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What to consider when hiring out-of-office IT staff

originally published in Lawyers Weekly

“I don’t think there’s anything that we couldn’t outsource.”

It seems a bold statement, but Joel Alleyne’s tone was matter-of-fact as he said it. The chief information officer and knowledge officer for Borden Ladner Gervais LLP has been investigating the matter in his quest to add value to the firm’s operations.

“The IBMs and the CGIs of the world can take on large insurance and banking operations. Why wouldn’t they be able to take on a law firm?” Alleyne asked.

Outsourcing and its more radical cousin, offshoring, have taken the business world by storm. Players in many industries are becoming virtual, having outsourced 60 to 70 per cent of their operations — in some cases, more.

Anecdotal observation puts law firms well behind the curve. “Some of the early outsourcing stories are famous and still told around campfires,” said Mark Bonner, IT Director for Toronto’s Goodman and Carr LLP.

One campfire story involves his firm’s application service provider (ASP) venture four years ago. In the ASP model, clients “rent” applications from a third party, who keep the applications running and provide all upgrades for a monthly fee. The ASP model failed because of the infrastructure available at the time. “Bandwidth wasn’t as cheap and as reliable as it is today,” he recalled. “Now it has a much better chance of working.”

Before joining Goodman and Carr eight years ago, Bonner plied his trade in other industries. “Law firms are much more wary about outsourcing,” he said. Before they’ll sign a contract, a managed services vendor must earn their confidence.

To illustrate the point, he noted the firm’s redundant internet connections, a not uncommon practice in large law firms. Many deliberately source Internet connections from two different ISPs. “No matter what reliability they quote, we can’t rely on it,” Bonner said. “That pipe is our lifeblood. When that pipe is down, we’re cut off from the world.”

From an IT standpoint, Bonner’s employer currently “only subscribes to the Fusepoint (Managed Services Inc.) disaster management modules,” Bonner said, although he echoed Alleyne’s opinion: “I’m a 100 per cent believer in outsourcing where possible.”

Outsourcing strategy commonly calls for firms to assign non-core functions to third parties as they focus on high-value-added activity. Printing, photocopying, off-site storage and printer maintenance fall solidly into the former category. The latter, however, can be more difficult to define.

“There are elements of an activity that require lawyers to interface with a client here in Canada,” said George Takach, partner with Toronto’s McCarthy Tétrault LLP. “High-end M&A work, strategizing, counselling, working with boards of directors — that will never go offshore.”

“The Canadian business community generally is about five or six years behind its American counterpart,” said Takach, who notes that U.S. firms have already started offshoring. “By 2010, some Canadian firms will be doing this as well, I’m pretty sure.”

None of this should worry aspiring Canadian lawyers. “This actually increases jobs at the higher end of the scale,” said Takach. “When you free people from the mundane, they have more time for higher value-added work.”

Such reasoning applies equally to lawyers and in-house IT staff. “More progressive law firms have to look to outsourcing, especially to give a greater quality of life to IT staff,” Bonner said. “Instead of a network administrator getting up to his neck in Exchange bugs, he can develop cost recovery or accounting systems. It’s more fun.”

Applications are, in Bonner’s view, a key reason to keep help desks in-house. While managed services providers can handle “the basic food groups” – Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, and so on – applications particular to the legal field would leave IBMers scratching their heads. “They’ve never heard of these things,” Bonner said, “so we must continue to support these applications.”

Alleyne believes many vendors fall short on this very point. He expects a managed service provider to offer a vision and strategy tailored to the legal marketplace. One disappointed Alleyne with words similar to these: “We don’t do the strategic thing. We just deal with the equipment and so forth.”

They likely wouldn’t inspire confidence in Bonner either. “It comes down to service and reliability,” he said.