Lawyers and accountants are all backwards

Have you ever walked into a medium-sized lawyer or accounting firm and wondered why their PCs are so old? There seems to be something strange going on, for while Jaguars, Mercedes, and BMWs sit in the partners parking spaces the PCs on their desks are several hundred MHz behind.

Furthermore, while everyone else is scrambling under Windows 98 they are just sitting on old Windows 3.x and gently easing into 95. Is it because they have incompetent computer staff?

That theory is soon squashed, as their staff seems too highly versed in the OS and apps that they are using. They seem to have the same chores as others with their financials, document production, contact management, spreadsheets and all those good things. So why just lawyers and accountants?

I went to an accountant friend of mine and politely asked why they were so far behind in technology while their clients were smashing in all the new Microsoft stuff they could find. He smiled and said that the structures of accountant and legal firms is a little different than with others.

He explained these firms had “partners” who were very close to the bottom line. Their remuneration was based on financial performance and not on the boasts they could make at the golf club. They had little interest in being the first to install Windows blankety-blank and even less in software that was still sandpapering through industry.

He asked me to imagine a boardroom in which the partners (lawyers or accountants) sat together with the “computer guy” they paid handsomely to keep the computers warm and cosy. He said the conversation could go something like this, allowing some poetic licence, of course:

Computer Guy: “I think we should replace all the 486 PCs with Pentiums.”

Partner: “How much will that cost?”

Computer guy: “If we get IBM, it will cost approximately $120,000.”

Another partner: “How much for good top-of-the-line clones?”

Computer guy: “$100,000, but then we also need to go to Windows 95, upgrade our word-processing package, upgrade our network and retrain users.”

Yet another partner: ” Okay, how much is that going to cost?” Computer guy: “Approximately $250,000.”

Long pregnant pause.

Yet another partner: “Will the secretaries be able to type documents faster?”

Computer guy: “No.”

Same partner: “Will I get my work done faster?”

Computer guy: “Well, maybe. But the screens will be bigger and you will have more options.”

Same Partner: “I don’t use all of my options now!”

Chairman: “Come to the point – How does it save money?”

Computer Guy: “We would have better system and network diagnostic tools, the network would run 100 per cent faster, allowing for future expansion. The word-processor would have 523 more fonts and allow pasting from clip art packages, you could have moving pictures on the screen, and you could interact with electronic documents with clients using exactly the same set-up. The screens would load 150 milliseconds faster. I could sit at my desk and interact with users to train them, thus saving a walk and personal contact, I could…”

Chairman (standing): “Where are we going for lunch?”

When I told my friend that I did not understand, he patiently explained that the partners were exactly like that. They shared in the profits so anything that was spent was a drain on their incomes. Any change had to be very clearly economic and not dulled by computer pizzaz and gobbledygook.

“In other words,” he said with a smile, “it has to pay for itself, and then some.”

Robinson has been involved with high-tech Canadian start-up companies