Lawyers, and access to IT

There is not a lot of overlap between lawyers and IT professionals; there are a minority of lawyers who are keen on using IT (the bulk being addicted to paper and early C20th technology1 and reluctantly dragged into using computers and the internet) but only a tiny number who can set up and maintain the required hardware or write computer programs. Likewise there are very few IT people who have any idea what it is like to practice law, and the bulk have no real contact with the legal profession until they instruct someone about a contract or copyright issue.

Of course, when you compare the two professions, one lot speak a language incomprehensible to outsiders, have esoteric debates with their peers, and spend their days and long hours into the night working on reams of text where a single punctuation mark or slight change of a word can totally change the effect; while the other lot…

Now because there is so little overlap this means that lawyers don’t know what IT solutions they need or could have, while the IT professionals don’t know what would be really useful for the lawyers. Whether because of this, or in some cases an idea that lawyers are all “loaded” and can provide a nice regular income stream, some so-called “IT professionals” provide a really bad, overpriced, service. Some examples I’ve come across recently:

  • A firm was filing up the disk drive on its file server; instead of installing a larger hard drive (maybe £100 for parts and similar for time to install) the IT guy advised to buy a brand new server, couple of thousand pounds for the hardware and couple of days chargeable time to install.  There was absolutely no technical reason to replace the hardware; while the existing machine was a couple of years old, it was  justbeing an electronic filing cabinet, which it would continue to do perfectly adequately without adding further “bells and whistles” that would not be used.
  • An IT guy advising that having TrueCrypt (free disk encryption software) on ones computer was highly suspicious and probably indicated one was involved in criminal activities. On the contrary it may indicate merely that one is complying with data protection legislation, making sure any client data leaving the office on USB storage is encrypted and password protected.
  • Someone was asked to write a bespoke program to run in MS Word to perform a certain function for a lawyers office. This was then added to every single template the firm used, massively increasing their size, even though the task involved only needed the function to be available on one template. 2

In each case, the lawyer was fully satisfied at the time with the service they were given, and paid considerable sums for this, simply because they didn’t know any better.

It’s interesting that in both professions, the less able practitioners attempt to bamboozle their clients with technical terms, while the very best are experts at putting everything into plain language that their clients can understand perfectly. The client might not need to know every technical detail, but they do need to know the effect of what is proposed, and if they do ask about the technicalities you should be able to give a full explanation that they can understand.

One major difference between the two is that legal profession is highly regulated with specific standards and an easy route for clients to use a “rigorous” complaints system for free (i.e. paid for by the legal profession), while IT professionals are self regulating without a unitary professional body and no obligation on them to even join any such body. The argument for this  is that as access to justice is such an important element of modern life it is too important to leave to the profession to regulate itself. However, one could well argue that IT plays such an important daily role in modern life that errors can have devastating consequences and therefore on the same argument it is equally too important to allow the IT profession to regulate itself either3.

Be that as it may, in the event that a lawyer does find that IT services were less than adequate (and of course this may well not be found out until something goes devastatingly wrong considerably later), the only option is to sue for negligence, with all the costs and issues of proof that involves. If the service was merely adequate, it will do its job, but the lawyer will not be aware that it could function better, or that a cheaper option could have been used.

There are many excellent IT professionals out there, who are determined to do their best and keep costs as low as possible for their clients, but sometimes the problem is they don’t know precisely how a lawyers business operates, and it will take a lot of time on both sides working together to draw out what is the best solution. That is time during which the lawyer is not feeing and the IT professional is.

One option for a legal firm looking for an IT solution use a supplier that specialises in providing services to the legal profession. While this is usually a safe bet, these often have a generic package that they sell to every customer rather customising the product for each. Also they will be salesmen, trying to sell you as much as they can rather than what you absolutely need, and as “specialists” their prices can be on the high side.

Another option is to engage a consultant who is familiar with both the legal profession and the IT world to act as “translator” between the two sets of professionals. Such a consultant can find out what you actually want and need and produce the specifications for the best possible product for the job  as quickly as possible.  Since they are not tied to a particular supplier, they can offer a wider range (including the option of free software4)

As with many circumstances, this is a situation where paying for an expert to act as intermediary can end up a lot more cost effective than going direct to the supplier, unless you already know exactly what you want. For an example familiar to many lawyers, compare it with using an independent or a tied financial advisor. Equally, once you have found a good consultant, you can use them again and again when required without being tied to a specific vendor, and they will be familar with your history and be able to deal with your new requirements even quicker.

Or you can go out and spend a few years studying the subject yourself…

1 There are even some legal firms out there still dictating using cassettes!
2 The quality of the code also (unsurprisingly) left a lot to be desired, lacking any documentation or comments, virtually every variable global and using generic names, “spaghetti code”,  and so many other design flaws that if it weren’t for copyright issues I’d publish it as a guide how not to write a program.
3 Equally one could argue in the opposite direction that the legal profession is over-regulated. Pay your money & take your choice.
4 In a future post I’ll explain about free and open source software…

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5 Responses

  1. A very nice summary of the problem of [mis]communication between the professions.

    “[T]he bulk have no real contact with the legal profession until they instruct someone about a contract or copyright issue.”

    Funnily enough, it was both of those very issues that started me off on the path that led me to the LLB. Not that I’ll ever be of much use to any law firm regarding IT, having been a network & compiler engineer.

  2. I suspect you’ll find more than “some” legal firms still use dictaphones! Sometimes it’s faster than doing your own if you’ve got a lot to say.

    • No objection at all to using dictaphones, often most efficient division of labour, but electronic ones are so superior to cassettes at similar (or these days even lower) price. Perhaps subject for another post.

  3. I have never used a consultant to advise on requirements; perhaps to carry out complex coding or networking but there is nothing to beat a strong understanding of the technology and the needs of the business so that the technology can be adapted to meet the needs of the legal practice and not vice versa. Of course the fact that I have a great IT Director and team on the technical side does help.

    Can’t remember the last time I dictated anything. 🙂

    My first computer was an IBM 1130 series running Fortran 4 – but there again I am very old!

    • Yes, if you can have an in-house team to deal with the IT side that’s probably the best option performance wise – instead of sharing one expert with other firms, you have one (or more) to yourself. However, just not cost effective for most smaller firms. For firms large enough to afford it, you are back to the old “in-house/outsourced” arguments.

      If you get nostalgic, you can find an IBM 1130 simulator at http://ibm1130.org/sim. Not being quite so old, first computer I laid hands on was an ICL minicomputer.

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