Why did we buy into this?

August 31, 2003

The successful implementation of any computer application within law firms, and indeed in businesses generally, presents considerable challenges. They can often be introduced with very high expectations and investment, but in the longer term it is not uncommon for customers to feel that they are not getting the most out of applications, or they become dissatisfied on the grounds that they are not living up to their early promise.

My speciality is in applications for law firms and legal departments within companies, although the problems encountered are common to many businesses. In my years as a solicitor running my own practice, I implemented three separate computer applications for accounts and case management and three different word processing packages and experienced many of the difficulties at first hand. Working for the last six years within a software house, designing and implementing document assembly and case management applications for firms of all sizes, and taking an MSc in application development has enabled me to get a more rounded picture.

It was interesting to note that Digital Message recently found that lawyers do not generally like technology. Their survey discovered that most lawyers are averse to learning new software. Nearly half admitted they could not programme their home video recorders and a large percentage had only a basic grasp of common applications. Age was a significant factor and many relied on their children for help with new technology. Is this really so surprising? On the whole lawyers responsible for management of law firms did not learn IT skills during their schooling and the development of IT education has been sluggish. For lawyers who are used to being regarded as experts in their fields, they may consider it much more productive to concentrate on the pressures of legal work in hand, rather than to face any inadequacies in IT knowledge.

Despite efforts and improvements by developers, even the most common applications are very complex. Popular office packages are set to become even more so, as new technologies (for example XML) start to hit the desktop. All users are individuals, having to manage pressures on time and costs and within any law firm these are acute. Due to a combination of lack of involvement, time, encouragement or interest, or lack of suitable training or support, they fail to take on board the more complex features and efficient ways of working that applications can offer, which can add considerable value. As with mastering a new DVD recorder or mobile phone, often the temptation is to stick to functionality that feels safe and familiar and then to go no further.

The introduction of new applications can lead to considerable demands on all users, including increased learning and changes of process and work structure, which require careful planning and risk assessment. These are familiar and well known problems addressed within IT project management in implementing larger scale applications, but less so within many law firms, where, often due to cost restraints, applications can be implemented as turnkey solutions. The hands-on involvement, interest and support of senior management, as well as staff at all levels, is a crucial factor for success. In legal practices, senior staff can be distanced from applications, preferring to believe they are administrative tools, better suited for others to master.

In my view the involvement of users at the application pre-implementation stage is vital in order to win hearts and minds. The benefits of changing to a new application must be set out to users, with management being clearly involved. With workflow systems, investment in the setting up of documents and processes can be considerable, but a willingness to make such investment and to commit the appropriate level of staff, combined with careful planning and time management, will be rewarded.

A Training and Implementation Strategy

Initial user application training should comprise uninterrupted hands-on run-throughs of functionality, but some of the investment in this can be lost because of the ethos of many law firms that any fee-earning related activity must take priority. It is not unknown for staff to miss sections of training because of demands to respond to urgent phone calls, messages and meetings. Even with good initial training, staff generally need more at a later stage, once they are comfortable with the basics, in order to master the more complex features.

It is only through regular use in a live environment, with adequate, individualised and sensitive support, that real familiarity with the application and skills in higher level functionality is achieved with confidence. This can lead to users making more use of shortcuts and finding more efficient ways of working, which can add considerably to satisfaction levels and save time. Such a regime does require considerable investment in time and patience.

After initial training, it is not unknown for any new starters or temporary staff to go completely untrained, or to be expected to ‘pick up’ knowledge from colleagues – who are probably not completely confident about aspects of the application themselves.

Once an application is implemented, work practices can lead to difficulties. For example one benefit of word processing should be to facilitate the sharing of files between staff and the introduction of paragraph styles. If individuals within a firm continue to store files in their own way and with their own idiosyncratic file names and styles, it can make the time spent on searching for files considerable and costly and so inhibit shared use and the efficient and effective presentation and maintenance of documents. Clearly specified policies on naming conventions, file sharing and the use of styles are required. Document management applications can assist, combined with conventions for file naming descriptions and retrieval. Modern packages have impressive word processing functionality, such as paragraph styles, fields and auto numbering, but it is surprising how often little use is made of these.

Reliance on help files and manuals can often lead to complaints. How many of us have struggled with online help or manuals and felt frustrated by their use? Rather like looking up a word in a dictionary – you need to have some idea of the spelling in order to start looking it up, and the more you know about the word, the more likely you are to succeed in finding it in the dictionary. If staff know the application and its functionality well and have some idea what to search for, they will use online help and manuals more successful. Support must be tailored to user needs and integrated to their level of knowledge of the application.

A senior partner may typically define successful application implementation as “the delivery of a usable application, meeting all expectations and within budget”. The implementation will be deemed a failure if any part of this statement is not met, for example if the application is not used widely enough, or the unspecified expectations are not met, or if more budget is required, perhaps for ongoing training or support. This may lead to disgruntled users and managers viewing the whole implementation as a failure. Long-term goals, targets for use, expectations and ongoing budget requirements must all be clearly specified as part of the implementation process and regular reviews of these built into working practice. Clear goals and targets should be set for specified time periods, so that progress towards them can be measured by regular monitoring and evaluation. Any failure to reach a short-term target can be investigated at an early stage and any problems rectified so that long-term goals can still be met.


  • Given the manner in which many applications have been implemented in the past, there is considerable scope in making improvements that will both save time and money and improve user experience, without the need for substantial investment in new applications or technology.
  • Lawyers often feel under pressure and the nature of legal work presents some unique problems for implementation of IT applications.
  • Good change management is essential for successful implementation.
  • Implementation should establish early involvement of all levels of staff and the clear specification of realistic expectations.
  • Senior staff may feel least able to involve themselves in new applications on a practical level, but their early involvement is essential.
  • Good, practical initial training is essential and must be tailored to individual needs and undertaken by all relevant staff. Ongoing training will often pay dividends.
  • A rolling training programme for existing or new staff to top-up, refresh or fill gaps in knowledge is necessary.
  • The implementation of an application cannot be viewed in isolation – it may be necessary to support other changes in working practices.
  • Ongoing support systems must be sensitively tailored to meet needs.
  • Ongoing evaluation and monitoring should be built into implementation. Clearly specified goals and targets should be set and progress towards them measured over time.

By using a systematic approach to implementation and following guidelines, it is possible to for lawyers to see the real benefits gained at various points of the life cycle of an application. They won’t have to wonder why they bought into an application – they will be able to see for themselves that they are getting the most out of their application. Within IT project management it is often perceived that most projects fail and that it is just a question of how much failure can still be deemed a success. I believe that with the right approach it is possible to change this perception.