Law firm IT departments have grappled over the years with ever-changing priorities amid constant technology advancements and declining budgets. Some have opted to outsource firm IT operations to ensure they’re staying up to date on critical platforms without having to invest in additional. In addition to the expected impact on staff morale, firms have found that broad-scale outsourcing also reduces the firm’s in-house knowledge base and its direct control and governance over important firm matters. Significantly, outsourcing also often degrades the overall user experience, which is integral to the productivity and success of the firm.
The combination of losing loyal, knowledgeable staff and seeing a decline in user experience has led several firms to do an about-face on outsourcing, bringing their outsourced work back in-house. The obvious problem with this is that the firms still need to find a solution to the practice challenges that necessitated outsourcing in the first place.
Thankfully, there’s an easy answer to the problem, a hybrid solution to the traditional choice between keeping IT functions in-house and outsourcing them. It’s called smartsourcing.
Simply put, smartsourcing is a smarter way of investing in resources that keeps high-value work in-house, while outsourcing commodity work without losing governance or control over it. Among the benefits achieved by pursuing this approach is the ability to elevate internal IT staff, to execute IT projects faster and to be more innovative.
Smartsourcing vs. Outsourcing
Smartsourcing involves using an external platform to perform commodity work that IT departments currently deal with, which provides a better user experience for employees. The idea is to take the trivial tasks that are overburdening your staff and delegate them to the platform for third-party providers, allowing your internal people to focus their time and energy on high-value work.
Smartsourcing removes the downsides of traditional outsourcing. Most important, smartsourcing is not about headcount reduction. Unlike traditional outsourcing that results in staff reductions, smartsourcing allows you to keep your current staff. They simply focus on more critical work, using the knowledge and skills that they’ve cultivated over time. It’s not the high-value work that’s being outsourced.
What smartsourcing does is delegate the commodity work. Because that work is outsourced to a platform, you don’t lose control or governance over it like you typically do when outsourcing. Instead, the commodity functions are performed by outside parties but remain under the guidance and management of the firm.
Another key benefit of smartsourcing your commodity work while retaining your higher value-add work is that you prevent employee burnout and promote improved work-life balance.
Whether your IT department has three or 50 people, they’re constantly being asked to do more with less. Not only are they overburdened with operational tasks and details; they’re also expected to stay on top of compliance with outside counsel guidelines and create innovative new technologies to keep clients happy. When all these tasks are viewed as equal priorities, the only realistic outcome is employee burnout, which has become increasingly prevalent in legal IT departments. However, when you smartsource the operational burdens, you avoid that burnout and get better outcomes on the high-value work you need to run your firm.
Smartsourcing also leads to cost savings. Chances are, your IT staff are employing dozens of different tools to handle all their tasks. By smartsourcing to a platform, you centralize everything in one tool, eliminating not only the logistics and confusion of juggling an arsenal of technology but also the costs of maintaining each of those numerous tools.
Getting Started with a Smartsourced Approach
Once you’ve decided to use a smartsourcing approach, the question is how best to do it. Unlike traditional outsourcing, smartsourcing isn’t an all-or-nothing strategy.
Start by analyzing your entire portfolio of IT support functions, and dividing those tasks into two categories – high-value work and commodity work. High-value work includes things like choosing the firm’s next document management system or migrating to cloud-based solutions. Commodity work, in contrast, consists of tasks like patching systems or conducting routine maintenance. Your IT staff often works all night doing the latter, burning them out before they handle the important work the next day.
Smartsourcing is the key to avoiding that burnout without incurring the expense of hiring additional employees. With patching, for example, you can set the parameters and deadlines, assign the task to a vendor to complete overnight and return to work the next morning to see it finished according to your specifications. In the meantime, your IT staff can focus on strategic projects and innovation that will help grow your practice.
Every firm has its own unique needs. While nearly any IT function can be smartsourced to meet those needs, smartsourcing has seen the most traction in a few areas. The first is security. Given the prevalence of threats and attacks, cybersecurity is growing at a faster pace than firms can meet, outstripping firms’ ability to handle all their security needs in-house. Between installing firewalls, developing countermeasures and complying with outside counsel guidelines, it’s simply impossible for firms to keep up using the staff they have on hand.
Compounding the problem is that there simply isn’t enough talent for firms to hire and retain, because the demand for this hot field has exceeded the number of people trained to meet it. Therefore, firms are increasingly looking outside to meet their needs.
With clients constantly demanding more innovation, law firm IT departments can’t keep up and need help from third parties. And, of course, some tasks are the very definition of commodity work – the day-to-day functions that make up your lights-on infrastructure. Things like phones, networks, storage and data centers are becoming more complex. Internal teams are struggling to handle all the necessary upgrades, patches and maintenance without costly headcount increases. Accordingly, infrastructure is a prime area for smartsourcing.
Application development is a smartsourcing hotbed, with areas including data sciences and AI quickly joining the smartsourcing ranks. Every law firm wants to get into AI, but there is a severe shortage of talent on the market. To meet their goals, firms will need to work with third-party vendors with data scientists on staff.
Another role ripe for smartsourcing is business process architects. To meet client demands, firms need innovation experts. But few have invested in such roles to date, and until firms find the right senior-level nonlawyers who can truly innovate for them, the solution will be to turn to third parties to fill the gap.
Keeping IT Staff and Clients Happy
The combination of a lack of qualified talent and increased client demands has created a perfect storm that has left law firm IT departments struggling to do more with less, and facing a serious risk of burnout. Under present conditions, firms are poised to see an exodus of talented IT professionals. Smartsourcing is critical to preventing that. By strategically outsourcing certain tasks but retaining governance and control, you can keep your team engaged and not lose critical knowledge base, all while making your clients happy and keeping the lights on for the foreseeable future.
About the Author
Arup Das is CEO of Alphaserve Technologies, a global provider of IT services, including smartsourcing.