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Guest article – Rupert White on Making plans for Iris

Added on the 19th Nov 2007 at 11:12 am
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This is a guest article by Rupert White of the Law Society's Gazette


Arlene Adams, new chief of the legal arm of Iris Software, spoke to Rupert White of the Law Society's Gazette about the company's plans for the future. The market is ripe for a company such as Iris, she says, and she wants to put the uncertainty that surrounded the buyouts of the CS Group era behind the new firm and move on with plans that could boost the fortunes of thousands of law firms.

Iris Software Group is the new name of the company that includes Computer Software Group (CS Group). CS Group is the company that bought legal IT companies AIM, Mountain, Videss and Laserform in 2006 & 2007. Iris now has 4,000 law firm clients in the UK, making it the biggest single player in the game. How it will keep them, and what it does next, is therefore near the top of quite a few managing partners' agendas.

Iris's rise to power has not come smoothly – customers and rivals alike have voiced fears about whether CS Group was a serious supplier or just a vehicle to be sold. Having merged with CS Group for £500 million, Iris now has to come up with a strategy that will turn different but fundamentally similar products into a coherent division offering discrete products.


Arlene Adams, managing director of Iris's legal and compliance solutions division, recently talked exclusively to the Gazette about Iris’s plans for the future. Once upon a time, Ms Adams was employed at IBM. Later she became UK sales director for one of the best-known IT companies in the world – Sun Microsystems. Before she landed at CS Group, she was chief executive of an online payments company.


This background has given her a different perspective on the legal IT market in the UK, one that other general IT people might recognise: that the business of legal IT is immature.
“One of the things that struck me when I came into this market is that it's grown up out of family or lifestyle businesses, and it's not necessarily got the same practices and methodologies that you'd see in place in industrial-strength software companies.”

Law firms, in the round, are behind other sectors in terms of their use of IT, she agrees. It seems counter-intuitive, but this can be an advantage for both law firms and Iris, because the IT directions for law firms are laid for them to a great extent. “What we need to do as a company is take the best ideas of how technologies work in other markets and then apply that in the legal market,” explains Ms Adams. How well customer relationship management has worked for other business sectors and how well it works for many law firms using it is a good example, she says.


With her background at Sun and IBM, she thinks Iris can bring the world of mature corporate IT solutions to this nascent market. She also agrees that law firms, on the whole, are behind other sectors in terms of their use of IT. It seems counter-intuitive, but this can be an advantage for both law firms and Iris, because, to a great extent, the IT directions for law firms are already laid out for them.


Iris ended up in legal IT through a somewhat unconventional approach. CS Group's buying-up of several UK legal IT suppliers, after, it is widely believed, asking quite a number if they would bite, prompted plenty of whispers that the firm was just grabbing legal users to make a future sale. Then the sale came – a private equity group put up the £500 million to pull CS Group into Iris. Now Iris, and Ms Adams, needs to convince its customers and the market that it can deliver.


She accepted that there seems to be uncertainty out there, but, she says, “in the past few months we've really settled everything down, and we've got a very clear plan to where we're going.


“When I take customers through what we're doing and why we're doing it, they're really pleased, saying that for the first time there's an industry-leading player putting in significant investment that will not only deliver what they need, but more importantly give them a more secure long-term future, based on industry standards,” she says. “That's not something that customers have seen in this market to date.”


Because legal IT now forms 30% of the Iris business, she added, the venture into legal has to succeed – so Iris is investing heavily in the division, which Ms Adams says should reassure customers.
“We're not thinking of this as a short-term business – what we're trying to do here is build long-term sustainable value for all the stakeholders.”

And, she says, because of the value of the Iris brand outside legal, and the fact that it was already a successful, large company before buying CS Group, the company is well pitched to deliver.
“A number-one assumption in any plan has to be protect customer investment,” she says. “Customers invest for a period of time, and if we axe products without appropriate warning for customers and the investment they've made, they’ll just walk to another supplier.”

STRATEGY FOR EVERYONE
Iris's solution is possibly the only one that can bridge this seeming divide. In the short to medium term Iris is, Ms Adams says, going to develop a broker technology that will talk to any of the practice management system (PMS) products and allow them to link to Iris-developed front office applications such as document management, customer relationship management or payroll/accounts. This means Iris can develop one of these for all the PMSs it owns, making the strategy viable. These products, says Ms Adams, are “what all our research tells us that customers are looking for”.

This approach paves the way for what commentators were saying was inevitable – the ultimate move from the PMSs it already owns to a future product. For now, everything is still in the planning stage. “It takes time, you can’t do these things overnight,” she says. “You've got to be realistic about it.”


But over a longer period of time, she says, they want to build a backend system that “takes all of our experience and everything we know about the backend products” but she's keen to stress this needs to be done “in a way that enables a really smooth migration plan for customers with an existing backend, whether it be AIM, Videss or Mountain”.


Ms Adams, understandably, is extremely reserved about suggesting that customers will be forced to move up to this future practice management system. It would, she seemed to say, be several years before a complete new solution is available. There is still no announced plan for what might be in this future unified backend. But when Iris Legal announces its strategic plans at the beginning of December, this could change.


A more immediate customer concern, according to blog postings and various gripes heard over drinks, is that Iris seems to be saying it will keep several distinct products going over a long time, which cannot make good business sense, and therefore cannot be true. This seems to be misunderstanding the statements of Ms Adams, and the former CEO of CS Group Vin Murria, that no products would be end-of-lifed.


The facts are that no products will be killed, but the individual products of AIM, Videss and Mountain will eventually be so far overtaken by other products on the market and by whatever solution Iris builds to replace them that customers will be foolish not to migrate. By that time Iris will have enabled them to the extent that migration should be undaunting.
The broker, or middleware, solution proposed should allow Iris to stay true to its commitment to its stable of similar products while customers are gradually persuaded that the new solution is one they want to have.

There are two problems with this approach. First, it can create its own almost circular problems – Iris has those 4,000 or so law firm customers that it needs to maintain while generating new business, but any new business made before a new PMS is created just puts more customers into areas from which they one day need to be moved.


Second, the strategy will therefore inevitably be reactive – Ms Adams has had to create a strategy and needs to bring forth a future plan for the division based on this split-level problem. And this can create more problems. The sooner Iris creates a whole new product line, front- to back-office, the sooner it can move new customers onto it, giving live test cases for existing customers to look to and building the future customer base. But if it does this too soon, CS Group customers may feel they have been railroaded.


It is not even clear yet whether any of the existing PMSs will form the basis for the future one. “If we see customers driving us down a particular route that leverages the strength of one particular product set, then I have no issue with that,” says Ms Adams. “What I'm not prepared to do is come out with rash statements of strategies.”


ROOM TO MOVE FORWARD
But there are solid advantages to this more big-picture approach. Ms Adams now has room to look at what else customers want, rather than just being a large PMS provider. Instead of spending money forward-developing individual PMSs, Iris can develop or buy in “what customers are asking for”, says Ms Adams, such as mobile working, document management, customer relationship management and payroll. The lack of good integrated payroll and HR offerings for law firms surprised Iris, says Ms Adams. Also, Iris has skills and experience in industry-strength HR and payroll systems, she says, to deliver on a long-term, industry-standard solution set.

This industry-standard solution will be Microsoft .NET. The fact that CS Group bought Microsoft .NET solution providers has been a boon, because Iris developers know the Microsoft environment well, and because acquired solutions can be developed towards a common goal, says Ms Adams. “I think it helps both in a market perspective and in an internal skill perspective.”


Also, she says, a lot of Iris's own products are based on a .NET architecture. “There's a remarkable similarity the accounting and the legal products.” This a key point in the strategy, she stresses, both because skills and knowledge can be brought into the legal division but also because “the market has made it very clear to us that they want to know that solutions going forward are built on industry-based open standards. The commercial reality,” she says, “is that the market has moved to .NET.


“What I'm committed to is two things: giving customers a technical migration roadmap which gets them there [to a future set of products] without too much pain, at a time they choose – I don’t want to hold a gun to anyone's head,” she says.


“Second, it'’s one thing to give people a technical plan, but the other thing that I'm working on is a commercial plan so that no customer is being penalised in terms of when they've made the investment and when they would then have to make a move. I want customers to feel very much in control of that.


“Most important is the challenge I’ve given to our commercial team: that the work we do has to be so good that we shouldn’t be asking customers to move – they should want to get there because of the new features, functionality and innovation we're giving them.”


Convincing firms of this is linked to how Ms Adams understands technology will help law firms survive and thrive – law firms will need technology like this.
“Although the legal market likes to think it's different, it's no different from other markets,” she says. “At the end of the day it is a commercially operated and driven market. So as soon as you get lawyers who are willing to move the goalposts, the others will either be left behind and disappear, or they'll be forced to do the same.”

And customers will also provide direction, says Ms Adams. “We should thinking way ahead in terms of how we innovate in this market. We have 90% of the barrister market, and we've got a good share of the solicitors' market. The relationship between barristers and solicitors is very important, and they interact in many ways, from working together to diary appointments to fee-earning and how they pass money to each other, and the opportunity to make much more of that process electronic is significant.”


“If we can, through the adoption of technology, make that relationship much easier then that makes so much sense” One area Iris is working on, she says, is in matching barristers' diaries to solicitors’ case management. “If these diaries were available online, that you could just search, how much time would you save? Then, once the barrister has performed their duty, then why don't we just electronically bill them?”


This is, in its way, a sign of the future, she says. “I think we're starting to see a couple of practices change the boundaries, and as soon as they do that they can start to introduce competitive pressures to the others as a way of differentiating their business. And how the other practices respond to that will determine whether they survive or whether they fall away, because there'll always be someone who'’s prepared to do it.”


In other words, the future of law firms is technologically enabled and the challenge to Iris is to take its bought-in customer base forward to a product set that helps it fight it out from a position of advantage. Ms Adams is determined, forthright and earnest when she talks about the strategic future of the firm's legal business. With all those clients and the viability of the company riding on her division’s future, she cannot afford to slip up. From what she told us, there is a long-term plan, which is an improvement on what customers could see six months ago. Now she just has to slug it out in the marketplace.

• Rupert White is a member of the news team on the Law Society's Gazette and the magazine's IT specialist. This is an extended version of an article that first appeared in last Thursday's edition of the Gazette. For further details check out www.lawgazette.co.uk and http://tinyurl.com/2o5ojf

25 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Having been working in the legal industry for more than 20 years I have several experiences of suppliers working on strategy’s that consolidate their users onto a single product. In every case the clients tend to take the opportunity to review other offerings rather than accept a complete change of system and procedures. I therefore think that Arlene’s approach is an innovative one that could work to the advantage of all concerned and enable Iris to avoid clients moving away.
    I am assuming that the ‘brokering’ application will be web enabled and allow the 4,000 clients of Iris to connect to their existing PMS and to new applications developed by the group and to other industry standard applications such as MS Outlook. The benefit to end users will be a common graphical user interface that will homogenate their experience of all applications available to them. Once the new PMS becomes available then the data can be converted and the new ‘back end’ configured to work with the front end brokering system. Whilst the accounts and IT team will still be hard at work making this happen the other users will be able to continue with a minimum amount of impact as the new PMS will to all intents and purposes look and feel just like the web enabled version of their existing PMS.
    This model has effectively been proved by the work Handshake Software have been doing in the US and to some extent here in the UK. Their ‘brokering’ application is MS SharePoint and they have Juris to web enable their offering and add additional modules.
    Perhaps Arlene should look to expanding her net across the pond and snapping up their toolkit and other appropriate IPR rather than developing her own and take her vision to market in Q1 of 2008?
    David Gallagher
    27h Limited

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well 30 odd paragraphs haven’t brought the normal deluge of posts from previous statements. Why? Well frankly CSG & IRIS have made such a hash of things so far I suspect the competition have lost interest as things haven’t exactly gone well for IRIS Legal and they’re doing pretty well as a result.
    Yet again Ms Adams heads off with sentence after sentence of corporate speak and yet still doesn’t manage to convey any clear strategy. The main point (if indeed there is one) seems to be that yes after all CSG got it all a bit wrong so hey here’s the new government and the promised land of a new product in 2, 3, 4, 5 years?
    So what do you buy now if you’re looking at any IRIS Legal PMS? Difficult call as it’s likely that you’ll have to go through another installation when the new product arrives. The current range look a bit like the cars reaching the end of their life and are spruced up as ‘specials’ which don’t look so special once the new model arrives.
    Ms Adams does appear to have also shot all the messengers now with the departure of such individuals as Jim Chase. Rumour has it all is not well in terms of morale and there’s a bit of bunker syndrome going on – sound familiar to a year ago?
    The simple thing is that CSG just bought who happened to be for sale in order to make money through a quick sale. This has resulted in a range of legal companies that clearly don’t fit, haven’t been working together and are almost impossible to bring together under one roof the way things are going at the moment. Sadly for customers and staff it just looks like a re run of the last 2 years, leading up to the departure of senior executives upon a sale.
    Let’s also not forget that it’s well known that pre CSG, IRIS had looked at the legal market and rejected a move into the sector. Funny enough along come private equity and hey presto there’s an IRIS Legal Division.
    Outside of legal IRIS are a well respected organisation for good reason, however, IRIS Legal now looks in even a worse mess than CSG and anyone who speaks to the vast majority of commentators and lawyers knows it.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Sounds wonderful but anyone who went to the Vin/CSG briefings at the start will sadly see a familiar tone and approach. THe culture and brands, commercial succes of Videss, AIM, Mountain & Laserform slip slowly below the waves.

  4. Anonymous says:

    David makes some interesting points but misses a few key elements. They don't have 4000 PMS clients more like 1000 tops as the rest are forms sites. In the 1000 you've got 5 different systems on SQL, Access & Progress. I think he is also reading too much into the brokering app as from what insiders say the 'Legal Logic' app is a minefield!!

  5. Anonymous says:

    What the IRIS powers that be seem to miss is that it's been two years of bad management already. We've lost key people – reading this you'd think our clients love us believe me they aren't that happy and some are leaving for the competition already. About the only decent exec left is Chris Rose but he's Videss through & through.
    People worried here that some clients getting together to look to jump ship as a group – don't know if it's company or geographical but worried whisperings in corridors of power. bit like thge footie could be the end of certain people if goes public.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Lovely every time this lot open mouth promptly manage to fit in a size 14 – wonderful!!!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I have worked within the legal IT business for more than 25 years and have to say that most legal IT software has its work cut out to ensure that it integrates 'within itself' let alone to any other legal suppliers software. How many mainstream legal IT software products (accounts/PMS and case management systems) can say they run seamlessly with any other suppliers system even on a basic one-to-one basis? Also consider how far the LSSA got on their grand plan to unify systems by defining a common XML dataset that would act as a broker between the various suppliers systems – nowhere. I think what is being talked about here is pie in the sky.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I just checked Handshake out on the web and found this comment:
    “The information the Client-Centric Dashboard gathers would have required an experienced user to produce five separate reports and perform 15 separate searches across six LOB applications in the past.”
    Andy Stokes, IT Architect, Wragge & Co
    Hype or true?

  9. Anonymous says:

    Rupert White was probably the ideal person to carry out this interview with Ms Adams. Rupert has always believed that lawyers are no different to any other industry and he has found a soul mate in Arlene.
    The only problem is that everybody else recognises that there are some very key differences. Lawyers are specialists who buy from specialists. Ms Adams appears to moving Iris Legal in a different direction.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Hype or True?
    Absolutely true…
    As an experienced user of all the underlying systems in question I knew exactly the methods/systems previously needed and the time taken to extract the information manually. Having created the dashboard I also knew that the information is comparable. The fact that users did not often perform such manual extraction was a rationale for development of the dashboard in the first instance.
    And as a matter of principle I would not put my name to such a quotation unless I knew it to be truthful.

  11. Anonymous says:

    That is one of the stupidest comments I have ever seen. What makes the legal profession any more specialist than any other when it comes to IT.
    I dont see any Practices running custom versions of any other pieces of software.
    When you decide to use a 'specialist' version of Open Office over Microsoft Office or something similar then you might have a valid point but not until then.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Also, don't forget that the majority of Mountain sites are still Microsoft Visual FoxPro versions 5 & 6. Now there's a challenge for integration!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Oh dear – this rather misses the point. How many times have we seen applications such as Navision, Great Plains etc customised for Legal and then for them to disappear without a trace.
    It also puzzles me just how many cross selling opportunities IRIS think there actually are within Legal, but they are sure to find out . . . .

  14. Anonymous says:

    Whats it like to work for iris at the minute then?

  15. Anonymous says:

    I agree Mr White & Ms Adams seem to have missed the point entirely. As lawyers we are essentially SME's in the vast majority of cases. Yes we use Microsoft Office and in one way Mr White is correct in that there is an 'industry standard platform'. However, he appears a little obsessed with attempting to insert this type of technology into all aspects of a legal business and the previous post, correctly in my view, alludes to this.
    Lawyers get pretty sick and tired of IT commentators telling them to catch up with other SME's. Many lawyers now use a fully integrated system across their firm. How many other SME's could claim this to be true? Would IRIS or the Gazette have such a system or indeed other vendors to the sector in-house? I suspect not.
    Perhaps the Gazette should spend more time focusing on real legal focused technologies rather than trying to push the view we should all just install the latest standard offerings from our dear friends at Microsoft, Sage etc.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Oh dear, this person does not seem to know very much about the legal profession, IT, or maybe even both. Are you a legal IT consultant?
    To accuse a previous poster of making 'one of the stupidest comments I have ever seen', and then to follow it up by saying that legal practices don't use custom software is rather risible.
    All of the Legal companies that CS/Iris has bought produce specialist custom legal IT software. They produce specialist forms production, accounting, practice management and case management systems. You will find very few law firms running such things as Sage because the majority of Legal firms require specialist software.
    Perhaps this was posted from somebody from Iris, who may be forgiven for not having the slightest understanding of the legal market.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Much as I love to see all these postings, can we stick to the issues and limit the personal abuse. Everybody is entitled to their respective opinions – no matter how stupid they may be.

  18. Anonymous says:

    If everyone didnt post anonymously it would make this so much easier to follow…

  19. Anonymous says:

    Is that meant to be a post-ironic statement Mr/Ms Anonymous?

  20. Anonymous says:

    Yes but it wouldn't be as much fun!!

  21. Anonymous says:

    Well Well Well, look what I started; I've been invited to the Iris briefing on 6th December. I'd expected it to be the typical corporate pitch with coffee and croissants now it could be a bun fight!

  22. Anonymous says:

    When you attend your meeting perhaps the first question you should ask (if I have understood what the original jist of this thread is about) is will the new Iris PMS (which as you say will integrate with the underlying systems/databases of AIM, Videss, Mountain and Laserform and update each system in real time) be ready in Q1 of 2008. I just wish Betfred would allow me to make a wager on it. I have been here before when AIM wanted to take on the world – this is exactly what they wanted to do – create a system that sits on top of everyone elses and is so good that law firms would be fools not to take it – unfortunately there is nobody there now who remembers this strategy (or maybe they have chosen to forget). How the might fall get up and fall again.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Rupert White responds:
    It's always really interesting to hear comments on stories – shame the Gazette doesn't have that facility, but I do have an email address which people are welcome to use – especially ones that misread why the story is there in the first place.
    This was a journalistic interview with an audience in mind of lawyers, not IT vendor/managers. So lots of biffing on about Iris and its market really wasn't the point – you're either an Iris Legal user, in which case this might be quite important, a potential user, ditto, or a non-user, in which case it probably wasn't terribly important.
    If you look at the announcement Iris made yesterday, the Gazette got it pretty much all in beforehand, and pretty much right. That didn't come from letting Ms Adams just tell us what to say. In fact, it took repeated questioning to get to the heart of some of the issues here, including whether the plan they've come up with was there before Ms Adams was employed – to which the answer, imho, is 'not really'.
    As to whether I am now Ms Adam's intellectual paramour, I think other people are missing the point. I've never said that law firms are no different – Ms Adams said that. But their differences, especially in the coming years, will be far fewer than their similarities with other sectors. Let me give you an example:
    SAP (an enterprise resource planning systems company) has clients ranging from retail to mining. Does this mean that retail and mining are the same? Of course not, but they're businesses, and businesses have a load of highly similar processes and issues, as well as a bunch of very different ones.
    When we saw Iris's plan yesterday it just reinforced my belief that what's being offered increasingly to law firms, especially at the top end, is fundamentally a legal business-adjusted ERP set. Axxia's DNA was a move into an ERP-alike system. SAP (through a reseller) has managed to flog one installation. 3E is also, if you choose to see it this way, ERP.
    And so it is with Iris – what's being touted, in somewhat wooly terms right now, is a modular Microsoft-based ERP for law firms that's middleware/broker dependent for legacy systems. That kind of make-up would be familiar to firms from financial services to corporate retailers. There were a fair few criticisms of the offering yesterday, and I look forward to seeing more of them in print. It certainly is a work in progress, however.
    Perhaps some of the 'lawyers' posting on this blog need to read some more Susskind – those of you who continue to believe you are so different that the experience of the rest of UK plc does not apply, had better be considering retirement pretty damn soon.
    None of this means Iris is right, or will succeed. At least you're hearing stuff from them to make your own minds up, which is my humble occupation 😉
    Rupert White
    p.s. Whoever said “Perhaps the Gazette should spend more time focusing on real legal focused technologies rather than trying to push the view we should all just install the latest standard offerings from our dear friends at Microsoft, Sage etc.” please email me and tell me what we should write about. I'm always open to suggestion. I'm on rupert dot white at lawsociety dot org dot uk

  24. Anonymous says:

    According to announcements made to the press this week following some recent wins the competition can make as much noise as they like but it doesn't stop IRIS Legal from getting on with the job.
    Birmingham City Council legal department – Almost 300 Users
    Hodders, London
    Drummonds Kirkwood, Epsom
    Anami Law, Epping
    Williams Airey, Carlisle
    LMK Solictors,Stanmore
    Swinburne & Jackson, Gateshead (CFM)
    LLC Law, London (CFM)
    Goodmans, Liverpool (IRIS IP Office)
    Gullands, Maidstone (IRIS IP Office)
    Seems that the mighty are still on their feet

  25. Anonymous says:

    Helpful information from IRIS but surely AIM, Laserform, Mountain and Videss used to sell much more PMS and CMS business than this between them? Can this level of sales performance sustain them?

Any Comment?