Taking a Unified Approach to Legal Sector Growth

Graeme Low of law firm Mills & Reeve explains how IT has enabled law firms to grow rapidly and improve cost control

Strategic CIOs touch every point of the organization, even some areas that are not considered to be their immediate territory. Over the last decade law firms have changed from fusty redbrick elite clubs to thrusting commercial organizations that compete for business in a market where customers are now fully aware that they can shop around. For Graeme Low, head of IT at Cambridge based law firm Mills & Reeve, his role involves enabling a company to continue its recent record of rapid growth, provide systems that entice staff to join the company and improve communications to customers. He tells CIO how he and his team have achieved this.

"Clients are shopping around, and they are looking for value for money," Low says of the common business challenges that have now become part of the legal industry in the last 10 years. "We have to work hard to keep fees competitive. IT really comes into its own, we are important for efficiency, quality and client service to help the firm retain clients and do work efficiently." Law firms have become more competitive against each other to meet their client's needs. Low said that society is becoming increasingly litigious there is an increasing market for the legal sector to capitalize on.

Mills & Reeve is one law firm that has profited from the increasing market for legal representation. "The company didn't want to be just in the eastern region, it wanted to be national," Low says of the explosive growth in his own organization. Mills & Reeve now has offices in Birmingham, Leeds, London, Manchester, Norwich and a head office in Cambridge. With the majority of its partners working outside of London, Mills & Reeve is able to offer lower legal fees, which is credited in part to the recent success.

"We do regular business plans and growth has always been part of that," Low says. Mills & Reeve is now working towards a 2010 business plan and each year's targets move towards that end plan. "There's a number of agreed priorities, every support department has this business plan in mind," Low says of his department's role. "We're into supporting innovation and a belief that innovation will deliver efficiency. There's a supportive attitude to investment in IT. Many organizations I've been with before worry about the cost, it is so refreshing here."

Business development and growth means retaining and enticing quality staff. "We have to offer an incentive to leave London and profitability is part of that," Low says. "Most of the lawyers that are attracted out of London are surprised by how sophisticated we are. The attraction is the culture, it is not as highly pressurized and we emphasize the work-life balance. I certainly don't think they find a dilution of quality."

IT's role is to ensure that the Mills & Reeve legal team have the best information system possible to assist their work. "Since I've been here there has been an emphasis on information. Lawyers need lots and information sources are growing." They have developed a portal to pull together external and internal information sources.

The latest information tool to be implemented by Low is unified communications, a system he describes as being ideal for law firms. "We think that technology has to contribute a lot to giving lawyers the information they need to increase production." Low's approach to the telecommunications for Mills & Reeve was that it is also another form of information system, "a process for improving workflow".

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"When we set out to research telephony we were not aware of unified communications," Low says, but during the research they became increasingly aware of technology and processes that would enable collaboration and unified communications seemed to provide these functions and tick all their required boxes.

"It fitted in with the business efficiency improvements that we've been focussing on. Unified comms is part and parcel of keeping information in a single place," Low says. Mills & Reeve was already using a telecoms system developed by Redstone using Cisco hardware. Low wanted to remain with Cisco because although he had looked at some impressive technology from other providers, he wanted to be sure that the supplier would be around in the future. "Some of the more traditional telephony providers changed their offer due to Microsoft Live coming on to the market," Low says of the procurement process.

Low used a consultant to vet the various vendors keen for the Mills & Reeve contract, with Redstone, a company they already used, coming back as one of the recommended providers. With the list narrowed down, Low created a panel from across the business to assess the merits of each system on offer. A wiki was created for members of the panel to add their requirements for a system to. This narrowed the list down to two and then the vendors were invited in to Mills & Reeve to demonstrate to the panel before the final selection. The panel worked well, "Occasionally people were fixated on particular items they required and it was difficult to get them to see the whole picture of an eight year investment.

Redstone integrated IPFX unified communications software that can deliver 10 communications capabilities through a Cisco network. These include internet telephony, a PC console for managing communications and connecting telephony to the functionality within Microsoft Outlook. "IPFX are smaller and I liked what they offered. When investing in technology it needs to be an eight year investment."

"Lawyers live on Outlook," Low says of the main attraction of IPFX and he has now even integrated the company document management system into the communications system. "Therefore it's a single place for all their information and its support model for their working." Low doesn't expect unified communications to drive down costs, but is certain the improved information management abilities will help then lawyers. For example when a lawyer is working on a matter (a subject to be tried or proved in court) and they make related calls, these will automatically billed to that case account. "We see it as a time saving. A lot of time is spent responding to bills, if a cost such as a call cannot be explained, it will lead to a right off of that item on the bill." Therefore any system that improves the billing efficiency of an organization is going to be welcomed.

Low is honest about the widespread adoption of the technology though. "Lawyers don't like change, they are traditional in the way they work. The challenge will be getting them to take advantage of it, as they don't like technology being pushed at them."