Lawyers and law firms need to rely on all kinds of professionals in order to be more efficient at serving their clients. In certain instances, lawyers easily understand some of the tasks that professionals such as paralegals, administrative assistants, and the like need to complete, and, in a pinch, lawyers can likely step in and fill these roles. However, lawyers often do not have comprehensive knowledge about information technology matters, and attorneys need to rely on these professionals to run the email, document sharing and other technologies that make a law firm operate. At some law firms, attorneys may even fear the power of their IT professionals, and this can give such professionals an outsized amount of clout around a law firm.
Earlier in my career, I worked at a midsize law firm that had one person running all of the IT matters. That person was not particularly polite and had somewhat of an off-putting manner. He showed up to work comfortably an hour after everyone else arrived at the office, and he left the office well before everyone else headed home for the day. He basically had his own autonomy at the shop, and he did not show any deference to folks at the firm no matter what their seniority was.
This IT professional had been at that shop for decades, first as a paralegal, and then gradually, he became the one person responsible for all of the IT systems at the shop. The systems did not always work well. I am not well versed in IT matters, but he kept a server in the file room surrounded by a bunch of redwells containing case materials. The server looked ancient, and it had that off-white coloring that made it look like it was from the late 1990s or a similar era. The IT person kept two constantly running, off-the-shelf fans pointed directly at the server in order to cool it, and all of this and other haggardness gave the impression that IT systems at the firm were hanging on by a thread.
People around the firm were extremely paranoid about the capabilities of the IT professional. Many assumed that he could read what everyone wrote in emails and what they looked at on the internet during working hours. One of the associates conveyed that this IT professional had made an off-hand joke that referenced something that this person had searched for on his computer, and this gave everyone reason to fear that the IT professional was snooping on the attorneys and staff.
Another time, an associate was working at the office late at night, and he claimed that the IT professional messaged him through the application we all used to manage matters at the firm. None of us knew that anyone had this capability, and this really freaked everyone out about the power this IT professional possesses. If he could possibly look at what we were searching, and he could use some unknown functionalities of our programs, we all wondered what else he could do.
All of this power the IT professional had basically gave him tenure around the office. The law firm managers knew that they could not get rid of him since it would be extremely difficult to replace all of the work that this person had done to launch the IT systems at the firm. If the IT professional was terminated or left the shop, all of the attorneys and staff at the firm would have a difficult time serving clients since we would not have access to working technology. This basically ensured that the IT professional had little reason to improve at his job or be more efficient, which was a real loss for that shop.
There are of course a few ways to avoid a situation in which IT professionals have too much power at a firm. For starters, if firms hire more than one IT professional, it is less likely that any one will be super integral to the operations of law firm. Moreover, many law firms outsource IT services to various vendors which might make it easier to hold IT professionals accountable. Additionally, if lawyers educate themselves about IT systems, this can help ensure that a law firm is not too dependent on IT professionals to manage various technology.
In any event, I have had good relationships with IT professionals throughout my career, and IT professionals can be a great part of a law firm team. However, steps should be taken to ensure that IT professionals do not have too much power, since this can lead to bad outcomes for a law firm and its clients.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.