Interview: Law Firm Director of Information Systems Chuck Linebaugh

1. What are the top challenges facing an IS professional in a law firm setting?

Our firm has billed itself as a "technology focused" law firm, and the top challenge is to get the attorneys to buy into that principle. Getting a project's initial sign-off from managing partners can be difficult, especially if they've already paid a lot of money to a consultant who has essentially ripped them off. If the managing partners truly believe in the high tech principle, then everything else naturally follows.

People making the business decisions in the legal industry are not necessarily the best business people - they're attorneys first and foremost. There's often a lack of focus on where the firm is going. Attorneys may tend to focus on what cases are coming in instead of the firm's overall profitability. If the managing partners are not focused on the latter, the IS costs are a sunken cost from day one.

Getting a good IS team in place is also challenging. Having just the right balance of personnel with the right amount of work to do is key. With too many people, there's a lack of focus. I prefer a smaller team because there seems to be more ownership of duties by the staff.

2. How important is attorney cooperation for the facilitation of the legal-IS job?

Cooperation is paramount, and not just at the partner level. Obviously, you need to get the top attorneys to sign off on projects. You need their support both financially and morally -- they need to believe in the value of an IS department.

At the associate level, cooperation is also necessary. They need to have confidence in what we do. I believe in being proactive, and encourage my team to ask the attorneys how we can help make their job easier. We ask things like "Do you need better legal research?" or "Would you like an easier way to manage documents?"

3. What types of things make your job difficult?

Mental attitude is the biggest enemy. The legal industry is between 2-5 years behind the times with technology, depending on the size of the firm. There's an entrenched, technology-averse mindset that must be erased. For example, many attorneys still go to the library and look in the books, which seems unnecessary given our systems' capabilities. Younger attorneys seem to quickly adopt new technologies, mainly because most law schools now provide computer training.

4. What kind of technical educational programs do you provide for your attorneys?

Education is key. Our program is called Core Competency, and we provide specialized in-house training on our system. Instead of sending someone out to Executrain or New Horizons, we said, "OK, here's 90 things that if new people starting at the law firm were trained on, they would be up and running six months ahead of time." They learn how to print. It sounds easy, but HP printers sometimes power down over the weekend and they don't always come up properly. We have attorneys coming in on the weekend, and if the printer powers down, we've taught them how to select another printer. If you're in the computer industry, printing is kind of a no-brainer, but for an attorney who is up against a filing deadline, a faulty printer can be deadly.

The Core Competency program focuses on getting everyone in the law firm to a basic level of proficiency, attorneys and staff alike. We provide a training manual and test them after the classes are over. Attorneys need an 85% in order to pass. The first man through was one of the named partners at the firm - I had to get his ownership of the project so that I could push it through. Then I could tell the stubborn associate who refuses to take the training, "Hey, this is the program that the head partner went through. If you don't go through, it's going to be part of your yearly review that you didn't pass Core Competency."

The training has alleviated the Help Desk function in our department. Now I have a whole firm of people who can support themselves on a basic level, which cuts down on the number of IS Help Desk staff I need to hire, and this in turn saves the firm money. We're able to support 100 attorneys in 7 offices with only 4 full-time IS people.

Before Core Competency training, secretaries would support 2 attorneys, now they support 3. The attorneys now do more of their own computer work. By cutting 10 secretaries, the firm has cut $400,000 from its operating budget.

5. Intranets - Good, bad, or indifferent?

Intranets are a must! Along with the phone lines, the intranet is a critically important avenue of communication within the firm. All human resources information, such as employee handbooks, policies, health benefits, 401k accounts, company sponsored events and achievements are all available on the intranet. It really helps pave the way to the paperless office. If possible, try to build and maintain your intranet using in house personnel, as it saves money down the road.

6. What things have been of greatest value in terms of making the IS in your firm professional?

From a broad perspective, transitioning from piecemeal solutions to a standardized system has been an invaluable foundational move. Now, everything here is standardized on Microsoft, which has tremendous growth potential.

Taking the long-term approach to implementing a firm's IS has enabled us to achieve a high level of technical prowess. We've refused to go for the quick fix, and opted instead for systems with growth potential, regardless of cost. Also, the establishment of an in-house IS team was valuable, because it removed 95% of the reliance on outside consultants, who don't always have the firm's best interests in mind.

7. What are the biggest and most costly mistakes a firm can make when implementing its IS?

Unsupervised consultants who sell firms on systems and solutions that are entirely inappropriate and/or over-priced. Often firms spend a lot for money to implement something in a hurry. It's important to have the time to carefully research solutions and bring them in line with where the firm is headed and what its requirements will be.

Short-term thinking and solutions that have no growth potential are another waste of money. Not knowing where the firm is heading is troublesome because, in many ways, the firm's direction dictates its IS needs. Lack of commitment to a standard platform will always cost a firm in the long run.

The lack of documentation by a technical team, external or in-house, can cause a firm to waste a lot of resources in the event of technical problems . . . and problems exist for everyone. Every aspect of the implementation of IS, from specs for hardware purchased, to wiring configurations, to coding, needs to be well documented, so that anyone could reproduce the implementation using the notes.

8. Do IS workers get respect within in the law firm?

As an IS professional, you have to earn your own level of respect in a firm. One good way to do this is by explaining computer problems to the attorneys and staff. I find that intelligent people don't like being told what to do without some explanation. Plus, when you explain technical problems, it raises the technical competency of the firm.

9. Are there professional associations and/or conferences that cater to Legal-IS professionals?

EEI is hosting a conference in San Francisco this month for law firm CIOs and IS workers. The American Bar Association has a technical group. But, I don't believe there's any group or association out there that focuses exclusively on Legal CIOs.

10. How is IS excellence measured in a law firm setting?

Excellence is measured by meeting goals established with the partners. We have to do some self-promotion of our efforts because when you are doing your job well the computer system becomes taken for granted. Lack of downtime during business hours is big. Basically, 9:00 to 5:30 every weekday is the firm's profit time. If the computers or phones go down during that time, that's money the firm loses, so we try not to let that happen. We schedule all of our preventative system maintenance and tests on weekends or late at night.

11. Which operating system and word processing program does your firm use?

Our firm uses Windows 2000 and Microsoft Word. For what we do - word processing, spreadsheets, printing and email -- there's really no benefit to go to Unix or Mac. Unfortunately, the legal industry is still heavily based in WordPerfect instead of Microsoft Word. MS Word has had so many advances, and it integrates seamlessly into Windows. We're seeing that many smaller firms haven't made the move to MS Word yet, so we spend a lot of time converting their WordPerfect files. Hopefully, this will change.

12. Does your firm use secure email?

One form of email security we use is a program that converts MS Word attachments into PDF format. That way the sent documents can't be changed without our attorney's knowledge.

13. What types of things are on your wish list?

A PDA dial-up server or the use of Blackberry's to let our attorneys read their emails while away from the office without having to carry a laptop. A case management system would be nice - we're working on that.

14. What types of things should every Legal-IS department have?

A well-stocked fridge for starters. Adequate storage for equipment and a comprehensive technical reference library. A good IS staff -- in these tight economic times, getting quality personnel is a lot easier than it was a couple of years ago. Also, training IS personnel in the legal culture and protocol is important.

15. Can you briefly discuss data storage?

You can never have too much backup - it's a built in cost. The two big trends in storage these days are disaster recovery (also called business continuance) and security. Off-site storage facilities are available but we currently perform daily back ups of all our systems onto 70 gig tapes. Running fire drills is very important to test the back up system's effectiveness. And a back up system doesn't have to be all that costly, because the cost of hard drive space has dropped significantly. I am not sold on the idea of the new online back-up systems, which require a lot of bandwidth out to the Internet and force a firm to rely on an outside vendor to ensure data is backed up.

16. How does the size of the firm impact its IS?

In a big firm, IS departments have less time for project work. Obviously, with a larger firm, there's more support required. Smaller firms tend to be easier to support, and they're able to quickly implement advanced systems.