The Lawyer-IT Dialogue

In a recent post (see Electronic Discovery) I raised the often troublesome relationship between lawyers and IT folk in law firms. One of my jobs at Osgoode Hall Law School over the past few years has been to mediate between the IT people and the faculty, and so I know a little about this vexed meeting of minds, but I’d imagined that somehow things would be better worked out in the professional context of practice than in the sometimes quirky academic world. Seems I may have been wrong.

Do your IT people talk to your lawyers? Do the lawyers respond? However the dialogue is managed, does each understand the tasks and constraints of the other?

Perhaps for the information technology people an email is preserved if the data in it is stored in a database; perhaps that isn’t what lawyers imagine, needing the form in which it was received as well as the actual content data; perhaps that request makes no sense to the IT people, who understand that the email the lawyer reads is always the output of a database even though it appears to be a distinct document… etc.

Whether this problem chain is accurate or not, there are bound to be real and serious difficulties for a firm if not everyone is on the same page. It’s been my experience that most lawyers, certainly those of the managing partnership generation, lack the confidence with IT issues and knowledge necessary to make good policy without lots of advice. And the authority relationship between the partner-lawyers and the IT team can cause communication to be less than fluid. Large firms have bureacracy to contend with as well, which muffles communication as much as it keeps order. Small firms have budgetary difficulties that may find expression in poor IT/practice coordination.

Ideally, there might be a CIO or CKO who has the status of a partner, whether or not she/he is in fact a lawyer-partner. This person would understand both worlds enough to know what questions to ask, what issues to pose, and what policies to impose or recommend. If this truly important mediation role is left to chance, such as when it’s dependent on the fact that Mary or Ali, otherwise a librarian or an associate or an office manager, happens to have a background that facilitates things, the firm is vulnerable and may not be putting things on the best footing.

How are these things managed in Slawyers firms? Is this an issue that is receiving discussion and thought? What sort of best practices might we develop to help firms get it right?


  1. As always, you ask big questions! From what I see (being neither a lawyer nor in the IS department), there are huge challenges in this as you have discussed. Allow me to speak about law firms generally. While each has its own distinct challenges, this is what I see happening:

    The IS department necessarily has to spend money on the infrastructure to keep everything working together and meet the demands of applications the lawyers need in their various areas of expertise, whether some e-discovery tool, a collaborative tool for co-authoring agreements with other counsel, or providing everyone with a feed aggregator. The problem is the lawyers usually don’t understand the infrastructure needed because it is behind the scenes and not immediately visible to them. They think they can load everything onto their hard drives and expect it to run, network servers be damned.

    On the one hand, the partnership would like to say to IS “just give us what you think we need,” but on the other hand they want to hold the purse strings and have everything justified to them line-by-line before they will buy into something. Can’t say I blame them; if it was my money I would do the same. So, you historically get the situation where just enough “to get by” is purchased, one little purchase at a time, to the point where more is spent in the end than if they had just allowed the IS department to buy what they needed from the beginning. These are difficult lessons learned, and some firms are learning faster than others.

    We have a wunderkind partner with influence who has, as you have Simon, taken on the role of mediator to ensure something more reasonable takes place. The thing he does which IS has difficulty doing is express the vision of what we should be doing in such a way that everyone can understand it and therefore buy into it. Even for IS managers who are articulate and can similar express a vision, they are not partners and therefore do have difficulty being really heard. My guess is this would be increasingly difficult the larger the firm.

    I’m interested to hear other viewpoints!

    I’m not sure how best practices could be developed for this. Technology is such a large investment, it is difficult to make recommendations. Perhaps best practices in dealings with IS managers? “Allow your IS manager some freedom to designate expenditures.” Or “put some infrastructure money/capital expenditure into the technology infrastructure every year”? “Don’t wait more than 18 months to upgrade your system”? Not sure how that would work…suggestions welcome.