Microsoft already “own” the lawyers’ desktop, where lawyers live in Outlook for emails and appointments and produce documents in Word. Microsoft also deliver behind the scenes on infrastructure, software and services in the cloud, operating systems, SQL, reporting services, business intelligence, virtualisation, thin client, SAN technologies … and much more.

We believe that the Microsoft stack of products, applications and services is ready to become the predominant technology in law firms in just about every respect – and we are not alone in this view.

“The quality of the Microsoft product set is constantly evolving and there’s no way a firm can dismiss this as an option,” says Derek Southall, head of strategic development at Wragge & Co.

“We are seeing the future and it’s got Microsoft written all the way through it like a stick of Blackpool rock,” says Charles Christian, editor of the Legal Technology Insider.

Microsoft can afford to invest in developing business-driven products to a level that others can’t. In addition, law firms are becoming less legal and have to adopt more generic business solutions to remain competitive, without paying the premium that has been charged for dedicated legal solutions in the past.

Legal accounts still present a challenge, so dedicated legal software suppliers still have a lead here. However, suppliers are generally adapting their products to be “more Microsoft” anyway – even those suppliers using alternatives to the Microsoft SQL database at the core of their systems.

The rationale – good news?

There are still too many suppliers of diverse products in the legal sector, so lawyers end up wasting too much time, money and effort on integration projects, all of which involve compromises and impact adversely on productivity. This is set to change, with Microsoft products and partners taking a bigger share of what lawyers spend on IT. Microsoft need to take a large percentage of the relatively small legal IT market (compared to other business sectors) to justify their investment and they intend to do this.

By extending the range and reach of “out of the box” Microsoft solutions (some highlighted below) and working collaboratively with law firms and specialist Microsoft partners to customise their bigger solutions for legal users, they are well on their way, certainly with larger firms which need to become slicker. Lessons learned here will filter through to the rest.

Smaller suppliers, who may well understand lawyers’ needs better, just can’t compete with this level of investment and speed of development, so they are likely to retreat into niches or expand their own reach and options for users by working more closely with other Microsoft partners.

Other attractions of buying into a Microsoft-focused IT strategy include:

  • familiarity with the user interface to improve user adoption
  • reduced costs and timescales in developing and implementing solutions
  • availability of development people with the common Microsoft skills available
  • sharing of innovative solutions developed with other lawyers.

When selecting new systems, law firms still have to make compromises between “best of breed” or “integrated” solutions, but Microsoft has the potential – longer term – to deliver both. There are risks involved, but it still makes good sense to consider a strategy along these lines. So what developments should you explore first?

In this article we focus on “front office” applications where there are new solutions emerging. It would be tempting to skip past the well-established applications that virtually everyone uses in a legal office, Microsoft Outlook and Word in particular. Their effective adoption is critical to take-up of the new additions to the Microsoft legal stack where recent developments appeal to the increasingly IT-literate lawyers who now use and interact with the applications themselves; also the less qualified, but more IT-savvy employees who will do more of the legal work in future.

Improvements that allow users to routinely access and draw in information from a variety of sources more easily (finance, HR, marketing systems, online and on-premise etc) have value. With Office 2010, lawyers have access to a host of new tools that make collaboration, online working and integration with other Microsoft (and other) applications easier, to produce better results – so it makes adoption of other applications more attractive too.

If Outlook works with SharePoint, with drag and drop between the applications (or better still, picking up names and info automatically, with no need to use the keyboard), users are more likely to like it, even if it’s still a challenge to get them using it; and it’s the same with CRM, timekeeping and the rest.

Newer options that stack up

Here are some of the areas where law firms can introduce some of the newer components of the vast Microsoft stack to improve the business:

Business intelligence tools included in Microsoft SQL Server 2008 (and 2005) – using SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS), which provides data warehousing and analytics, compiling data from multiple sources for manipulation, working alongside Excel (with Pivot Tables etc) with integration to SharePoint. Now used by several legal practices and adopted by, for example, FWBS for management reporting from their practice management systems.

Managing client relationships (and more) with Dynamics CRM 2011 – just released as a hosted solution and due to also be released within the month as an on-premise solution as an upgrade to earlier versions. This is a powerful CRM system, which lawyers are more likely to use than most other CRM systems because it is an integral part of their familiar Microsoft Outlook. The tools available within CRM can be used for much more than marketing. With easy integration to other applications such as PMS, SharePoint etc, there are opportunities to use CRM as a single point of data entry into all internal systems, with potential to significantly improve internal operations.

More (cost) effective document management systems on SharePoint Server 2010. Microsoft partners and law firms are customising the product for legal, with the advantage of native seamless integration with other established Microsoft applications. By keeping to a familiar and intuitive Microsoft interface with lots of point and click and drag and drop functionality, there is an opportunity to reduce end-user training and improve adoption. Examples include Winckworth Sherwood’s pilot on a system developed by Microsoft partners, Lewis Silkin, whose in-house team developed their “Excalibur” version and Clifford Chance, who are currently working with Microsoft on a new solution building on their new Microsoft based Intranet. This should enable them to manage just one repository of documents for internal use and for publication on the web for internal use and for clients. Also Workshare Pointa new product from established legal suppliers Workshare, who also offer a client portal solution developed around SharePoint.

Intranets, extranets, client portals and online services using SharePoint Server 2010 which enables law firms to make any information from any source in the practice (CRM, case management, document management, accounts etc) readily accessible via the web, 24/7, internally to employees or externally to business partners and clients, with great flexibility in how this is structured and presented.

Unified communications with Lync Server 2010, a development of Office Communications Server (OCS). This can deliver one of the most significant and under-estimated opportunities for law firms that want to reduce their cost base and operate with more agility and flexibility. This delivers Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony, Instant Messaging to allow secure online chat between users, Presence (enabling users to see in Outlook and SharePoint for example, who is available at any time), audio and video conferencing as part of the solution, both for people in and out of the office. We see benefits here for virtually any legal practice.

Streamlining legal and business processes using Workflow Foundation which is a powerful, flexible tool to develop workflows for .NET applications, requiring only programming skills that are widely available. This software is now at the core of many of the more modern legal case management and workflow systems provided by suppliers of legal practice management systems, such as LexisNexis (Streamline) and Iris.

Beyond all of this, there is a move by Microsoft, in partnership with LexisNexis, to develop a new “legal” enterprise-wide integrated solution involving adoption of most of the components discussed above in one comprehensive bundle. It will be built on Microsoft Dynamics AX, an established business wide solution already used by around 12,000 businesses worldwide, also drawing in some of the specialist professional services applications that Microsoft have acquired in the last two years. It is not available as a finished product yet but early adopters are exploring the option and some may have agreed to proceed.

Next steps

Check out lync.microsoft.com and crm.dynamics.com for more information on these two products. It is still early days in developing solutions in the legal sector but there are some firms taking a lead that others should follow … as cautious lawyers do.

Allan Carton and Richard Blasdale specialise in improving the performance of legal practices at Inpractice UK Limited. You can contact Allan for more information on any of the software solutions described here.

Email acarton@inpractice.co.uk, rblasdale@inpractice.co.uk.

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