The South West Legal IT Forum meeting last Thursday hosted by Michelmores in Exeter was attended by representatives from 30 firms from across the south-west peninsula as well as local sponsors Itec and Nexus Open Systems.

The South West Legal IT Forum is a regional networking group of legal IT professionals who meet regularly to discuss common challenges and share experiences and insights with the purpose of supporting each other and promoting the region. The group recently expanded to include several Bristol firms and now comprises a broad range of practices in terms of size and profile.

Forum chair Duncan Eadie, IT and facilities director at Foot Anstey, explained that the agenda of each meeting is decided by forum members who post and vote for topics via the group’s online portal. The three most popular topics are discussed at the next meeting and appropriate suppliers are invited to present to the group. The format of the meeting is a group discussion followed by a networking lunch and technology demonstrations.

Shared challenges: the Dropbox dilemma

The shared challenges discussed at last week’s meeting were (file-hosting service) Dropbox and free file-sharing applications; extending helpdesk support; and how to approach data retention. Discussions added a south-west perspective to common issues, particularly around helpdesk provision, where requirements and expectations are shifting, and in respect of helping local suppliers understand which issues are top of mind for south-west firms.

Delegates were concerned about the rising unofficial use of Dropbox and the potential risk to security, compliance and client confidentiality. One firm tracked Dropbox usage and found that lawyers were using it to transfer documents between work and home and share them with colleagues and clients. Firms generally provide lawyers with the ability to access and share files and documents. But lawyers – and clients – are choosing Dropbox because it is free, quick and straightforward and they are already familiar with it. It allows lawyers to share large and multiple files with clients instantly, without having to ask IT to set up an extranet, for example.

Dropbox use is often client driven. But it entails trading risk for a convenient – and free – tool. Furthermore, if a client wants to use free applications such as Skype or Dropbox, it is not easy to insist on a pay-for enterprise-grade alternative.

Is Dropbox use encouraging risky practice? A possible response is to ensure clients who want to use Dropbox are aware of the potential risks. However, another difficulty is that the fact that clients – and lawyers – are using Dropbox or similar file-sharing tools does not dilute a firm’s responsibility for the information it handles. David Simpson presented Nikec Docstore, a secure Dropbox alternative designed specifically for the legal sector. However, firms are still looking for an option which fully synchronises with their internal systems. Nikec is working on this and no doubt others are too. File-sharing is top of mind for IT directors generally and LITIG – the Legal IT Innovators Group – has also flagged it up.

The discussion moved on to helpdesk support, another area where legal IT is driven by client and user demand – longer hours and flexible working patterns, facilitated by remote and mobile working. The discussion highlighted that although expectations are not as high as in London or Bristol, the south-west is starting to feel the pressure.

Only a small minority of south-west firms offered formal or ‘on-call’ helpdesk support outside office hours. The dilemma is that partners would like on-call support, but are put off by the high cost relative to usage. The challenges of maintaining out-of-hours cover made outsourcing the obvious solution and several firms have gone down this route. The possibility of firms sharing external support services to reduce costs was ruled out by the fact that they tended to run different systems and customise their software.

The final topic was data retention, another universal dilemma which involves operational, resourcing and compliance considerations. The difficulty is that even if a firm destroys data after a certain number of years, copies may still exist. Issues raised included dealing with data requests.

Technology corner: BlackBerry Q10

Here we were introduced to the new BlackBerry Q10 – the first BlackBerry 10 model to feature both a keyboard and BlackBerry Balance, which splits the device into separate personal and work modes. This was followed by a look at the latest tablets, notably the Microsoft Surface and a discussion of BYOD (bring your own device) policies and the related difficulty of establishing a single point of control across a firm’s mobile estate.

A community of practice

The South West Legal IT Forum has developed beyond networking into a valued community of practice, particularly as it includes partners and other business support roles and is not focused purely on the IT function.

A strong theme is learning from each other and providing mutual support. ‘We are all working in the same area – in terms of geography and responsibility – and facing similar challenges. The forum alerts us to the issues that we should be thinking about as well as our immediate concerns,’ observes Simon Clarke, IT and operations director at Michelmores. ‘Most south-west firms do not have big IT teams and IT directors do not have many opportunities to meet,’ says Dean Mostert, IT director at Stephens Scown. ‘It is interesting to discover how others are tackling the same issues. People follow up outside the meetings too.’

The forum consciously supports local suppliers. According to Gary Tozer of Itec, it gives suppliers the opportunity to learn and understand the demands of the sector. Mike Nicholas of Nexus Open Systems adds that the forum has resulted in partnerships between suppliers who are working with firms to develop solutions to common problems.

‘Firms are working with Itec and other suppliers because forum members recommend their services to each other,’ says Eadie. ‘As well as giving suppliers access to decision-makers in law firms, the forum is about giving firms access to suppliers at the right level, for example to highlight an issue that is affecting several firms. And the group’s collective strength is more likely to influence a supplier than a series of separate queries.’

At times regional firms can feel overwhelmed by London events, but forum members are willing to travel what can be quite a long distance for a half-day meeting. In fact the group unanimously decided to extend the next meeting and make it a full day, which reflects members’ enthusiasm for this growing but close-knit legal IT community.

Clarke summarises what the forum brings to its members: ‘It gives suppliers access to decision-makers, and decision-makers face-time with each other. We focus on shared problems and this helps to reinforce the fact that certain issues are common to us all.’

I do not know whether there are similar IT networks in other regions, but if the South West Legal IT Forum is anything to go by, there certainly should be.

Joanna Goodman MBA is a freelance journalist and editor of Legal IT Today