The Key to Strategic IT for Law Firms

In our last blog post, we highlighted the importance of making IT a partner when defining law firm strategy. In this post, we’ll talk about some of the barriers to being able to do so.

While IT has taken an increasingly more strategic role over the past decade, the demand on IT has also increased exponentially.

Consider: in the past 10 years, we’ve seen a dramatic expansion in application adoption and a rise in complexity via the use of virtual machines, remote desktops, public and private clouds, the Microsoft 365 ecosystem, and more.

In addition, organic adoption of tools and software by legal staff as well as the rise of software as a Service (SaaS) applications and the proliferation of mobile devices expands the footprint the IT and operations teams need to secure.

As more data is held online (and email addresses become the de facto key to unlock that data), cybercriminals have actively targeted law firms both for their access to sensitive client data, but also as an easier entry point to penetrate the more secure walls of firm clients.

All this is to say that even if a firm has continued to invest in IT with more resources, the demands on IT have likely still outstripped your investments.

A Bird’s Eye View into IT

Let’s look at that claim more closely. At a high level, the image below outlines the challenge IT teams face today.

In red are the critical, urgent activities that every IT team must execute against. Very few of these are strategic in nature, but they’re all necessary to “keep the lights on.” And while some may be occasional (depending on the size of the firm), many – if not most – of these responsibilities require constant, time-consuming vigilance.

Across the board, each are impacted by rising complexity, shadow IT, application adoption, and an increased threat surface. Even those that seem less urgent (disaster recovery & business continuity plans as an example) need attention as the recent COVID-driven remote work mandates recently illustrated.

In the face of a constant barrage of urgent tasks, it’s no wonder that strategic IT initiatives are frequently de-prioritized in favor of an immediate crisis or action item.

Creating IT Capacity

As law firms continue to push productivity and profitability initiatives, staff capacity is always both a concern and a focus. In actuality, strategic IT investments—when aligned with your overall firm strategy—can actually advance those goals faster than any other initiative.

Yet to be successful, in such initiatives, you need the right mix of talent. Proper execution of many of the responsibilities outlined previously depend upon a highly specialized technical skillset (e.g. cloud infrastructure and application support) that is costly to acquire or grow in-house. 

Urgent but not strategic IT tasks
A list of tasks that often take up a tremendous amount of time and are “urgent” and “critical” – but rarely strategic. Such tasks typically eat into time internal teams are supposed to be spending on strategic initiatives.
 

What’s interesting, however, is that while such responsibilities typically require a high degree of firm familiarity, it does not require the firm intimacy that strategic initiatives do.

When we analyze that set of IT responsibilities through such a lens (i.e. what requires intimate firm knowledge vs “mere” firm familiarity), we quickly identify a rather large percentage of responsibilities that require specialized technical skillsets, but where firm intimacy is not strictly necessary.

Strategic but not urgent IT activities
These tasks could have a meaningful impact on firm growth and bottom line – but require concerted time and attention to plan and execute.

It’s no wonder also why firms that outsource their IT are left with a tactical rather than strategic relationship—if you don’t select a true technology “partner” with deep industry expertise, you can’t get the intimate consulting partner you need.

Meanwhile, a law firm with internal IT can take advantage of cloud services and identify a partner that has the necessary cloud, networking, and application skills that will enable you to transfer ownership for up to 50% of IT responsibilities and gain meaningful support for two-thirds of what’s left. 

That leaves your internal team the space to prioritize and focus on the strategic initiatives that will advance your firm’s long-term vision. 

Kicking Off Your Near-Term Initiative

Of course, none of this is quite as easy as such simple charts make them seem. Turning to cloud services is itself a series of critical tasks and decisions. You need to address the reservations of firm leadership, perform a thorough cost analysis, weigh the benefits of private versus public cloud options, etc. 

However (and we acknowledge our implicit bias here), most firms find that identifying the right partner early in this process can substantially reduce the time and effort to kick such an initiative off.

While helpful at reducing the burden, a tactical relationship will leave you still struggling to advance IT strategically as you get pulled back into day-to-day fire-fighting.

If you already rely on an IT partner but find that your internal capacity has not dramatically increased, you may have found yourself in a tactical relationship rather than a strategic one.

Instead, look for a consultative cloud services partner that has: 

  • Intimate knowledge of the challenges law firms face to help navigate internal concerns (and the references to back it up),
  • Experience to transition your IT environment quickly and effectively, 
  • Partnerships to ensure your cloud environment is both cost-effective and robust, 
  • Expertise to address security, performance, reliability, and scalability, and most importantly, 
  • A consultative mindset to ensure you preserve current and future agility.
Shared IT responsibilities
Shared IT responsibility model

How are you doing things at your firm? Are you seeing the same patterns impacting your firm’s ability to make IT a strategic partner to the firm?

 
 

Making IT Strategic to Law Firm Direction

However, as functions, Operations and IT are all too often considered tactical enablers rather than drivers that serve as an equal partner in setting and executing firm strategy. This approach may align with the traditional role that these functions have played in years past, but ill reflects today’s reality, where fluency in technology, data, and process can have enormous impact on outcomes.

By not bringing Operations and IT leaders into strategic conversations earlier, law firms can lose valuable time or miss critical opportunities in executing against their long-term firm vision.

In this post, we’ll discuss the impact strategic IT can have, why tactical IT remains so dominant, and how firms can shift their focus from the urgent to the strategic.

The Three-Stage Strategic Planning

While not revolutionary, the first thing we recommend is to break down your strategic planning into three timeframes: long-term (2-5 years), medium-term (1-2 years), and near-term (<1 year). This sounds somewhat obvious, but we often observe that resource constraints and the everyday demands of business often result in long-term strategic planning being neglected in favor of critical near-term priorities. The outcome of this neglect often shows up in unexpected ways – an inability to react quickly to an emerging opportunity or threat, for example, or a delay in taking advantage of new technologies to advance firm strategy.

Oftentimes, we see IT not having a meaningful seat at the table when it comes to long-term firm strategy – a practice that can lead to one of two outcomes: First, a lack of understanding as to how long a strategy might take to implement technologically (or what impact it might have to existing technology), or second, missed opportunities because IT isn’t there to highlight how what’s possible.

Long-Term Strategy

The long-term strategy is the end goal – what your firm wants to achieve as a business in the next five years. These “big stretch” goals can range broadly: Some examples include doubling firm size, adding new practice areas, geographic expansion, or establishing regional dominance in a practice area.

Giving Operations and IT a meaningful voice at this early stage can help partners understand some of the underlying considerations, risk, and investments needed to achieve the goal. While the role of technology is just one consideration, the analysis operations leaders and technologists can bring to the table—whether internal or external—guides firm leadership when prioritizing one potential goal over another.

Small Operations & IT-led adjustments could expedite the automation and process improvements necessary for an efficient M&A strategy for example, while including Operations and IT in defining a geographic expansion vision allows firm leadership to have a well-rounded understanding—and realistic expectation—of impact and timelines.

Medium-Term Strategy

Once the long-term strategy has been set for the firm, IT and operations leaders can then define the technological path to get there. Typically consisting of a series of small- to mid-sized projects, IT and operations leaders collaborate with business stakeholders to prioritize these projects and their associated interdependencies and map out milestones in 6-12 month increments.

For example, if your long-term goal is to add a new practice area through acquisition or absorption, then your first project might be to streamline the speedy onboarding of new employees so you can get them integrated, fully functional, and billing faster. This might include reviewing licensing and policy procedures, speeding technology acquisition, or simplifying the spinning up of a fully functional desktop.

Though this is a high-level roadmap and simplified for the purposes of example, the process can be used for any initiative.

Near-Term Strategy

Time and time again, we see that it is neither lack of will or skill that keeps law firms from achieving their strategies, but rather the age-old problem that we all deal with in our daily lives, the prioritization of urgent over strategic.

That’s why for mid- to large-firms we work with, near-term strategy often includes one major initiative: Finding the time and IT talent to achieve your mid-term objectives and advance your long-term vision.

Finding the right capacity is critical. Even if you have internal IT, they are often relegated to a highly tactical, sometimes fire-fighting role. They may have the talent to be strategic, but not the time. For companies with outsourced IT, partners are often chosen for budgetary fit rather than consultative capabilities, resulting in a relationship limited to the tactical, with little room for strategic support.

Driving productivity and profitability

Ultimately, Operations and IT can not only drive both productivity and profitability, but also play a starring role in the achievement of a law firm’s strategic objectives.

However, doing so requires the operations and IT team(s) to:

  1. Be a strategic partner to firm leadership and aligned with business goals
  2. Have the capacity to focus on such strategic initiatives

The first may be a mindset change for both parties but can help accelerate achievement of firm goals.

The second can seem daunting. Recent changes in economic and work conditions have profoundly impacted the role and expectations for operations and IT teams, making it difficult to find the capacity needed to focus on strategic objectives.

However, operations and IT teams can create capacity by reviewing and prioritizing responsibilities through a dual filter of which require intimate firm knowledge to advance, and which align to your future goals.

By transferring tactical and specialty (e.g. cloud) tasks that require firm familiarity but not intimacy to an industry-aligned cloud services partner, you can free your team to focus on strategic initiatives.

Ultimately, it’s easy to push off strategic initiatives that don’t have a hard deadline. But achieving your firm’s strategic vision depends heavily on your team’s ability to focus on it and break down goals into time-aligned, manageable initiatives.

By starting immediately to free up capacity and strategically plan, you’ll set your firm up for long-term success.