Is your IT Department Just Keeping the Lights On?
In opinion / By Charles Christian / 07 June 2019
Up until the late 1970s most law firms in the UK had no IT at all (I’m excluding VRC machines and comptometers) and it was only in the late 1980s-to-mid-1990s that computers became a standard feature on most fee earners desks. Since then, legal technology has become all pervasive and ubiquitous, and it is one of the ironies of the Digital Age that while we all managed perfectly adequately without IT before, when IT breaks down now it causes a major disruption; both physically and, I suppose you could say, metaphysically.
For example, when the social media platform Facebook has an outage, it makes the main TV news bulletins – because, of course, our lives are meaningless if we are deprived of pictures of comedy cats or our friends’ latest selfies. Similarly, as any law firm IT team will confirm, there is nothing that brings the wrath of partners down on their heads more heavily than problems with the email system. All those transactions that used to take days to process via snail-mail, now it’s a major tragedy (and it certainly has been for some law firm IT directors’ careers) if we cannot respond within minutes.
Keeping the lights on
One consequence of this increased reliance (or dependence) on tech is that inhouse IT teams now spend a disproportionate amount of time and effort maintaining systems to ensure they are ticking over. In effect they are, to use a phrase you’ll often hear bandied about, just “keeping the lights on”.
A factor often overlooked by law firm partners is just how much of a commitment this is. For example, while computer hardware has become far more resilient and reliable over the last 25 years, maintaining the software that runs on it has become far more onerous. Every month (although with some applications it can be more frequent) there are new bug fixes, system updates and security patches to install. In fact “Patch Tuesday” is the unofficial term used to refer to the way Microsoft regularly releases updates for its software products. (Patch Tuesday occurs on the second, and sometimes fourth, Tuesday of each month.)
Now this in itself would not be so bad if law firms only ran standard Microsoft software, but they don’t. Instead they run a whole raft of third-party applications (in some larger firms this can amount to hundreds of applications) so every patch needs to be tested to ensure it is still compatible with the other systems it needs to interact with. For example, there was an issue a few years ago when one of the major suppliers of legal sector document management software fell behind with making its software compatible with the latest version of Microsoft Word.
Then there are the major upgrades – new accounts software, changing to a new version of Microsoft Office – which all involve implementation, testing, staff training and rolling out to end-users. And let’s not forget firefighting when a computer disaster (fire, flooding, hardware failures, hacking) really does happen.
The net result of all this is that unless you enjoy the luxury of employing a large inhouse IT department (and probably 95% of UK law firms do not), your IT staff are going to be spending most of their time engaged in ‘keeping the lights on’ activities.
But isn’t that what you pay them for?
Well, yes and no. “No” because ideally if you are paying people for their IT expertise, why not fully make use of it? Free them up so they can focus on strategy and projects that will ultimately take the business forward? However, if all they do is keep the lights on, then where is the progress in that, the business is just standing still? It is also worth noting that just as go-ahead lawyers will move elsewhere if they feel they are stuck in a rut doing boring, repetitive work, so will your IT staff. You are more likely to retain good IT staff if their workload involves challenges, rather than just endless system patches.
At this point you say, “Well if the inhouse IT team are not going to keep the lights on, who is?”
The answer is to outsource part of this functionality to a company providing managed services, such as Nasstar. Not only will they have the skills to handle those Microsoft “Patch Tuesdays”, but if they have an understanding of the legal vertical market, they will also know the tips and tricks associated with ensuring updated systems remain compatible with other core law office applications.