Top Ten Challenges For MIS Directors
By Doug Caddell
1. Become part of the firm's business
A continuing challenge for technology directors is to be seen as contributors to the firm's business -- not just as computer repair people. Involving the technology department (and technology) as a business and practice component of the firm is critical to the success of any subsequent project or plan. Technology issues and opportunities must be a major factor in the firm's strategic and tactical planning.
2. Find and keep effective technology staff
Law firm technology managers face a staffing crisis on three fronts. For some, the crisis is convincing partners that technology is more than an expense to be controlled and a staff to be minimized. Clients and attorneys are demanding more and increasingly complex technology, requiring higher levels of technology staffing to support and maintain.
The second challenge: A shift in required technology skills. It no longer works to have technicians who can only set up PCs, integrate a few basic packages and solve a word processing problems .As more applications move toward internal and external Web based environments, staff must be schooled in Web and other technologies, and must become more aware of the practices that they support.
Lawyers have become accustomed to using technology; we no longer only support secretaries and the accounting department. Lawyers are integrating technology into how they work, moving beyond e-mail and calendaring to sophisticated applications focused on client interaction.
Technology staff must have an understanding of the underlying "business" requirements of the systems we are asked to define, implement and support.
The shift to a better-educated technology staff is underway. This goes beyond knowing about hardware and software, and includes more education in systems analysis, project management and people skills.
The third component of the staffing crisis is the availability of good people. Having identified the skills we need, can we find them and keep them?
The job market today is tough for employers -- and even more so for law firms seeking knowledgeable technology people. We compete with most companies for competent staff, and many companies are more glitzy and offer greater real or perceived benefits. This becomes a challenge for the firm IT director -- especially when management has historically hired computer staff based upon minimizing salary expense.
3. Demonstrate IT's value to clients
As clients demand that their law firms become more technologically strong, the challenge for technology managers is to become actively involved in this service role. Today, a firm's technology prowess is an often-large factor in how clients choose, and retain, their lawyers.
Technology directors should strive to position their services as value-added resources to the firm -- by becoming involved in presentations to prospective and existing clients. Tailoring technology to meet client requirements brings technology into the firm's client service mix. Direct and indirect service to clients demonstrates to your attorneys that technology is no longer a back-room trade, but a client service tool, adding value to the firm and its relationships with clients.
4. Implement effective Web technologies
Savvy technology directors will put a high priority on updating your firm's Internet sites. First generation Web sites were Internet copies of law firm brochures. Now, firms must build interactive sites that draw prospective clients into the firm. Sites that direct visitors to active pages with dynamic database served information will showcase your firm.
Law firm sites not only present an image of the firm, but they help recruit clients, attorneys and support staff. Move beyond brochure-ware, build specific pages for your targeted audiences (clients, law students, etc.) .Web projects should be content driven and not technology centered. Your firm's marketing, business and practice units should provide the leadership role, supported by the technology department.
Build Firm Intranets: The use of Web technology internally within firms has arrived. While some have focused their Intranets on administrative areas, the most successful law firm Intranets are focused on the practice of law -- tying attorneys and practices together, in addition to the administrative aspects. One of the key side effects of an effective law firm Intranet is minimizing geographical boundaries -- integrating offices and geographically dispersed practice groups together into one firm-wide culture.
Develop Extranets: Law firm marketing managers have long talked about their lawyers being partners with their clients -- not just providers of standard legal services. Web technology facilitates this on a real-time basis, linking firms to clients and clients to their lawyers.
Extranets are fostering a new set of legal services as lawyers develop new products to deliver to clients via the Web.
Extranets are more than just e-mail links to the General Counsel; they are being used to create new legal services.
5. Define "Knowledge Management"
Knowledge Management is one of the active buzzwords in the legal industry. The definition can be as varied as the number of people you ask.
Generally, it's the harnessing of a firm's intellectual knowledge, so that legal knowledge can be shared within the firm. Earlier concepts of this were "Brief Banks" or "Precedent Document Libraries," where prior work-product could be searched and reused in whole or in part.
The failure of these early incarnations of KM was the lack of consistent attorney involvement and the proprietary nature of some lawyers who are averse to sharing their hard-earned knowledge.
Today, law firm KM projects face the same hurdle as these earlier attempts. While everyone agrees that sharing knowledge within a firm is important to it achieving greater success, few have solved the problem of poor attorney involvement and the unwillingness to share.
Progressive firms are hiring legal trained "Knowledge Managers" to overcome these barriers. Many technology departments will be pushed to implement KM projects without a solid definition of expectations and attorney participation requirements. KM technology exists, but most law firm KM projects will fail -- not because of technology, but because of law firm culture.
6. Deliver Just-In-Time/ Just-Enough-Training
Attorneys are protective of their billable time and resist sitting in a class and being taught anything more than what they actually need to get the job done. Our challenge is to deliver Just-In-Time/Just-Enough-Training.
To do this we need to expand our education methods beyond the instructor-lead classroom and use multiple training delivery methods -- many available through new technologies. Technology directors need to find ways to deliver training when it's needed, not when it's scheduled.
7. Increasing Wide Area Network Bandwidth
If you have multiple offices, get beyond the thought that your WAN's bandwidth is just a conduit for low-volume e-mail. Images and other multi-media bandwidth consumers are here.
More importantly, application sharing via Citrix and direct access to centralized services and databases is becoming more prevalent, and more applications are being created with reliance on a central site. Law firm WANs are underpowered to support tomorrow's requirements. Unfortunately, tomorrow is already here.
8. Getting Over Y2K Wind-down
As we relaxed after January 1, some firms may have been inclined to go on a technology vacation. Don't allow management to put technology on the back burner. This is not a time to rest; it's a time to pounce.
9. Lock in the Concept of Systems Evolution
During the past few years, most firms have stopped buying new PCs and servers every five or so years -- waiting until the system required a major overhaul. Most have moved to a continuous replacement policy, replacing about one-third of their computers every year, balancing the financial and workload impact.
10. Deliver on the Promise of Technology
For years the use of technology has promised workflow improvements and productivity gains -- and for years the promise of technology has not been completely fulfilled. Attorneys, staff and firm management are ready, and the challenge to technology managers is to fulfill the promise.
Doug Caddell is chief information officer, based in Foley & Lardner's Milwaukee office.