Heading an IT department comes with tough challenges, as many outside of IT develop strong opinions about how to adopt and use it—often with only limited knowledge. Attorneys, who have a penchant to interrogate, can be a particularly tough clientele to keep happy. “It’s the nature of the law profession,” says Pramesh Naik, chief information officer for the law firm Troutman Sanders. “They question everything.”
It takes a diplomat’s interpersonal skills to succeed as a technology leader of a law firm. Naik has those skills, along with the necessary technical and organizational acumen, to meet the challenge.
Any executive charged with providing an internal service for a dynamic organization can learn from Naik, who has twenty-five years of IT expertise. Naik first joined Troutman Sanders in 2010 as director of IT and stayed for four years before serving as the CIO at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, where he led the largest IT transformation in the firm’s history.
In 2017, he returned to Troutman Sanders as its new CIO. And in the past two years, he’s worked closely with the firm’s technology and information services committee to make changes that allow IT to focus more on attorney and client-facing solutions, as well as be more innovative.
Naik has learned that clarity and specificity regarding how IT systems and applications benefit the business is essential from the start. Vague promise of “increased efficiency” will not do, he says.
“Whenever you ask attorneys to make a change, you have to focus on the problem you are trying to solve,” he explains. And demonstrating value, he observes, is not always about quantifiable return on investment. Improving client service does not always translate directly to dollars earned or saved, but nonetheless benefits the firm.
Anytime Naik meets with firm leaders, he aims to relate IT’s value for both attorneys and clients—even when he’s not trying to get buy-in for technology investments. He attends quarterly meetings of the firm’s practice areas in which he listens far more than he speaks. During these sessions, Naik learns about challenges in parts of the business where IT can add value such as business development and recruitment.
The firm’s technology committee, which includes thirty attorneys, is a great formal venue for IT and business brainstorming. Through those interactions, Naik finds opportunities for IT to solve problems, and increase adoption of existing tools and innovation. The committee also serves as a test bed for pilot projects—a new document scanning system, for example—and proof-of-concepts for new applications.
Naik’s initiative to replace the firm’s secondary data center with a DRaaS platform, for example, freed up more time for IT staff to focus on other matters such as developing a client extranet that will allow clients to view their billing history, court documents, and other critical files in one place. This will allow clients to find information whenever they need it themselves, rather than contacting attorneys for it. Both attorneys and clients that have piloted this tool love it, so Naik’s IT staff will roll it out for more clients.
“Whenever you ask attorneys to make a change, you have to focus on the problem you are trying to solve.”
Naik and his staff of one hundred have been spending more time lately addressing the legal industry’s transition from billable-hours to fixed-fees and alternative fee arrangements. The challenge for law firms is to accurately forecast the cost to perform projects so that they can respond to requests for proposals with a competitive—and profitable—fee quote. “This requires better analytics and marketing and business intelligence systems,” Naik says. The firm must know how much it costs to complete projects, and how it might be able to complete the work at competitive rates.
Naik is also paying close attention to information security, due to Troutman Sanders serving clients in the energy, healthcare, and financial services industries. These heavily regulated businesses have to meet stringent data security rules, and law firms must follow robust security protocols to protect the interests of their clients.
That precept has required Naik to strongly present his case to ensure that everyone adheres to sound security policies. “We tell our attorneys that your client in the financial services industry doesn’t want you taking sensitive information and putting it on a thumb drive,” Naik says.
Law firms are getting better at security, he adds, but the issue requires continued vigilance. “You hear about data breaches practically every week,” he observes. “You don’t want your firm to be in the papers for something like that.”
Naik continues to exercise his diplomatic abilities to convince Troutman Sanders’ attorneys to take extra care in safeguarding data, even when they resist at first. But, a patient, level-headed communication approach, backed up with sound reasoning, typically gets results.
Naik’s track record of success has gained him substantial credibility with a tough audience. So, when he presents the case for stricter security protocols that inconvenience busy attorneys who are still evaluated on how many billable hours they report each week, they are likely to take it seriously. That earned status is what every IT chief seeks.