What makes you so special?

March 1, 2005

It was probably at the conception of the world’s second software project that the question was first raised about whether an existing system could suit the purpose. The advantages of procuring a ready solution that is shared with the majority can be quite significant; with a large user base, software tends to be more comprehensively tested and supported, has a longer and more dynamic lifespan and is cheaper to buy.

The more standard a business model, the more likely one or more shrink-wrapped solutions will already be available. If the vast majority of businesses can manage with generic accounting software, such as Sage or QuickBooks, is it inconceivable for a barrister to do the same?

Of course, this all depends on finding a software solution that actually measures up to your requirements. When Formation Software first encountered the cloistered world of barristers’ chambers and considered the design of a definitive chambers management application, we applied our usual deconstructive design method to map the workflow and data structures within.

In most business environments we quickly unearth a fairly generic and universal core operating procedure – the differences in apparently diverse business sectors can often be subtle. When we built a customer portal for General Motors to manage some of the world’s largest vehicle fleets we found many common business processes with the smallest of e-business applications. So, it came as a surprise that in chambers we found several peculiar operating procedures that do not readily occur in the wider business community.

Before looking at the uniqueness of barristers’ business practices, we consider one aspect of the chambers operation where a parallel can be drawn with the wider commercial world.

That all work performed by barristers relates to a specific case is quite a standard construct for any project-based business. The needs of architects, designers and software developers are not too different from barristers in how they organise and bill the time they contribute to projects. As a result of this commercial parallel, a project management system is probably a better starting point for barristers’ chambers than an accounting system.

However, having confirmed one example where generic software is appropriate in the chambers, we now look at some of the key design hard-points of a chambers management solution and how they differ to most.

The fee note

The concept of an invoice has been almost universally employed in business as the core mechanism for collecting payment for goods or services. These documents are so widely understood that it is safe to say that any business recipient will know what to do with it and have systems in place to deal with its processing.

However, it suits chambers to work with a fluid fee note system where charged items are little more than a report about current fees and only the payments are controlled transactions.

At first glance, a fee note looks like an invoice document but they have some fundamental differences that gain significance when we consider automating their processing. An invoice is a finite transactional document presenting a unique request for payment to a customer that appends their debt. If we want to correct or modify an invoice line we must produce a subsequent document and leave the initial one intact.

As a systems designer I find fee notes rather archaic and more difficult to automate than they should be and, if the wider business context is considered, they might be regarded as a ‘selfish’ document. Traditional clients of chambers might well be used to dealing with fee notes, but how well do you think the purchasing and payment systems of a local authority cope with them? We have encountered many examples of confusion leading to delayed or incorrect payments where each fee note has been entered into an accounting system as an invoice.

Perhaps as a consequence of fee note vagueness, the fee chasing reminder process has evolved more comprehensively than other business sectors.

Segregation and integration

Also unusual is the diffuse legal structure of chambers where barristers maintain a level of independence from their colleagues and their software security model must reflect this by segregating barrister access. In most cases chambers act as a commissioned agent for procuring and billing work and must be able to clearly isolate barristers in all financial transactions and reports.

One might assume that a diary would be one area where chambers could deploy a standard solution but, once again, we find some specific functional and performance requirements that are not easy to find in a standard group diary solution. Clerks work with groups of barrister diaries simultaneously and need quick and integrated access to case and fee information.

Specialist versus standard solutions

So it would seem that a specialist application is the only possibility for a chambers management solution; well, yes and no.

There are many tasks that clerks and barristers perform that are unexceptional, at least from a systems perspective. Preparing documents in Word, e-mail in Outlook and computation in Excel are perfectly normal tasks for any business type. Perhaps the key to getting the best solution is in how well the proprietary application integrates with standard ones. The manner of preparing and presenting fees may be unique, but why not harness the power and flexibility of Microsoft Excel to analyse your financial data? And, whilst clerks may have specific performance criteria for their diary, the needs of a barrister are more modest and could be achieved through a standard diary application, such as Outlook’s calendar. The adoption of a standard diary component for barristers opens up an array of possible devices and connectivity options unlikely to be covered by a custom application.

Another harbinger of change is the slow but continued evolution of chambers and barristers’ business model. With more direct engagement possibilities, chambers must look to service the needs of a business community that does not need to understand their ‘special’ manner of trading. This commercial pressure to conform sheds a new light onto proprietary procedures. We have been keen to introduce the discipline of invoicing to chambers and the current version of InQuisita Law allows both billing methods to co-exist. With each business opportunity a chambers can decide which route to follow. Some of Formation’s more commercially focussed sets of chambers are already running invoicing, credit notes, statements and payment matching in response to their customer’s requests for change.

In summary, there is a clear case for using generic software to fulfil the broader requirements of business but a specific solution is needed to meet the unique requirements of chambers.

David Randall is managing director of Formation Software,

developers of the InQuisita Law chambers management solution

Tel: 0116 225 2000