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I.T in practice: Size – and speed – matters

Every Issue

Cite as: (2004) 78(4) LIJ, p.87

Internet service providers are not all the same and firms serious about communicating with clients need to thoroughly investigate what is on offer.

You have rung YXZ Internet Services. All of our support staff are taking calls at the moment, and there are too many calls to be able to assist you at the current time. Please call back later. ‘Click’.” This is (almost) the wording of the recorded message that you may receive at one of the larger, more heavily advertised national Internet service providers (ISP).

At other times, you may not be disconnected when you call, but there may be a wait of more than half an hour in a support telephone queue. Dealing with this type of customer service is not something often considered when choosing a practice’s ISP.

Email is slowly becoming the communication method of choice with clients. Practices are dropping proprietary or software-driven access to precedent and research services in favour of their Internet equivalents. Firms are providing their staff with mobile office tools that enhance efficiency and client service, and which all operate through a practice’s Internet connection. In a few short years, a legal practice’s gateway to the Internet through its ISP has become (in management-speak) “mission critical”.

In addition to the potential shortcomings of an ISP’s technical support services, there are often other traps to watch for when choosing an ISP. One of these is known as “hard disconnect” time. Many cheap dial-up connection plans will not allow extended access time of more than four to six hours. In practical terms, this represents about 75Mb of data, which is barely enough to upgrade the off-the-shelf Microsoft software suite on one workstation with the recommended and suggested software “patches”. Another trap is that some broadband services will not allow the connection of business network servers to the Internet, and will use technology tools to identify where this contractual term has been breached.

Experience has proven that an Internet connection speed that is adequate today will be of insufficient speed within nine-to-12 months. The reason for this is that there is a limit to the amount of data that can flow through your pipeline to the Internet. Things that increase your dataflow needs include larger and more frequent email attachments, generally available web access for staff, intranets for staff use and switching to web delivery of research services. Practice managers will mostly deal with this by changing connection plans with their chosen ISP, with an associated cost increase.

Most small-to-medium-sized practices are now opting for, or upgrading to, business grade broadband connections. This is often paired with internal email server systems. As such, when choosing an ISP, there is often a necessity to consider whether that ISP will provide a fixed, addressable connection address (static IP address) for the firm, rather than one which changes with each connection (dynamic IP address).

When choosing an ISP and the relevant plan,[1] the key decision parameters are cost, the amount of data that will flow over the Internet connection, whether a static or dynamic IP address is provided and the connection speed. For broadband connections, there is an upload speed (outgoing data) and download speed (incoming data). For example, a 64Kb/256Kb speed would indicate that emails are delivered from your practice at a speed marginally above that of a dial-up modem, but web surfing would be considerably quicker. This needs to be examined closely if the practice intends to deliver web services from its own systems (for example, a web-based client matter tracking facility).

A general rule that has held fast for the past few years is that a budget of about $120 per month has been appropriate for most small-to-medium-sized practices for ongoing external computer communications costs. Although speeds have increased in that time, the market benchmark costs for an appropriate type and level of connection has remained relatively constant. What has changed over that time is the set-up cost. You will need to allocate at least $1000 for costs associated with firewall software or hardware, hardware connection devices and the inevitable information technology consulting time.


ADAM REYNOLDS is the principal of Proficio, an independent IT consulting firm.

For more I.T. in practice information, see the contributions of the Law Institute Legal Practice Management Committee and IT special projects department at http://www.liv.asn.au/sections/lpms_it.

“To do” List

• Before signing up with an ISP, ring the support line at various times to find out how long it is necessary to wait on hold.

• For dial-up connections, check for any hard disconnect times.

• For broadband connections, ascertain whether a static or dynamic IP address is provided, and whether network servers are permitted to be connected.

• Before and after the Internet connection is established, look for ways that it can provide better client service, or provide efficiency tools for staff.

• Review Internet access speeds every nine-to-12 months.

itcolumn@liv.asn.au


[1] See http://www.broadbandchoice.com.au.

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