Inside 'The Firm'

Inside 'The Firm'

Legal practices may appear staid and polished from the outside, but Linda Robles, IS manager for law firm Bell Gully, knows client demands and a time critical industry present a distinct set of challenges.

Legal practices may appear staid and polished from the outside, but Linda Robles, IS manager for law firm Bell Gully, knows client demands and a time critical industry present a distinct set of challenges. When Linda Robles, national systems development manager for law firm Bell Gully, helped implement an organisation-wide document management system project, she found there was no substitute for experience.

"You need to be a wily old coyote to be in this role; age and experience really helps," she says.

With a diploma in business information from the University of Auckland and a work background in software development, database management and systems analysis, Robles has been with Bell Gully for eight years, including over three in her present position.

IT at Bell Gully is split into two teams, with Robles heading up systems development and Elizabeth Ginda operations management. Both managers report to Leslie Davidson, Bell Gully's commercial director.

Robles and Ginda support the information needs of 230 lawyers and local and international clients - Robles' specific responsibilities include project team, analyst, and DBA management with Ginda's including network infrastructure and help desk support management.

Robles says length of IS experience is useful in a fast-paced legal environment where lawyers require immediate action on behalf of themselves or their clients and there is no time for running back and forth to clarify user requirements.

"Experience always aids you in future projects because a lot of projects work as long as you understand the methodologies."

Law is not a homogenous product sold to a vast market, says Robles. "Each client is different and their issues might change from year to year or even over six month periods. In that way, each client issue becomes like a project and the Bell Gully team works together to meet the needs."

Nor are IS demands only driven by the firm's clients. Internal customers, Bell Gully's lawyers, can meet a client in the morning and want an IS task completed for their client by the afternoon.

"It might be to set up a collaboration extranet, to develop an automatic notification to lawyers regarding work progress, or to make sure the information we are sharing with an individual client is presented in the best format possible," says Robles.

She says experience is also helpful when evaluating vendor claims and issuing requests for information. "It becomes increasingly easier to get to the core of the information and cut to the chase. Vendors are aware there is more maturity in the market and know that unrealistic claims in regard to software will be discounted."

Bringing documents into line

In 2003, Robles and her team found themselves listening to vendor claims in conjunction with feedback from other organisations as they searched for a new document management system.

Driven by the need for a new, more efficient streamlined system, and with an IS focus on improving productivity, the firm sought an answer to a legacy document management system less streamlined for internal and external document exchange processes, and clumsier than the firm would have liked.

"We wanted to take advantage of vast improvements in the document management system software space; we were also using a customised solution at the front end, and wanted something easier to use that had a collaborative aspect," says Robles.

A dedicated project team of seven started by talking with end users, gathering feedback and evaluating several document management systems over a six-month period. The shortlist, with positioning analysis, was presented to the firm's board with the team's recommendations.

"The project team did a great deal of in-depth analysis and had such a good case it was more a matter of 'do we go?' rather than 'who do we go with?'" says Robles.

The board signed off the team's recommendation to invest in iManage document management software from US company Interwoven, a decision that gave Robles and others working on the project the green light to drive change management and develop user champions within the organisation.

Change management

An initial communication plan was developed including a four-week needs analysis process.

During this phase, the new system was discussed with staff, and the project management team spent three to four months planning, conducting design workshops and gathering input from user experience. After that, says Robles, a formal communication plan was implemented and a pilot launched.

"For a two-month period, we engaged two teams of lawyers and support staff chosen because they were fairly self-contained as pilot users. This was a luxury because document management system pilots are not often technically possible and can be too disruptive to the business. We migrated team specific documents over to the pilot system."

She says the pilot users became system champions and provided invaluable feedback - but the firm had other change management and feedback strategies running concurrently.

"We had sessions where people could just look and play and we gave users quite a bit of responsibility in terms of cleaning up their own documents. At rollout, we devolved IT support people onto the office floor for on the spot support and we additionally offered classroom training for all users," says Robles.

Lessons learned

The firm's attention to change management and planning appears to have paid off. Robles says the new system is stable and has required little in the way of maintenance and support.

"Its implementation means it is now as easy as possible for lawyers and their clients to access the information they need. Any law firm makes its money on the hours its partners spend with clients, so our role is to free up as many hours as possible."

She says while a document management system is core to any law firm, in essence it is simple to execute and uses straightforward technologies.

"We offer three ways of accessing documents and any kind of document can be saved whether it's a fax, PDF, email or hard copy. We set up folders relating to work collaboration."

However, Robles says if she had her time over again on the project, she would like to spend a little more time on system design.

"There is always a temptation to hurry through design; if you take more time it means less tweaking later on."

Despite this, Robles says the business objectives around the new document management system have been met and measured (an important achievement given the key pressures of the legal industry

"This is a highly competitive, confidential and security driven environment; basic IT risk management is crucial and time pressures are always present. We don't want to waste [our lawyer's] time, so we make sure we are very well prepared."

Robles describes herself as a driven person who works long hours by choice. ("At other stages in my working life I might have been less eager to do so.") Her favourite projects are related to the web, database and user interface design, and data architecture.

"These are important in an environment like the legal industry where knowledge is critical but I also have a strong personal interest," says Robles.

However, she dislikes the idea of being given a completely free rein to implement new technologies or develop existing ones.

"I prefer to be driven by what is a requirement or by potential opportunities; I'm not a fan of playing with technology for the sake of it."

Describing her job as "all consuming", she says it can be an effort to maintain a work/life balance.

"It is different for every person; actually I am happy to put in the hours because the work I do is so challenging and enjoyable."

Much is this time is spent working on concurrent IS projects - the firm has an IS roadmap for the next 12 months and another going forward three to five years. "At any one time I could be working on two large projects and four to five smaller ones. Some will be standalone within systems development and others will overlap with IT operations; there is often a continuum from one area to the other."

She says her largest challenge was the firm's 1999 practice management systems upgrade. "I was doing my diploma at the same time and burning a huge amount of energy here and at university."

Whatever the project, Robles says she is helped by a close management team and collegial working environment. "We have formal and informal communication structures; we work together on a daily basis, and our projects touch a lot of the business units and managers.

"It's exciting - there's never a dull moment really."


How to get user buy-in and build champions.

Why experience and a number of years on the job can make all the difference.

What design elements are important when building a document management system.

Rate your challenges

When interviewing business executives, <i>MIS </i>asks them to rate the most challenging elements of managing a project. Here, Linda Robles, national systems development manager, rates her challenges in managing IS projects.

Most challenging

Keeping projects on time and on budget

Finding and motivating the right staff

Strategy and planning

Getting support of board and CEO

Getting support of other company stakeholders (including users)

Managing vendors

Managing emergencies

Selecting vendors

Most challenging

Robles has two tips for keeping projects on time and on budget: Ensure no shortcuts are taken in project planning and assess business benefits realistically.

For managing emergencies, she says it is vital to actively manage risk upfront before it presents as an 'emergency'. "If an emergency does occur, be very clear about priority actions."

Tips for project management

Key Bell Gully business objectives for a new document management system and how these were measured:


Ensure a high level of reliability, scalability and security.

Implement a configurable 'out of the box' system with inbuilt integration capability.

Empower legal users by providing them with enhanced access to and control of information.

Support remote working.

Provide a solution to email overload.

Reinforce knowledge management practises.

Support virtual team collaboration.

Streamline document life cycle management.


Extremely low level of support required.

Level of customisations to be maintained reduced significantly.

Lawyers are able to work effectively in the style that is best fit for them and their team.

Flexible interface access options.

Security access meets every business requirement.

Create, modify and retrieve documents remotely.

Email automatically profiled and easily stored in iManage

Legal teams manage own sets of precedent information.

Ability to work in virtual teams collaboratively with other lawyers and share documents with clients.

Effectively manage retention and disposition policies.

Corporate summary:

Name: Bell Gully

Locations: Auckland and Wellington

Business: Legal services

Total employees: 500

Head of IS: Linda Robles/Elizabeth Ginda

Number of IT staff: 23

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