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Should your law firm become a software house?

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Today, technology is at the heart of every law firm. It’s vital to improve service and optimise costs. And, as it becomes more and more ubiquitous in our everyday lives, expectations of what can be achieved are continually growing.

So when you want to create a new, improved business application, it makes sense to ask the IT department to build all of it. Right? After all they’re the ones who know all about technology, they’re skilled in all the latest coding languages and they’re keen as mustard to do anything new. Plus, they can deliver the perfect fit for your business.

Well, theoretically, yes. But before you pick up the phone to your IT Director, consider these figures. The Standish Group has been examining trends in IT project management success for years and they don’t look good. Here are some rather frightening statistics from the 2011 edition of the report.

  • Only 37% of all projects succeeded in that they were delivered on time, within budget.
  • 42% of projects were delivered late, went over budget or were delivered with less than the requested features and functions
  • The remaining 21% were complete failures due to cancellation prior to delivery or never being used.

The iceberg phenomenon

The problem is that self-build projects suffer from the iceberg phenomenon. You only see the tip – often the features and functions you want to improve the running of the firm. But that’s usually the easy third of the challenge. The other two-thirds lurk beneath the surface, including the dark challenges of creating the basic building blocks, the foundation of a system – all waiting to seriously delay projects at best, or sink them at worst.

Obviously, understanding the business requirements are crucial to success. And it requires a close partnership between IT and the business users, with facilitation by experienced analysts. If the skills aren’t available there’s a strong argument for bringing in external consultants to help. But beware getting into a technology arms race that increases costs and project scope. The lure of doing something different can be very appealing, and not just to the internal techies – the ‘we can build this better than anyone else’ isn’t always right!

Operating system compatibility and integration with other systems and ‘standard’ software can present huge challenges. Nevertheless, they are vital to a successful project. The first to make sure your new application runs successfully, the second to ensure you don’t have a system that runs in isolation and requires inefficient, costly and potentially error strewn manual interfaces between the systems you already have and the new one you want.

Then there’s the question of adapting the application over time. Assuming that it’s in the 37% of projects that deliver all the required features and functions in the first place, what will be the cost and effort of changing it as your firm changes and grows, or as the underlying or integrated technology changes – Office 2013 or Windows 8 anyone?

Finally there’s the question of retained knowledge. As IT staff change and leave, knowledge of the code ‘iceberg’ and how your application was built in the first place will erode, making it more difficult to make changes in the future.

What’s the alternative?

But, you say, what’s the alternative? My business is unique and supplier-built applications only offer a 70-80% fit at best! Based on the Pareto Principle, that’s probably true. But they also offer some important advantages.

The best off-the-shelf applications provide the core legal functions every firm needs out of the box, so you don’t have to spend time and effort developing them. They also take away the boring integration challenges that delay so many projects. Plus, they take advantage of the latest technologies that IT departments do want to work with AND address the problem areas that they don’t!

But the very best off-the-shelf applications offer one other, extremely important feature – they provide you with a rich toolkit for adapting the application to your specific needs, or building new applications quickly – a toolkit that doesn’t require any knowledge of the underlying technology or integrations, something that doesn’t require a PHD in coding. That means it’s easy to use and quick to make modifications and implement changes. So, your application will meet your needs on day one, day ten and day one hundred, however your business changes.

This has always been the Lexis Visualfiles way – providing you with the ultimately flexible solution that allows you to do what you do best – practice law – rather than also trying to bankroll a small (or not so small) independent software house.

Tags: Visualfiles

About the Author:


Nigel Williams is widely experienced in technical, managerial and consultancy roles in public and private organisations, with particular expertise in the UK legal sector - from both client and supplier perspectives.

He has run IT in a number of law firms, and has worked with Visualfiles since it was first introduced. In his role as the Visualfiles Product Manager he has primary responsibility for setting future direction.

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