The number-one law firm IT challenge heading into 2019 had nothing to do with acquiring bigger servers or faster networks. The top law firm IT issue for this year was the strategic challenge of change management, according to the International Legal Technology’s Association 2018 Legal Technology Survey.
The ILTA survey report describes an evolution in the role of law firm IT, a development that has been in the works for the past few years. Namely, we are seeing a change in the way law firm leaders view the IT function: Is it a back-office department that provides day-to-day operational support or is it a strategic asset that provides added value to the business by enhancing the way the firm serves its clients? Firms that view IT as more of the latter are poised to reap the most benefits. “Our industry is most certainly experiencing a shift in both the importance of technology in the legal practice and in the specific technologies required to support the business of law,” according to the Executive Summary of ILTA’s 2018 Technology Survey. There are a variety of factors that are driving this shift. From a business management perspective, the core competency of a law firm is to practice law, not to deliver IT services. At the same time, it is recognized that the IT function is critical to a firm’s ability to deliver legal services in an efficient and cost-competitive manner. From a bottom-line perspective, most law firms struggle to allocate the capital resources necessary to keep up with the constant advancements in IT. And from a strategic perspective, many law firm leaders have concluded that it makes more sense to focus their technology investments in ways that drive the growth of the firm’s practice areas by differentiating the firm in the marketplace and adding value to client service.
This evolution in our market means that law firms are exploring how they can advance their IT function to deliver higher-value services to both the firm’s lawyers and its clients. This is an exciting opportunity for law firm IT leaders as it creates an environment in which everyone can benefit:
- Clients. Strategically positioning the law firm IT function benefits the firm’s clients because it empowers IT teams to focus on the development of tools that improve the client experience and outcomes, and increase collaboration and information sharing between firms and their clients. Data analytics, automated workflow, enhancement in legal research and increasing use of artificial intelligence platforms allow clients to receive higher value services in less time and at a lower cost.
- Firms. The business of law benefits from advancing the firm’s IT function because it creates space for IT teams to develop solutions that help to truly differentiate the firm from its competitors in the market. IT can focus its efforts on projects that deliver measurable increases in both attorney and back-office efficiency, which translates into improved productivity and profitability.
- IT professionals. The professionals who work in the law firm IT department benefit from this shift because they are able to work on a wider variety of challenging and interesting projects that drive innovation for the firm. They have the opportunity to deliver value-added services and solutions in areas beyond traditional technology infrastructure, which advances their personal career development paths.
So how do savvy law firms effectively advance their IT function to deliver higher-value services that drive the business forward? The first step is to get beyond talking a good game and take action by creating a new strategy for a new challenge. “Although law firms often talk about innovation, fewer than a third have actually tasked someone within the firm with the responsibility for driving innovation,” writes veteran legal technology columnist Robert Ambrogi.
There is clearly a gap between most firms’ “good intentions” to innovate and actually focusing on the creation and implementation of innovation strategies. But those firms that are stepping off the sidelines and embracing change are achieving significant gains in productivity, efficiency and collaboration. For example, some law firms are discovering that a strategic shift in how they deliver the day-to-day management of their IT infrastructure — i.e., the core technology systems, networks and operations — can free up funds and resources to focus on those solutions that have the biggest and most direct impact on the firm’s lawyer’s and clients. This can be achieved through a number of techniques including leveraging cloud solutions (software and/or infrastructure as a service) and managed services (third-party delivered services for security, operations, support, etc.). These approaches can improve infrastructure stability, tech support, data security and disaster recovery — and achieve significant cost efficiencies as well — while creating capacity for the IT team to focus on strategic projects that drive the law firm business forward.
Regardless of which approach a firm employs, the key is for law firm IT leaders to challenge themselves at this time and critically evaluate whether their current resource investments and IT strategy are focused on activities that advance the practice of law. The path to innovation requires a willingness to embrace new operational models.