Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
March/April 2007, by Delia Venables

Who Needs an IT Department?
by Steven Bradley

Whether you realise it or not, you are probably already outsourcing at least some of your IT via the Internet and it is likely that you will be outsourcing more and more in the future. In this short article I will show why it makes sense to give serious consideration to this form of outsourcing, as well as looking at a few of the pitfalls to avoid and (in the end) showing why you probably do still need your IT department.

The most obvious example of outsourcing via the Internet is the hosting of your web site. Almost all organisations do this since running a web server can be an expensive business, particularly if yours is a busy web site. Not only must you buy and maintain the hardware and run a faster than normal Internet connection but you also then need to keep the web server itself secure. This is particularly challenging as it involves keeping one step ahead of the cyber-vandals who seek to deface and hack into Web Sites. So, do you really want the headaches of keeping on top of the latest security scares or do you want to get on with your core business?

Think for a moment about what you actually did when you outsourced the hosting of your web site. You delegated all the responsibilities for service, maintenance and security to your hosting provider and in return you pay an agreed charge. Your provider gives you a service level agreement and usually offers compensation if there is a disruption to the service it provides. With outsourcing you know what you are getting and how much it costs.

Web hosting is just one of many IT services that are being delivered via the Internet and in fact most of your core IT services and requirements can now be outsourced in this way. For “in-house” IT departments, the writing would appear to be on the wall but as we shall see later on, this is not necessarily so.

Here are some examples of IT services that can be outsourced via the Internet:

• Backups & data storage

• Chambers/Practice Management

• E-mail hosting

• Faxing

• Intranet and web site hosting

• Marketing systems

• Productivity Applications (e.g. WP)

• Research

• Spam, virus & content filtering

• Technical Support and admin

• Telecoms provision

• Training

• Typing & dictation

• Web hosting

Outsourcing can fix or reduce costs whilst providing a defined level of service. It can also enable smaller organisations to gain access to technologies or services that were, until recently, realistically only available to the bigger firms.

Telecoms

A good example of the new opportunities provided by outsourcing is in the area of telecoms. For years, telephone systems have been expensive to buy and maintain with little innovation but there is now a growing market in the provision of Internet based telephony systems and providers. Not only do such services offer reduced call rates and free internal calls, but they also provide small companies with the same sophisticated call routing, phone menu systems, voicemail and conferencing facilities enjoyed by their bigger competitors. With set up and configuration all done via the web, your firm can have its own state of the art telephony service in a few minutes – all you need is a reliable and fast Internet connection. Costs are very flexible and usually determined by the number of “extensions” you need along with the features you want to use. Some providers offer services starting from £10 per month.

Even large organisations can benefit from outsourced telecoms. In the event of some systems failure or business disaster, you can move over to the Internet based system in minutes and because it is managed through a web interface you can adjust it to suit your circumstances quite quickly. Whether your staff are sent to work from home or to a second location, your clients probably won’t notice any difference and your business keeps running.

Downs and ups

Does outsourcing via the Internet really play out in the real world of solicitors firms and barristers’ chambers? In fact, it does not always go smoothly.

We have recently been retained to look after a firm of solicitors and manage their various IT service providers. Shortly after starting, we were asked to urgently retrieve a large amount (over 10Gb) of information from their outsourced online backup system (which we have inherited). No problem, click a few buttons and sit back as the information is brought back from the providers' remote data store. Unfortunately that wasn’t quite what happened. The first stage of restoring the files took various attempts over several days because the service kept dropping out and we had to restart the process each time. Next, whilst restores were in progress (during the day) the overall speed of the Internet connection dropped significantly – we were not popular. Finally because it was taking too long, we asked for a disk copy to be sent. When it arrived the next day it didn't have the files we needed. All of this wasn't quite the secure backup picture painted when the service was originally sold to the firm.

In another example of outsourced services, a chambers that uses SMS extensively to keep in touch with its barristers had a particularly important text message "lost" somewhere along the line. Because various different parties were involved, unravelling what had actually happened took a great deal of time and effort. This probably would not have been the case with an in-house IT department.

It isn’t all outsourcing doom and gloom though. Another chambers that took up a managed service to host its various applications was recently forced to look at alternatives following the cancellation of this service. Undaunted, they took on the hosted service provided by Mountain Software, www.mountainsoftware.co.uk. A few months on and it is everything they hoped for when they originally signed up to the service.

Finally, at a more hands-on level we regularly use a hosted service to let us provide remote support and training to the people we look after when they are working from home or elsewhere. When they call with a problem, we can set up a remote control session to their PC and they can watch (or go and do something more useful) whilst we fix the problem. Instead of a 40 minute telephone call where we are asking them to click this and tell us what that says, the work is usually done in a few minutes.

Things to check

These examples of some of the ups and downs of outsourcing aspects of your IT show that you should be prepared to do your homework first. Apart from the usual checks you make when choosing any kind of supplier, here are a few other aspects that I suggest you consider:

• The quality of almost all Internet based outsourced services is largely dependent on the speed and quality of your own Internet connection. You cannot blame the provider if service is poor because of this. Although ADSL connections are fast at getting information from the Internet down to you, they are slower at transferring it back again - particularly important for telecoms and online backup services. Be prepared to invest in an SDSL (same speed both ways) or a leased line connection.

• When choosing a service provider make sure you speak to other customers that operate similar businesses to your own and be persistent in finding out what they are not telling you - a good provider should be honest and upfront.

• If the market providing the service you are interested in is immature and the technology or service involved is new, be prepared to pay the price for leading the way. Despite reassurances to the contrary, expect service to be variable and don’t be surprised if providers fall by the wayside.

• Recognise that outsourcing is not always the right choice. Keeping a service “in-house” provides you with flexibility and the ability to join different internal services together, allowing information to be shared more easily.

• Be realistic about costs when making comparisons. In particular, ensure you factor in the hidden costs of time spent managing and maintaining “in-house” systems.

• Almost all providers offer free trials so make sure you put aside plenty of time to thoroughly understand and test a service. Also, remember that this is a cost too.

Outsourcing via the Internet offers something for everyone - just make sure your Internet connection is up to the job and you fully understand the pro’s and con’s of the services you are looking to outsource. And the IT department? They will remain a valuable asset of any organisation, becoming the glue that holds all these different services together - providing they embrace the changes and opportunities that are coming.

Steven Bradley is the Managing Director of Chambers Technology Support, www.ctsltd.net, a firm dedicated to the provision of technology services and support to the legal profession.
Email steve.bradley@ctsltd.net.

Steve has prepared a selection of Internet IT Service Providers on his site, www.ctsltd.net/briefings/links.htm.

Further note from Delia Venables relating to Outsourcing IT for Solicitors

Steven Bradley notes in particular a number of Hosted Chambers Management Systems, Hosted Email Services, Telephony Service Providers, and Online Backup Service Providers. This short note covers some other services used specifically by solicitors.

Outsourcing accounts and practice management

Solicitors can outsource their accounts and practice management systems thus avoiding the need to buy or maintain the hardware and software normally required for in-house operation. This type of service is particularly attractive for new firms and indeed virtual firms. Here are three of the best and longest established legal software companies now offering hosted services:

Quill, www.quill.co.uk, offers Pinpoint Office which enables a firm not only to have the accounts software owned, managed and located at Quill, but also to use Quill’s cashiers. Quill have nearly 200 practices using the service and they employ 45 legal cashiers. Other Pinpoint services include payroll, digital dictation and word processing.

Pracctice, which now operates mainly under the name of their key software, Osprey.TM, www.osprey.tm, offers their practice management (which includes accounts and case management) online i.e. the software and data is held by Pracctice and the system accessed online as required.

SOS offers a new outsourced cashiering service called Virtual Practices, www.virtualpractices.co.uk. This provides full management of the accounts with free .NET software for online access and other services, including time recording, fee earner software and matter management.

Outsourcing case tracking

Another area of interest is case tracking, particularly for conveyancing, where the matter software and data information is held on a third party’s system; the firm provides updates to this as milestones are reached. Although some of the existing software companies are able to provide hosted services of this kind, the key players in this market are newer companies:

ConveyanceLink, www.conveyancelink.com, provides the software for online case tracking on its own site, as a service, and charges on a pay-as-you-go basis. Their software also links in with estate agents’ software and provides HIPS modules as well.

Easyconvey.com, www.easyconvey.com, provides a range of conveyancing software most of which is run on the firm’s own systems but also provides a module called Track-a-Matter, which is run on their own secure servers.

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