Information Technology (IT) plays a critical role in today’s law firm, being increasingly entwined in the day-to-day workflow of attorneys.

But IT groups often find themselves planning their projects in a “silo”; that is, they find themselves preparing for the IT future of the firm without the input of key stakeholders within their organization. This lack of communications can lead to a variety of problems within a firm, ranging from end user frustration to competitive disadvantage in the market for the firm as a whole.

In their ILTA 2011 session, “Expanding the Technology Strategic Planning Process,” Robert Craig, from Baker Hostetler, Janet Day, from Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP, and John Alber, from Bryan Cave LLP, spoke about ways to connect the right stakeholders into their planning processes.

Each shared their organizational experiences and challenges with implementing large-scale IT projects within law firms. Though their individual approaches differed, they all had experience with so-called “silo” IT planning.

They shared some warning signs to look for at firms which might suffer from similar problems, as well as steps firms can take to make their IT departments a key center of innovation and competitive advantage:

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Warning signs include:

– Self Contained IT Planning
– Technology Committees
– Comparative Planning (i.e., what are other firms doing?)
– Shopping Lists

The panel explained that many firms have realized, either through disaster or foresight, the need to change their IT planning process. For this reason, firms began hiring Chief Information Officers (CIO) over the course of the last ten years, and today, nearly every large firm has one. In many ways, the CIO began as a position representing the face of IT within the firm.

They were tasked with investigating technology at other firms and in other business segments, and were expected to bring modern IT practices to their firm. So they set out to answer the questions: “What software should our firm buy?”, “What are other firms using?” and “What’s broken?”- questions symptomatic of an IT silo mindset.

Firms who have begun to face the challenge of transforming their IT shops should instead be asking: “What are our practice areas focused on?” or “How can we improve the efficiency of our attorneys?”

The panel offered the following steps to limit the isolation of the IT group and to better serve the true needs of the firm:

Evolve the role of the CIO:
– From being the face of IT to something broader
– Lead culture change in the IT organization
– Focus on making practices better
– Adopt a more consultative role

Evolve the role of IT:
– Transition from a “Break-Fix” Culture
– Shift tech-driven “shopping list” focus to adopt practice-related priorities
– Implement two-way channels between IT and practitioners for learning and communications

There are many challenges awaiting firms who truly wish to consider alternative methods of planning for the future of their information technology.

The panel closed the session with an exploration of metrics for determining success in a typical law firm IT group. Originally, IT was labeled as an expense and nothing more, and the only measurement for success was spending less money. These days, the measurements needed are much more sophisticated. User satisfaction and impact on efficiency and revenue only scratch the surface of the metrics used to determine the success of an IT group.

Perhaps the greatest challenge awaiting law firm IT groups is to introduce procedures for continuously innovating ways of measuring project success, and to involve as many key players from their organization as possible. Firms with innovative IT groups will have clear competitive advantages over other firms. Chances are good we will be hearing about some of those success stories at future ILTA sessions.

Andrew McLennan-Murray is a technology services manager for Thomson Reuters.

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