“We can never relax.” explains Patrick Allen, Senior Partner of law firm Hodge Jones & Allen (HJA). “In fact no one in the legal sector can afford to be a sleepy firm that is slow to react.”
Patrick is not just referring to IT but the general challenge of running a law firm. “We constantly have to try new things out, learn from them and then make quick decisions just to keep a firm like this going. The people at the top must drive change and bring everyone along with them.”
Since Patrick set up HJA above a shop in Camden with two other partners and a secretary in 1977, it’s clear that both driving and reacting to change have been important factors in making HJA one of today’s Top 150 UK law firms.
38 years later and there’s no sign of this stopping. Patrick echoes the views of many others in the sector that the business of law is facing unprecedented times. HJA, a firm that provides legal advice in areas such as civil liberties, defence and medical negligence, has seen its income contribution from legal aid reduced from 90% to 25% as a result of government cuts. It has also had to cope with significant reductions in revenues from insurance firms in personal injury cases. The government, pushed by lobbying from insurers have imposed significantly lower, fixed-price legal fees on claimant lawyers. “Now we may receive a much lower income per case, yet still have to deliver the same output.” says Patrick. “So we have to find more efficient ways of getting the work done .”
Despite these pressures, HJA has continued to grow at an average of 10% per annum. The firm’s success, where many in the sector have not survived, is largely down to Patrick’s ability to manage the firm as a commercial entity. For example, unlike most law firms, HJA is governed by a board of directors that crucially incorporates non-lawyer specialists. Patrick’s background has helped. At university he studied Engineering Science and Economics and admits he has never been afraid of the numbers side to running a business, or of getting involved with IT. “I’ve made sure IT has been central to this firm ever since the first memory typewriters arrived in the late 70s. Our first PC had 10 mb of memory. Six months later, there was a new model out with 20 mb. The pace hasn’t really slowed since.”
Patrick recognised that HJA needed a specialist IT function and in 1994 recruited a specialist IT manager who stayed with the firm for nearly 20 years. The firm was then faced with another decision, to continue with the existing model or to try something new. They made the decision to outsource IT to Plan-Net.
Patrick explains the rationale. “When reviewing our options, we felt that with IT being the backbone to our firm, it was too risky to put ‘all our eggs in one basket’. If we got it wrong, we’d be vulnerable to one individual IT Manager that could cost us much more than simply an additional agency fee to find a replacement. Our Director of Operations, Al Geaney, had first-hand experience of Plan-Net at a previous law firm. After consideration, we decided a trusted entity with a strong track record in the legal sector and good references would be a much better option.”
Patrick sees multiple advantages in outsourcing IT to Plan-Net. Firstly, HJA can hand over the management of this risky operation to a group of professionals, whose company reputation relies upon making client engagements successful. He also sees it as a great opportunity. Plan-Net has a 25-year history of working in the legal sector and has worked with 14 of the top 20 UK law firms, as well as many prestigious organisations outside of the sector. Therefore, HJA is able to tap into a capability far beyond its size and sector by utilising Plan-Net’s expertise.
The outsourcing contract commenced in March 2015. Existing on-site IT staff were transferred under TUPE regulations and joined by one of Plan-Net’s experienced legal IT managers, David Mallett, as well as strategic input from Plan-Net’s Technical Services Director, Adrian Polley. The transition has been smooth and initiated a huge amount of IT activity at HJA. Plan-Net set about updating much of the core infrastructure, including servers, firewalls, web protection and the complete printer and photocopier estate. Current projects include improved IT backup and disaster recovery capabilities, messaging and collaboration upgrades and a new remote access model.
HJA has made some significant investment in IT this year but Patrick is also pleased with the savings Plan-Net has been able to extract. “They were immediately able to take over the sourcing and contractual side of our hardware and software supply. They negotiated better terms, removed unnecessary costs and ensured we were getting the best deals in the market. It was a significant task but straight away we started to see returns.” Plan-Net’s pragmatism has also been well received. “It was comforting to receive assurance from the experts that there is no one magic piece of software in the market that will solve all our problems. Plan-Net’s advice was to stick with our current Case Management System and develop it rather than look at a replacement and we’re happy with the decision.” Patrick observes. “It’s that kind of market knowledge that we’re buying into with outsourcing. Plan-Net can be our eyes and ears not just in the legal technology market but across other sectors too and ensuring we’re always making best use of the most up-to-date technology.”
Plan-Net has also implemented a formal service desk which includes the implementation of a new service desk tool, best practice service management processes and an integration with Plan-Net’s off-site legal service desk. This provides HJA staff with extended hours and a consistent supply of IT support, regardless of IT staff holidays. “This is another example of tapping into something much bigger.” Patrick comments on Plan-Net’s facility, called Plan-Net 24, based at its head office in Central London.
Attracting the best staff is another key competitive advantage for HJA and IT has an important role to play. Staff expect IT to be seamless and to have access to the latest ‘kit’. Plan-Net is in the process of improving the mobile-working experience for staff, replacing all mobile phones within a new, secure Mobile Device Management scheme, and provisioning secure laptops that can ‘dock’ anywhere in the office, at home or on the go.
Plan-Net provides monthly reports to the HJA board on its current performance but also conducts regular strategic reviews with Patrick and his team, which consider longer term plans. Outsourcing the IT function at HJA has not made Patrick any less involved in the firm’s use of technology. If anything, it has made the firm even more ambitious in capitalising on IT. For instance, it hopes the launch of its ‘Arrested’ mobile app, which gives potential clients useful information if they’re facing arrest or going to court, will be the first of many apps to promote its different areas of legal expertise. Furthermore, on the sales and marketing side, the firm wants to much more deeply integrate its call handling, CRM and case management systems together to improve its clients’ end-toend experience. In terms of IT’s involvement in delivering legal services, HJA is investigating ways to use automated algorithms to assess the probable outcomes of personal injury claims.
Another goal for HJA, as for many in the legal sector, is to move from a ‘paper-light’ to a ‘paperless’ environment. “For law firms, our product is essentially a set of documents. We spend a fortune on the storage of physical case files, not to mention the cost of ink, printing and paper. This area represents a huge opportunity that we feel confident Plan-Net can help us tackle.”
To Patrick, outsourcing the firm’s IT to Plan-Net plays a significant part in a much wider mission. Last year, HJA commissioned a survey by Ipsos Mori to assess the state of the legal world. The subsequent report highlights key issues facing the courts, law as a profession and aspects of practice management including culture, the use of IT and structural change. The overriding and concerning message was just how important the need for innovative approaches within this sector really are: innovation is necessary to ensure that justice can continue to be served.