Some controversy now as Finbarr Joy, the CIO of Liverpool-based law firm Goldsmith Williams asks when will legal IT vendors catch up…

As the cycle of business change accelerates and the convergence of Mobile, Social and Cloud creates new business models, it is clear that organisations in all sectors have never been so dependent on technology. In a very real sense, the development of technical strategy is increasingly synonymous with commercial strategy – developing the capabilities for the organisation to compete in a fast-changing, multi-channel world.

For most organisations (certainly at any scale) this reveals a dependency on key vendors – the providers of the business systems and platforms that underpin the company’s operations. I believe our sector is very poorly served in this respect. In the same way that the Legal Services Board saw the need to improve competition and innovation by ushering in Alternative Business Structures, there is a need for much improved innovation amongst the vendors supporting this community as new business practices evolve.

Benchmarks – and a disclaimer
The context for this opinion piece relates to my experiences at the recent (excellent!) Lawtech Futures 2012 conference where I asked a question on standards and deployment flexibility of a ‘vendor roundtable’  – the question was largely avoided while they discussed cloud logistics instead – this is an attempt to re-state the issue in broader terms than the question schedule allowed.

I should say at the outset, that just like many legal services providers, we rely on Commercial off the Shelf (COTS) practice and case management technology for the support of the bulk of our business operations.  I am happy to state on record that our vendor happens to provide what I regard as best-in- class service and support. But looking beyond my own immediate horizons, and at the ‘industry’ offerings from all the major PMS/CMS providers, it is clear that the market is rooted in a technical environment that was ‘frozen’ many years past. I believe this profoundly affects the dependent firm’s ability to integrate, extend, and move with agility as the legal services marketplace evolves.

This is in direct contrast to the opportunities being afforded to other sectors where the major vendors seem to have taken a more open systems approach over the last 5-to-10 years.  If we view the ‘layers’ of technology that the leading vendors present as layers of capability it is possible to draft a comparative assessment:

Capabilities for a changing world
A glance at the headlines on this site over any given month reveals a snapshot of the challenges now coming in waves at our sector:  Outcomes Focused Regulation, ABS/New breeds of competitor,  pressure on fees/need for greater efficiencies, availability of new classes of mobile device/demand for information anywhere etcetera. Above all, there is clearly a need to support the accelerating pace of change – which demands flexibility and agility across at least three dimensions of architecture:

Should be an open environment supporting best of breed infrastructure, and flexibility in deployment.  The notion of standards is key to all change (being able to exercise choice on being confronted with a new challenge), and if this built in at the platform level it means you can integrate with business partners that have made different technology choices and you can take advantage of new hardware and software improvements as they evolve.

Interestingly, enterprise package vendors in other sectors – such as IBM and Oracle – are increasingly building on top of Open Source Platforms – this triggers a virtuous cycle of improved product quality (there are more open source developers/testers than any one vendor can muster) together with reduced price point through the commoditisation effect of open source propagation (pay for the support, not the license).

Just about every vendor will proudly testify to having ‘standard’ data access through such as SQL, together with the ability to request/respond through XML. But in this age of advanced web services and REST APIs is this enough? Why haven’t the vendors in this sector got together to agree common data structures to facilitate the inter-firm transactions and workflows that are the reality of full-cycle legal services provision?

Similarly, given that there is always a need to extend and customise according to the law firm’s unique requirements, there seem to be only limited options for doing so: proprietary development languages or – at best – pure Microsoft environments. This seems to ignore the past 15 years’ rapid evolution in business systems development using web technologies – applying environments such as PHP or Ruby to dramatically reduce development timescales (and costs of overheads for that matter).

With all the unnecessary hype relating to cloud it is easy for the essential – but actually mundane – aspects of cloud provisioning to be lost in the noise. If we take as a reference example, cloud can bring the benefits of modular feature deployment (not all or nothing), and usage driven costing (rather than up-front infrastructure investment). There are some budding examples of vendor + hosting company partnerships beginning to emerge in this sector but there is nothing offering the convenience, transparent pricing, ‘pick and choose’ deployment selection (nor development and integration capability!) of the best of cloud offerings in other sectors.

The demands from our customer base are changing rapidly – which means the demands on our business are also changing rapidly. When we offer our customers new online services especially, we must recognise that their expectations are set by highly accessible, easily configurable services they can use every day from anywhere (Facebook, Amazon, banking, or even *!). Such services are usually ‘powered’ by a new class of open systems – built for speed and flexibility. The characteristics of such systems are now widely propagated through other industries in the form of open source components and industry standards – we need our vendor community to shape up and embrace these adaptations to sustain the next stage of legal technology evolution.