By Neil Cameron

On 16 January we got to see a first glimpse of the legal system that Oracle has been working on when they launched their Global PMS, in association with PwC, on the Sunborn Yacht at Oracle OpenWorld Europe.

The launch was preceded by a presentation by PwC’s Tony Hodgson about legal IT trends in general and the results of their most recent annual law firms’ survey in particular, followed by round-table discussions – none of which appeared to draw any significant link to the need, or otherwise, of a new global PMS.

We finally got to the meat when Paul Suffield and Andrew King threw up a slide detailing the range of functionality of the new software. It was very comprehensive, but specifically excluded two key areas that it was stated that law firm customers would be expected to fill in with ‘best of breed’ solutions, for which Oracle will undertake the necessary integrations in association with 3rd party vendors. Those two areas were Risk Management / Inceptions and Time Recording. It appeared from other discussions that Intapp was going to be one of the early options to fill those gaps, but that others would follow.

Furthermore, CRM is an optional module depending on the requirements of the firm.

Time Recording one can clearly understand would fall into such a 3rd part vendor category, but it is somewhat surprising that Oracle did not feel they could build an effective client/matter inception process with their many and varied collaboration and workflow development tools.

The software

We got about 55 minutes of software demonstration – on the one hand it looked good, but on the other, we got almost nothing law firm specific.

As with SAP, there is a range of global ERP capabilities where we just expect world class, best of breed functionality – multi-currency handling, global entities, global integration, global regulatory compliance, reporting, purchase order processing, collections, Dashboards etc.

What we saw was the creation for a new matter cost budget, nice as far as it went – albeit not as unique as the demonstrator apparently thought it was, and which one might expect any consulting-type firm to be using; a comprehensive and feature-rich firm-wide Dashboard that we could drill down into and reshape – rather oddly with a top line global billings Tile showing ‘5b’ but not specifying any particular currency.

As stated, it all looked as good as it should do, but essentially it was what you would expect Oracle to do – but gave us no evidence that the ERP had been sufficiently ‘legalised’ – which is always a fear when dealing with generic ERPs that have been crafted to fit into the law firm environment.

We saw no billing, for example. I did ask about if we could see how the Oracle software would deal with Counsels’ fee notes, the VAT treatment thereon, and their handling as a Not Yet Paid disbursement but alas there was no time for this; although we were assured that it could do it.

As I noted last week in a comment on the Oracle announcement, the journey from ERP to PMS is fraught with difficulties and dangers – ever since Norton Rose thought they could implement D&B Millennium as a finance system in the 1990s – by taking a world class generic accounting system and adding the legal bits’. Those ‘legal bits’ can be hugely complex and often take much longer to build in than anticipated – ask LexisNexis.

Also, dealing with law firms is whole new ball game, and vendors can get scared off – both Oracle and SAP sold global PMS into magic circle firms 20 years ago, and immediately dropped the industry like a hot brick – only resurfacing now (in the case of Oracle) and a few years ago (in the case of SAP).

One of the key issues with global law firms and ERP-based PMS is the same as it has been for the last 20 years: who builds it, who sells it and who implements it?

This caused difficulties with Linklaters’ SAP implementation and Clifford Chance’s Oracle/Keystone implementation at the turn of the Millennium. On the one hand, a global mega-firm wants all the functionality – and skin in the game – from the global ERP and the buy-in to the industry from the ERP vendor, but also wants the legal bits to be added – and the system implemented – by those with industry expertise who are also big enough to give law firm’s confidence in their longevity.

For SAP that additional ingredient has been supplied by Fulcrum GT, and there is no doubt the software is functionally rich and well-tailored to law-firms – but there remains concern for some over the size of Fulcrum GT, a brand otherwise not already well known to law firm partners.

For Oracle, at least some of that expertise is being added by PwC – this was not dealt with in any detail at the launch, but there was a clear implication that PwC was to be the major implementation partner for Oracle Global PMS, and a more indistinct hint that PwC has added input into the design of he ‘legal’ bits. Despite being specifically asked, there was no other reference as to where this expertise had been sourced.

PwC’s involvement, however, whilst being great on the brand confidence front, brings some complications of its own. Firstly, PwC has recently been cornering the market in advising global law firms on PMS procurements – how can it now propose do this impartially and independently when it now has a direct commercial interest in one of the primary global PMS options?

Secondly, the big four have all recently reaffirmed their interest in growing their own legal advisory businesses- why would global law firms then seek to ‘open their kimono’ even further than they already have and show PwC all their internal processes to the nth degree of detail?

Here are the important questions to ask about this initiative:

  • How important is this for Oracle? Not important enough to add ‘Legal’ to their otherwise very comprehensive industry list on their UK web site as of today, or any reference to the product launch – a search for ‘PMS’ returns only pages relating to a Hotel Property Management System. Furthermore, I was not the only cynical consultant in the room who thought that this product was purpose-designed to sell to Clifford Chance and wean them off their ageing Oracle/Keystone system.
  • How much will it cost? This was put to Oracle, and the answer was that it would be “incredibly competitive”
  • Have they made it legal enough? This is absolutely vital, and – for me – is yet to be determined.
  • What exactly is PwC’s role in all this?

I have been offered a more in-depth demonstration of the functionality of the system, and I look forward to reporting on the extent to which it has been developed to meet the particular requirements of law firms.

In summary; this is broadly good news. We badly need the competition as traditional PMS vendors need a good kick up the arse – but we also need further evidence of the functionality of the Oracle PMS software, their commitment to the market and how it will be implemented.