March 1, 2005

February was the month for legal software suppliers to be assessed. Not only was there the Legal IT show, where they get to strut their stuff on specially built stands and launch their latest product, but there was the publication of the Law Society Software Solutions Guide too. The question which arises is whether Legal IT or the Guide is really enough to help the ordinary punter pick his software with total confidence that he has got all the right attributes for him and his firm. And questions don’t get much easier than that: the answer is No. So what should that ordinary punter do?

I am something of a fan of the Law Society’s Guide. Notwithstanding the fact that it is funded by the suppliers who choose to go through the assessment procedure, it represents the only reliable independent information which provides a systematic analysis of relevant products that you can access – and you can access it for free. But it has a number of drawbacks. The first and most obvious is that not all candidates are included. Some genuinely think that the procedure is oppressive (“jumping through hoops” is a favourite comment) and, at £8,500 a time, expensive; others may wish to avoid comparisons in the certain knowledge that they will not shine in such company. The second is that the Guide restricts itself to consideration of accounts and practice management systems so you can gain only a little insight from its pages if your shopping list is concerned with case management or digital dictation. Although there is still something to be gained from consulting it – it seems to me, for example, that if MSS and its relevant AlphaLAW products get top marks in 13 out of 14 categories it may be worth paying a little more attention to them whatever the product category. Thirdly, the Guide cannot hold your hand through the “is it right for me?” and “is it best value?” stages; it will give you information about those factors but it cannot actually do the analysis of firm need for you. For example, it may be that the high levels of client satisfaction for MSS relate to the fact that it has done well in a sector it knows well and that it is not right for those about to embark on a different kind of journey, but you will have to work that out for yourself.

Legal IT is now the supreme legal IT show. And it got good reviews, from suppliers at least, this year. It offers an opportunity which cannot easily be matched to make quick assessments of rivals side-by-side and within minutes. I recommend attendance to all interested in legal IT generally as a way of keeping abreast of the newest developments and it is great for helping the less expert create shortlisting criteria. But you are not going to buy because one stand had the better coffee or the better looking staff and of course it is a trade “show” and that word only sits comfortably with business in one context, the razzle dazzle one. It is part of the familiarisation process but the decisions are not made much easier.

What else is there? There are the excellent pages online on Charles Christian’s Legal Technology Insider site; they are partly lists of suppliers and attributes rather than guidance but are indispensable starting points for finding legal software products. There are also more pages on the Law Society site, with some good advice about how to approach the decision-making process. Then there are magazine articles from both specialist publications and in the general legal press.

But is it really enough? It’s still an easy question. Musing on LSSA Chairman Barry Hawley-Green’s observation that only 5% of solicitors firms at the bottom end are well run from the IT perspective (see p 18), I was struck by the thought that it is perhaps surprising that the figure is that high. If I don’t know whether .NET is going to be worth the disruption candle in 2005 or 2006 (I guess I am supposed to but I don’t) then there is little hope for those who frankly have better things to worry about.

We promise to do what we can to offer worthwhile information, and I call on SCL members to do more to share their experiences, whether on the leading-edge or in revisiting the more mundane areas, so that the overall level of information available improves. In short, write for me about your use of IT.