Tried, Tested and Trusted

April 30, 1998

The Law Offices of Marcus J. O’Leary was founded in 1995, and provides legal services in all of the main commercial areas of practice, although they are known mostly for their expertise in the areas of IT and intellectual property. The firm has expanded to six partners and its clients include some of the biggest names in the IT industry.

Founder, Marcus O’Leary has been involved with technology for over 25 years. After starting out as an accountant working for HP in the mid-1970s, he became more interested in the law than accountancy and, around about 1980, was appointed as HP’s UK Manager of Legal Affairs until he left in 1983 to move into legal practice, first as a barrister and then as a solicitor.

He has specialised in high tech matters (with a healthy element of IP) ever since. Working in the high tech area meant that he received early exposure to technologies that are now commonplace. “In the 1980s, carrying out a large amount of work for what is now a particularly well-known IT company, I was communicating with them via e-mail – long before the rest of the world did. I don’t think I’ve used the post much since then.”

Despite the long involvement Marcus has had with technology, the firm doesn’t employ the type of integrated solution seen in many of the larger firms. “I have both implemented and used such systems in the past but together with my IT partners, Celia Nortcliff and Paul Milton, who are both extremely able and long-established IT lawyers, we decided that it was better to have discrete systems that are well tested and can stand alone. We’re a small firm and we like to keep things simple; we prefer to carry out many of the routine tasks ourselves, thus increasing our own practical knowledge. Not only that but too much complexity can lead to error. As a partnership, we like to have a failsafe so that if any of the systems go down, we have another way of working.”

The firm instead uses a series of stand-alone systems from market leaders such as Microsoft and Sage. “Celia has had a long-standing relationship with Microsoft and we naturally gravitate towards their products,” said Marcus. The firm uses Sage Timeslips for itemised billing as well as their standard accounting packages. Even with Marcus’s long-standing technological involvement, his office systems still impress him from time to time – and bring additional efficiency to the business. “The things that used to be extraordinary only a few years ago are now commonplace. For example in [Microsoft] Word, the ability to track changes, and add notes so that you don’t need separate documents to explain changes makes both negotiation and collaboration far easier. Celia is also introducing us to [Microsoft] Small Business Server 2000 in the very near future, which includes SharePoint Portal Server. This will allow us to work together on a document at the same time, bringing us greater benefit, particularly since we often work from different locations.”

As well as ignoring specialist integrated legal systems, the firm shuns legal database packages preferring to use Microsoft Access instead. “It’s powerful and has more features in it than we will ever use! We have our main client database on this, because it’s tried and tested, straightforward and cost-effective. The program has features that allow us to do almost anything we please.”

A newer development for most firms but not for theirs is remote working. “This has been a feature of our method of working since we began as a firm, although individual partners have worked this way much longer than that.” The firm’s systems are set up so that staff can access them whether at home, or working from a client’s office, something that happens a lot. The firm is planning to introduce a solution, such as that provided by Microsoft Exchange Server, that allows them to check their e-mail from a secure Web site – although they can do this via their ISP already.

However, even when working remotely, the firm doesn’t, as a matter of course, encrypt its documents. Marcus explains: “People do find encrypted documents rather tedious so, unless specifically requested, we send documents straight through.” The office systems are of course kept safe with a firewall and some office computers have been upgraded to Windows XP Professional that has a built-in firewall that keeps the computers safe when working remotely.

Technology is still improving to keep staff even more mobile. The firm for some time has also used PocketPCs, to supplement their use of laptops. By using the Targus fold-away keyboard in many situations they no longer require a bulky laptop. “I can use it for making notes or even taking a statement in a litigation situation. The laptop is best, particularly if you need a lot of information or need to draft a document on the spot, but often the PDA will suffice. They’re synchronised with the PCs so we can transfer the data across when we get back to the office.”

From mainframes to mobiles and with a quarter century in the technology industry behind most of them, Marcus and his IT partners have seen vast changes, but for the business the reasons for using IT have stayed the same, “Our basic philosophy is to use technology to make our work easier and to be able to respond quickly and efficiently to our clients’ demands. It is very easy to become a slave to technology and have systems that, whilst being extremely good, have functionality well in excess of that used by the majority of staff. Too much complication can be intimidating, particularly to those that do not practise in the IT arena. Most people only have the time and inclination to learn to use the basic functions of any IT system, so we buy systems that do the basics extraordinarily well.”

As the firm has only one dedicated secretary and one receptionist, they clearly practise what they preach and this, as Marcus O’Leary says, is what the firm is all about. Low overheads and a can-do attitude produce a responsive and cost-effective service which has resulted in long relationships with all of their main clients. “On the IT side our work is very varied, and given the nature of the clients that we work with, rarely predictable. We have been lucky enough to have assisted them in pushing forward the boundaries of technology, and long may it continue.”

Marcus O’Leary is the founding partner of solicitors law firm Marcus J. O’Leary.