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JILT 1998 (1) - Andrew Katz

Paul Hilder's

IT in the Solicitors' Office

Blackstone Press, 1997, £24.95
175 pp and 2 sample floppy disks, ISBN:1-85431-537-4

Reviewed by
Andrew Katz
Solicitor
andrewkatz@brethertons.co.uk


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This is a Book Review published on 27 February 1998.

Citation:Katz A, 'Paul Hilder's, IT in the Solicitors' Office', Book Review, 1998 (1) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/bookrev/98_1katz/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1998_1/katz/>


1. IT in the Solicitors' Office

Paul Hilder's book is intended to introduce IT to small legal practices which currently have little or no experience of I.T. His aim is that an IT illiterate solicitor can read the book, and within a matter of months implement a cost-effective, functional and productive computer network in his firm, with little or no external assistance.

To demonstrate how to achieve this miracle, Hilder concocts a fictitious firm which is keen to launch into IT and follows through their implementation process. We learn some fascinating details about this firm (for example the location of the toilets). By the end of the book Wizard and Co. have succeeded in implementing a complex Windows NT/Windows 95 network with WAN connections to two outlying offices without recourse to the advice of any IT professional.

The information in the book is arranged in a haphazard and badly-structured way, which is not helped by the poor index. There is a great deal that is irrelevant, and some which is plain wrong: which for a book which purports to assist a total novice is inexcusable. It would seem that Blackstone Press does not have access to any IT literate sub-editors.

Hilder writes almost exclusively in the passive voice, in a fairly archaic legalistic way: perhaps his assumption is that if he adopts the style of his intended readership, his message will be more readily accepted. Having said that, the book is better for being structured around a hypothetical real-life implementation, rather than being a dry list of facts and instructions. For an example of how this style of writing can be accessible and informative at the same time, try the monthly 'Ivan Iwannado' column in Computer Shopper magazine.

2. Introduction

The book kicks off with a short introduction outlining the areas where IT can assist day to day legal practice. It also briefly considers external agencies (e.g. the Land Registry) and their adoption of IT, and how this can be integrated within a law practice. It does wisely mention that for a firm to attempt to meet the Legal Aid Board's franchise requirements without implementing I.T. is foolhardy (and may be impossible). After a brief introduction to Wizard and Co., the book leaps straight into the technical aspects of IT Implementation.

3. Networking

Chapter 3 really sets the tone for the remainder of the book. Entitled 'networking' it meanders in an un-co-ordinated fashion from the advantages of installing networking, the necessity of having budgets and plans, the fact the peer to peer networking is preferable to having a file-server (a statement with which I entirely disagree) to a description of network topologies which suffers only from the fact that of the two options for network topology illustrated, one is completely incorrect and simply would not work. Luckily, the hapless IT newcomer reading this book is likely to select the correct topology simply because it is listed first. It is easy to criticise any book on IT implementation on the grounds that it is out-of-date. However, this book was first published in 1997 and although I cannot seriously criticise Hilder's choice of workstation (P-133 with 16MB RAM and 1 GB hard disk), Hilder's coverage of networking should not even have covered thin ethernet. Although a 10BaseT implementation may be slightly more expensive (because of the necessity for a hub) it is preferable in almost every respect to thin ethernet. Hilder is correct, however, that installing cat-5 cable is wise and about as future-proof a choice as it is possible to make in computing. In general, however, the book has the feel of being written in about 1994, with the odd hurried update (like his wildly optimistic reference to the speed increase to be anticipated in the MMX processor at the beginning of chapter 5). One area I cannot criticise the book for being out-of-date is in the area of Windows NT's plug-and-play support. Hilder describes NT as proving itself popular for its 'automatic hardware detection'. At the time of writing this review, plug and play for NT had only just become available. At the end of the chapter, Wizard & Co. choose to implement a peer-to-peer network. Hilder makes this decision on their behalf without considering (1) the advantages of centralised file storage (i.e. co-ordination, ability to take backups easily, administration); (2) network and workstation security and (3) interfacing the system to the firm's current accounting system.

3.1 Windows for Workgroups

Hilder assumes that the firm's IT infrastructure will be based on Windows for Workgroups. At the time of publication, Windows 95 had been released and established for over a year. For any serious networking, Windows for Workgroups is inadequate. For those whose PCs have not been pre-installed with WfWG, Hilder explains the installation procedure (incorrectly, as it happens), and the novice user following the instructions in the book will find that after typing Hilder's first instruction the computer complains with a 'Bad Command or File Name' error. He also gives the entirely erroneous and totally misleading impression that selecting a user name and password will protect the user's hard disk from access by unauthorised users, not only across the network, but also when sitting at the workstation and using the computer directly. This impression is entirely false, and reveals Hilder's dangerous lack of knowledge in this area. Solicitors may rely on his advice believing they are keeping client information secure in accordance with the requirements of professional conduct. Windows for Workgroups does not, and was never intended to provide anything other than a very basic level of security (designed to prevent access from other parts of the network). Files stored on a Windows for Workgroups machine (and for that matter a Windows 95 machine) are easily accessible from that machine without the use of any special tools or techniques. Wizard & Co. somewhat predictably choose Windows for Workgroups as their enterprise operating system of choice.

3.2 Purchasing a LAN

After having made purchasing decisions on Wizard's behalf, Hilder then expands and rehashes some of his decisions in his next chapter entitled 'Purchasing a LAN', which briefly covers every aspect of computer purchase (workstations, application software, operating system, printers, modems). In covering operating systems, Hilder entirely fails to mention Windows NT as a network operating system (despite the fact that he claims to be covering only mainstream Windows products). He does, touchingly refer to an operating system known as the 'Macintosh Apple' (which suggests that he drives to see his clients in a Robin Reliant). The chapter continues the book's error-prone theme (for example an incorrect reference to another chapter) although he does give the useful advice that 'the speed of a [modem] relates to the rapidity with which information can be sent and received'. Hilder presents two options for the purchase of a complete network system. My only real concern about the pricing (other than the fact that it is understandably somewhat out of date) is £1000 for the installation of 20 users' worth of Cat 5 cabling. Each user will need a cable terminated with an RJ 45 socket at each end (i.e. the server end and the user's end) and patch cables, and even the cheapest cable installer will have difficulty approaching this price. He also inconsistently specifies 486 machines as workstations, although he earlier refers to Pentium 133s as a minimum specification.

4. Software

Chapter 6 attempts to cover the software suitable for use in a solicitors' office. As an overview it is adequate, although I dispute that any database package (other than perhaps a basic flat-file system) is simple to operate. Hilder vastly overemphasises the ease of use of these office suites, and gives the totally inaccurate impression that little or no training is required to use them. He also fails to state that many of the facilities he considers useful (such as group scheduling or client database access) do not work well, if at all, on a peer-to-peer network. Additionally, he fails to explain how a number of people on a network can send external email using a single modem. This is possible, but far from trivial to set up, and is difficult to achieve without special software (although it can be done using Windows 95 if one person is prepared to act as a postie). Hilder needs to relate his advice to the context in which these computers are to be used. A lawyer needs to consider emails and automated faxing in the context of internal practice procedures (does a partner want associates and non-fee-earners to be able to fax or email outside the firm unless the document has been checked?); security (emails are not particularly secure at the moment, although Microsoft Exchange Server does support encryption and digital signatures) and certainty (there is no certainty that an email once sent will actually arrive). A lawyer also needs to consider computerised databases in the light of the Data Protection Act (both current and future) and solicitors' practice rules. Hilder considers none of these aspects in sufficient depth. The chapter also mentions the ill-fated Law Society High Street Starter Kit about which the less said the better.

4.1 Forming and Implementing an IT Strategy

This chapter is possibly the most important in the book, and is for once clear and logically structured. It deals helpfully with the major steps towards implementing an I.T. strategy, and although I do not necessarily agree with all the conclusions, no firm which is almost totally new to IT would go too far wrong in following its advice. (Although at this stage Hilder's plugs for his own business which occur throughout the book become less subtle and refer directly to the product produced by his company, Essential Business Communications Limited).

4.2 Electronic Research

This chapter contains reasonable basic information, although a reader would welcome (even on a ball-park basis) some pricing information to enable a comparison between electronic and traditional search techniques. It may also have made sense to discuss precedents available on disk, and document assembly packages in this chapter.

4.3 Voice Dictation

Apart from the interesting observation that a major task of a voice dictation package is to identify homophobes, this chapter can safely be avoided. Technology has superseded virtually everything Hilder covers, and he makes it clear that although he refers to both IBM and Dragon products, he is not familiar with the way in which the Dragon product operates.

4.4 Electronic Forms

Hilder admits his limited research in this area was unsuccessful and that he consequently obtained the information in this chapter from Laserform (a supplier of legal forms software), with the inevitable result that Laserform products are regarded with a reverence approaching awe.

4.5 Dedicated Legal Software

This chapter covers a mixed bag of products from Psion-based time recording systems to the John Pritchard's Link system. While it vastly over-simplifies solicitors' accounting systems, it does provide a reasonable overview of the range of software available. It would have been useful for Hilder to cover the issues involved in integrating different products from different suppliers as the impression remains that a number of different products from different stables will co-exist peacefully together on the same network.

4.6 Videoconferencing

Videoconferencing is a rapidly moving target, and standards are still far from being adopted de facto. Hilder gives no hint of the incompatibility of different systems currently available, and how the incompatibility may be resolved.

4.7 32 Bit operating Systems and Applications

The next two substantive chapters of the book appear to be hurriedly tacked-on updates singing the praises of Windows 95 while justifying the book's earlier insistence on retaining Windows for Workgroups as the operating system of choice. Hilder gives Windows NT a mention, but erroneously refers to it as being unable to run 16 bit applications (in fact, it has a subsystem which can run 16-bit application surprisingly well). The bulk of the chapter on 32-bit applications dwells on the quasi-defunct Lotus SmartSuite (the current success of which can be gauged by its latest OEM price of £20).

5. The Internet

In common with almost all bad guides to the internet, Hilder rehashes its history. The chapter is largely inaccurate (Hilder reveals his ignorance by using internet domain names that do not exist - like 'wizard.com.uk' - or are inappropriate to a commercial organisation - like wizard.ac.uk). He fails to grasp that renting space on a third party server can be very cheap, but that security can be a problem. Security issues can only be effectively addressed by having a dedicated internet server, the cost of which (including internet connection and kilostream rental) can be a factor of 100 more than the option of renting space on a third-party server. He fails to address the real issues and advantages of an internet presence, and his example of a home page is nothing more than a 'me too' page blowing the firm's trumpet but with no real content.

6. Client Care and The Law Society

The first of these chapters contains little to do with IT and is no doubt the better for it. It is questionable why it is included in this book, but on the whole the chapter contains useful information mainly about marketing. A mention of the Data Protection Act and Solicitors' Practice Rules would have been helpful. The second covers the Law Society IT guidelines and also suggests the ill-fated High Street Starter Kit as an option (sadly no longer available) for small firms of solicitors. The guidelines themselves are a useful addition to the book and the book itself would have been immeasurably improved if structured around them.

7. Wizard - The Advanced Story

I apologise for revealing the ending of the book at the beginning of this review. Wizard has increased profitability by 20%, largely, it appears, as a result of the implementation of Mr Hilder's company's own system.

8. Glossary

The Glossary's entries appear randomly selected and are not always accurate or useful. For example the rare and uniquely IBM term 'DASD' is defined, but there is no definition for common terms like browser, world wide web, VDU, mouse, PCI, ISA, gigabyte, hard disk and floppy disk.

9. Disks

The book comes with two 'free' disks. One is a Lotus screencam demonstration of some basic software sold by a Mr Hilder's company. The other is a working demo of a Legal Aid expert system which runs under windows and is designed to assess clients' eligibility for Legal Aid.

10. Conclusion

There are serious issues raised mainly by users, but also by the industry and which are current now (and were current before the book was published). These include:

  • Cost of ownership (as evidenced by the NC/NetPC/ Windows NT Hydra debate).
  • Year 2000 compliance · Internet security (encryption, firewalls, IP tunnelling, secure payment)

In addition, there are other issues which are vitally important to any organisation planning on implementing I.T:

  • Terms and negotiation of the supply contract
  • On-going training, data conversion and data entry costs
  • Off-the-shelf v. bespoke solutions
  • Software and hardware maintenance
  • Use policies (for example health and safety, internet and email use, virus policies)

None of the above issues is covered at all by the book and I find their absence inexcusable. IT in the Solicitors' Office is a poor book. A reader with no I.T. knowledge will (if he or she succeeds in reaching the end of the book) be left with serious misconceptions as to the cost, implementation, ease of use and benefits of I.T. A reader with even fairly limited technical knowledge is likely to find it laughable.

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