A technology strategy to help your law firm survive the recession and build competitive advantage?
During downturns, 'big ideas' may be in short supply as thoughts turn to security and risk. People can sometimes become 'busy fools', so embroiled in 'fire-fighting' and task focused they cannot find the time to plan. It is no surprise then that during periods of growth; we often see businesses fail because the 'big idea', however good it was, failed due to poor planning and execution. Think of business planning like this; if you were going on a journey, you'd have a destination in mind and would plan how you were going to get there. Likewise, if you were undertaking a building project, you'd have detailed architectural designs and plans before you started building. So why should your business be any different? To many people, the words 'strategy' and 'business plan' are too theoretical and overly complex, suited to the world of management consultants. However, that does not need to be the case - a good plan need only be about 5-10 pages long and is far better being a practical working document that you can share with your employees rather than a weighty tome that gathers dust on a shelf. It needs 4 main sections: » Where are we now? - an understanding of your current position » Where do we want to be in 3 years time? - your vision of tomorrow » How are we going to get there? - a strategy to deliver your vision » Who is going to do what by when to ensure we get there? - your plan to execute your strategy The third question is often the toughest to answer, and actually needs a plan for each functional area of the practice; sales, marketing, operations, customer service, HR, finance and of course technology. Technology strategy must be owned and driven by the commercial decision makers in your organisation, not just delegated to IT At IRIS Legal, we service, amongst others, the accounting, legal, healthcare professions and the NFP sector. It is a virtual certainty that these sectors will emerge from the current recession looking radically different from the way they went in, partly driven by the economy and partly by legislative and regulatory change. There will be winners and the losers probably will not be around for long. To win, it will be essential to differentiate on service and efficiency. Technology can be a terrific enabler to provide your business with real sustainable competitive advantage in these areas. So, once you have reached this stage in your business plan, how can you back it up with an integrated IT strategy that will differentiate you from your competition? In our experience, those organisations that place their emphasis on the business and competitive benefits that technology can bring them transform their organisations with far more effective IT strategies than those who get wrapped up in the technology for technology's sake. However, often these same commercial people within the organisation are unfamiliar with technology, quite understandably confused by the technical terminology and are not sure of the right questions to ask. The end result, is that the focus of the decision can become restricted to cost, rather than return on investment and strategic advantage. In a professional legal practice, as in any commercial business, the managing/commercial partner(s) almost certainly want to know how their IT investment can: » Drive efficiency, automate routine tasks and reduce admin » Increase partner profits through increasing chargeable time » Improve cash-flow by reducing 'lock-up' » Free up partner time to develop new business » Cross-sell services to existing clients and improve new client win rates » Increase competitive advantage by improving client service A few years ago, we completed our first 'position paper' on how information technology can be used and applied in an accountancy practice to achieve these business objectives. We have now done the same for the legal profession in conjunction with Steve Williams of Ashton Morton Slack and Chairman of the IRIS Legal Users Association. We hope it will assist partners in making informed decisions about all aspects of strategic deployment of technology so that their law firms can derive a greater return on their IT investment. The paper outlines 20 questions (principally commercially oriented) that should be asked of the IT Partner to determine whether the practice is getting the benefits it is looking for. It examines three areas of efficiency: process, client and system efficiency and looks at how various processes in a practice can be automated or semi-automated from initial client sign up to service delivery, through to billing. Obtaining the answers to these questions is the first step. An effective IT strategy is as reliant on establishing good working practices and processes, driven by the leader of the organisation as it is on tools and technology. Let's face it, your people are probably both your greatest asset and largest overhead, so efficient use of their time is paramount. Perhaps it is a good time to dust off that practice business plan after all? Martin Leuw is Group Chief Executive of IRIS Legal Software Group. In July 2006, he was named Entrepreneur of the Year in the Technology & Communication category in the Southern regional final of Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year programme. In October 2009, Martin was awarded the new ICAEW Faculty prize at the Software Satisfaction Awards for the contribution he has made to the accountancy profession.