Top Five Technology Questions

Volume 38 Number 2

By

About the Author

Karen MacKay is President of the consultancy Phoenix Legal Inc., focusing her work on leadership and strategy execution for law firms

Managing partners tell me when it comes to technology, we know enough to be dangerous. I went to three experts who could shed some light on this topic: Charles Bennett, Founder of Triella Technology Transformations in Toronto, Canada; John Tsiofas, COO of Cassels Brock in Toronto; and Michael Fick, Director of Technology for Jones Day in Chicago, IL.

Leadership is often about making a choice between ideas competing for scarce resources (time and money), which results in supporting some things and saying no to others. To make informed decisions, you need to ask the right questions.

The following are, in our view, the top five questions every managing partner should be asking about technology.

1. What are the firm’s strategic goals? Arising from those goals, what important projects are planned for this year and where are we with each of those initiatives? Strategic initiatives usually have some sort of technology component. Some practice areas require systemization in order to compete. Other goals require “freemium” offerings by packaging knowledge and giving it to clients at no fee.

What are the critical projects in this year’s business plan? Bennett advises firms to understand the projects required to reach strategic goals, and the resources required in terms of people, time and money, and to assess whether or not you have allocated sufficient resources to accomplish these initiatives over the next 12 months. If so, what is the project’s timeline? If not, what do you need to reach your goal?

What are the initiatives and what proportion of this year’s budget should be allocated to each?

What does IT cost your firm as a percentage of revenue and how does that benchmark with your competitors?

2. What is important, nonnegotiable, absolutely critical? What are the systems that you cannot operate without, even for a short time?

When was the last time we tested our recovery and data restore processes?

Fick advises that you really need to ask what critical systems are reaching end-of-life and won’t be supported beyond a date in the next five years. Upgrading those are nonnegotiable. Beyond people and maintenance costs, then replacing end-of-life systems, the strategic projects get the dollars you have left in your budget, which often isn’t much.

3. How are your IT professionals spending their time? Where does the IT department spend its available time in a given month? These tasks might include technical help desk issues, training, network maintenance and upkeep, desktop maintenance and upkeep, new IT-driven projects or new practice group-driven projects. You might be surprised how people are spending their time.

4. How easy is it for attorneys in your firm to serve? What help-desk resources do you have in place? When under pressure to deliver work product to clients, lawyers have neither the time nor the patience to sort things out on their own.

What remote access capability do you have in place? How easy is it to connect to your platform from anywhere (office, home, airport or on the fly), using whatever device available (computer, tablet, PDA), whenever needed (24/7)?

Do you have sufficient staff to accomplish service commitments and projects planned? If yes, how are they using their time? If no, what resources need to be acquired and how creative can you be?

5. There are a number of questions that begin with “What if?” What if any one item in the technology plan or budget was removed? What impact would it have on the firm’s ability to deliver on the related strategic initiative?

What if disaster strikes? What proportion of the budget is related to disaster recovery and where do you stand on those initiatives? When was the last time you tested your recovery systems?

What if you could give your IT group permission to stop time? What would they clean up, fix, document and eliminate to improve the stability and reliability of your platform?

As John Tsiofas noted, you would be surprised how many important, hygiene-type items are chronically set aside—from simple to-dos to major weaknesses in the environment, such as key systems and procedures not documented or servers left months or even years behind in updates.

Armed with the right questions, you can make informed decisions. Thanks to the panel of advisors who have generously shared their thoughts here, you are ready to have a meaningful conversation with your IT professionals.

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