Comment: Talking the talk but not walking the walk – 21st century legal IT law firm-style

A female general counsel who is notorious for (successfully) changing sectors once told me that after starting a new role, you have about six months to note down your initial observations before you become just another part of the corporate machine.

Having joined the Legal IT Insider as associate editor in the latter half of 2014, by that particular GCs metric I’m positively cog like. But given that in the past month or two I’ve transitioned from ‘slightly dazed and confused’ to ‘enthusiastic bordering on evangelical’ about legal IT, now is not a bad time to jot down a couple of early thoughts about the sector.

First, I must confess that having written about the legal market for eleven years, in that time I’ve inevitably made the occasional foray into tech journalism including, very briefly, as online editor of the Legal Technology Journal. I don’t think I had time to emerge from the ‘dazed’ phase before the recession put pay to that idea.

This time round, aside from an unnatural zeal that may give me plenty of space at a dinner party, my prevailing reaction is one of incredulity that there is not more strategic IT buy-in from the management of leading law firms. Try saying that over sorbet.

Yes, management want their printers to work and they want competitive document and case management and finance systems, not to mention secure communication and a host of other priorities. But is IT at the forefront of every major strategy decision and viewed as a key driver for the firm? Erm, not so much.

Knowing the profession as I do I shouldn’t really be surprised. It’s never been what you might call pacey. And at the end of the day law firms are still largely run by lawyers – off-the-scale smart but often missing the business acumen you might expect from those running multi-million pound businesses.

But in the current environment, where new and aggressive entrants are putting technology very much at the forefront of their offering, giving a much stronger voice to your IT department isn’t exactly rocket science.

Of course that is not to say that large law firms don’t take IT seriously. Let’s face it, their technology budgets are enough to make a small company weep. Heck, maybe even a very small country.

But many firms are still using old systems that need a complete overhaul and one IT director at a top 30 UK law firm commented to me: “Everyone talks about IT and how important it is but their behaviour doesn’t follow. They talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.”

On the whole the legal market lags behind other sectors in that it hasn’t had to rely on IT and processes to the same extent to make money. Despite those eye-watering IT budgets there has been significant under investment comparative to the size of the revenues being generated.

Things are improving. IT directors with strong business acumen are increasingly being recruited from outside the sector, such as Matt Peers who joined Linklaters as its new director of information systems and strategy from Deloitte in May. Two months before that Stephen Andrews joined Herbert Smith Freehills as interim head of architecture from Bupa.

As Chris White, global IT director at top 20 UK law firm Clyde & Co (whose Talking Tech webcast will be out next week) points out, large law firms are becoming inherently more process driven, increasingly bringing in project managers to run deals – something that would have been unheard of a few years ago.

It will take more people who really understand what the business needs to drive change. That extends to suppliers, too, who moan that law firms don’t prioritise or understand technology without themselves always understanding the real business drivers.

But there is an undeniable energy and sense of opportunity within the sector. I don’t know of one large law firm that isn’t alive to the need to provide client services in a more efficient way.

The key will be for IT heads and management to start talking the same language. The question is whether it will take new entrants to eat some of their lunch – or how much – before that happens.