply be too much to ask. With numerous competing priorities, it may be difficult for the IT director or partner responsible for IT to take time out to contribute to policy setting for the broader organisation.

So how can the gap be bridged? The approach will vary from firm to firm, and will depend on each organisation’s ability to rise to the plethora of challenges they face. The right type of support is difficult to find, but to begin to bridge the gap the IT director must be able to achieve effective project implementation and be able to deliver facts and figures back to the firm that demonstrate success. For this process to begin, four key changes must take place.

Get IT talking the language of business

The priority for firms looking to bridge the gap is to get their IT people talking the language of business. It is imperative that the IT professionals start to think big and act bigger if they are to win the trust of their commercial counterparts. However this is not to say that they can neglect their operational responsibilities. In fact, exactly the opposite is required – they must look to foster an organisation-wide realisation of the importance of technology.

Build trust by delivering value

When rising to the challenge of building trust, answering a major commercial concern – ROI in technology – could prove to be the answer to unlocking a new and more fruitful relationship between IT and the business. A fruitful relationship that is characterised by accountability and action. In order to achieve this I believe a balanced programme of technology for business must be created, one that includes the necessary metrics to track progress and ensure the realisation of benefits along the lifespan of any project.

Enlist the right kind of support

With the onus on the IT director and his people to bridge this gap, many organisations will need to enlist the right kind of help – help that can deliver on a personal level, on a systems level and on a cultural level. The challenge is finding the right kind of help and support to move forward. The answer is to be clear on exactly the kind of help your business requires and not to settle for second best or a quick fix when it comes to choosing a partner for change.

Encourage the board to listen and learn

Finally, I am adamant that none of the above steps will reap the required rewards if partners fail to play their part in an active way. For them, responsibilities must lie in conditioning the environment and creating a culture where IT projects can flourish – one where IT is included in and closely aligned to business strategy. But the first step in this mission critical transformation must be for board directors to open their eyes, ears and minds to the true commercial opportunities of IT.


With this conclusive research-driven evidence, there is no doubt that law firms need urgently to address this issue to stop the gap appearing, or getting any wider. In many firms the divergence between the IT department and the board exists and clearly leads to the wasting of huge amounts of time and money.

There is no doubt that organisations within the legal sector must face up to this challenge and ensure their business and IT strategies are aligned. If not, they run the risk of seriously compromising their performance in an ever more competitive marketplace.

The White Paper is derived from research conducted with a cross-section of senior managers and partners. Those responsible for IT and corporate strategy were both questioned in order to gather a view of the divide from both sides. All respondents were offered full confidentiality. For a free copy of the White Paper please contact Anthea Mercer at Boxwood ( on 0113 251 5111.

It may also be accessed here. For more on Boxwood, see