Business as usual quest for Dundas & Wilson

Law firm Dundas & Wilson had to build its entire IT infrastructure from scratch and still maintain its service to customers.

Law firm Dundas & Wilson had to build its entire IT infrastructure from scratch and still maintain its service to customers.

  • Business description Dundas & Wilson is an internationally focused corporate and commercial law firm with offices in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London.
  • Business challenge Provide the technology that would enable the firm to guarantee business continuity and provide seamless customer service
  • Solution Deploy a new reliable IT infrastructure, the performance of which is continuously managed by an external provider
  • Services Architecture design, systems integration, technical consultancy, remote systems and network management, helpdesk and support, managed IT services, managed security services, project management, technology supply

Technology has become so integral to the processes of most organisations, that businesses rarely have the opportunity to start again with a completely clean sheet with their IT systems. Instead they are limited to making staged changes to different areas of their infrastructure.

When Dundas & Wilson left the Andersen Legal Network, however, it was given just such a chance to design an entire new IT environment completely tailored to its specific requirements.

The practice had already started to work on  eliminating the paper-trail that plagues many law firms by making increasing use of web technologies. For example, its online deal rooms provide a secure forum where project information could be accessed by lawyers and clients at any time from anywhere in the world.

Although Dundas & Wilson wanted to continue to use technology to streamline the legal process, as it prepared to leave behind the network and its entire IT infrastructure, its main priority and key objective was business continuity - and its ability to service its customers.

Servers, desktops, printers, applications, security and networking devices all needed to be implemented for Dundas & Wilson to fulfil this objective.

Its quest for ‘business as usual’ led it to IT services company Computacenter, which helped Dundas & Wilson build an infrastructure that has given the firm the scalability and reliability it needs to deliver high quality legal services.

Dundas & Wilson is Scotland’s largest corporate and commercial law firm, with offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. The firm employs nearly 300 lawyers who offer a range of legal services including corporate, banking, employment, intellectual property, commercial litigation and IT contracts. Its clients include many blue-chip organisations.

Until March 2002, Dundas & Wilson was part of the Andersen Legal Network, which had helped to give the firm a head start with its IT functionality.

As Laurence Ward, a Senior Partner at Dundas & Wilson, explains, “When we joined the network in the late nineties, our IT systems made a quantum leap from where they were before, and we were suddenly well ahead of our competitors in terms of the technology we were using.”

Although the firm’s entire IT infrastructure and network were provided by Andersen, this meant relying to some extent on infrastructure and services  located and provided remote from the D&W offices and a helpdesk that did not always understand technology problems that were specific to the firm.

“After a while we felt our IT systems were not advancing as fast as we would have liked, and that our competitors were catching up and in some instances overtaking us,” adds Ward. When Andersen became implicated in the Enron scandal, the firm  knew it was time to cut its ties with the network.

Business continuity

The decision to go it alone meant Dundas & Wilson faced a race against time to develop a whole new IT infrastructure that would ensure it could continue to service its clients, and operate efficiently as an independent legal partnership.

“Technology is absolutely key to delivering legal services, and is second only to people. ‘Business as usual’ was essential, and without IT our service to customers would be quickly impacted,” says Ward. “We knew the timescale was going to be incredibly tight as the situation was changing rapidly.

"Our first objective was maintaining business continuity, which meant ensuring we had access to mission-critical elements of our IT, such as financial and office applications, Internet and email functionality, printing facilities and a corporate network.

"Our second objective was to improve on the IT systems that we had before, and to have a stable environment that was tailored and supported in line with the specific needs of a legal practice.”

Due to the time pressure and the sheer scale of the project, Dundas & Wilson knew it needed external assistance to fulfil these objectives, as Ward explains. “Although we do have internal IT resources, the breadth of skills and integration expertise required for such a multi-faceted project was beyond our scope.

"We knew the end result of our new IT infrastructure, but not how to achieve it, so we needed a partner that could guide us through the numerous technology choices that we faced. Computacenter was very responsive, and most proactive in suggesting solutions that would help resolve our business issues.”

Work on the new IT infrastructure began in earnest in May 2002, with Computacenter taking responsibility for the design and implementation of the new infrastructure, which encompassed everything from security and storage to backup and remote access.

Managing so many different elements was a challenge in itself, as Andrew Sharpe, Consultant at Computacenter, explains: “It is not often that an organisation tackles its entire infrastructure in one go – it is normally just a couple of elements.

"The breadth of technical skill required was tremendous. Although it was a massive challenge, the end-to-end nature of the project provided us with an unrivalled opportunity to ensure all the new systems were fully integrated and easily managed.”

Locking down security

Computacenter put together a 12-strong solution team that provided a pool of technical and service management expertise around the different technologies that would be rolled out as part of the project.

The new infrastructure included Sun Microsystems’ and HP servers running Sun Solaris and Microsoft Windows 2000; around 500 IBM desktops and laptops running Windows XP; Active Directory; IBM Lotus Notes and Domino for email and applications, plus an array of networking, backup and security devices.

Security was a fundamental consideration in the design of the new environment, as Ward explains: “Security is key for the business due to the sensitive nature of a lot of the data we store and access. Safeguarding the integrity of our data is paramount. The new environment has, however, given us an enhanced level of protection

This increased level of security was achieved through a comprehensive assessment of the security threats facing the firm.

“We basically started at the edge, and worked in,” explains Gavin Fulton, security practice technology leader at Computacenter. “We assessed the risks to perimeter, interface and internal security, and then developed strategies and solutions to mitigate these risks.

" For example there’s a highly  available firewall solution to help prevent any intrusion attacks; an email gateway staging post to help detect any malicious code; and the desktops are all protected by anti-virus technology.”

To enhance this security provision further, the firewalls are remotely monitored round-the-clock. “New risks are identified every day, so it is essential that a company has a proactive security strategy, which will help give them a head start on new threats, such as trojans and worms, before they become an issue for their organisation,” adds Gavin.
Computacenter also had to address the issue of security that arose from the decision to provide the connectivity for the firm’s wide area network through a virtual private network (VPN), which provides a site-to-site  secure link through the Internet.

Although this approach enabled Dundas & Wilson to eliminate the cost of leased lines between its offices and gave them increased flexibility, it did raise various security issues.

“Internet-based virtual private networks are still relatively rare in the UK, but the cost benefits are likely to entice more companies down this route,” comments Gavin.

“It is, however, essential that you make adequate provision for security and performance. We used comprehensive encryption methods to safeguard the traffic travelling over the VPN, and Dundas & Wilson is able to leverage its service level agreements with its ISP to help guarantee the network’s performance.”

Minimising the roll-out risks

Due to the immovable deadline, Computacenter had to forgo the usual rigorous testing and piloting of such a complex implementation.

“On  August 1, 2002 Dundas & Wilson had to be off the old network, at which point its existing infrastructure would become obsolete,” comments Sharpe. “After three months of intensive development, we had no choice but to go live with the new infrastructure - testing was a luxury we simply could not afford. To ensure we could respond swiftly to any problems and maintain business continuity for Dundas & Wilson, we set up a special response team, and de-risked the roll-out as much as possible.”

The risks of such a strategy were immense, as Laurence agrees: “It was a huge challenge, but it was the only option available to us - without an IT infrastructure, the firm would have ground to a halt within a few days. Considering the circumstances, Computacenter did a good job. They put in a huge amount of effort into what was a very difficult project.”

Despite the challenges, the new infrastructure has met Dundas & Wilson’s original objectives, as Ward confirms: “We have put in an IT infrastructure that can be tailored to our needs, and those of our customers. We have dramatically improved the reliability of the system, and can offer our users and customers continuously available services.

"This is very important as our partners work all over the world, and often require access to corporate information and data while in different time zones.

"The legal profession is not unlike the financial services sector in terms of client confidentiality and the need for secure, resilient IT systems. The infrastructure is also more locked down than it was previously, which makes the system – and associated costs – easier to control.”

An infrastructure for the future

To further simplify the management of its IT infrastructure, Dundas & Wilson has also tasked Computacenter with day-to-day responsibility for its desktops/laptops, servers, networks, internal helpdesk and firewalls from spring 2003.

 “It would be prohibitively expensive to provide the continuous support and management we need for the new infrastructure. Computacenter has access to a range of technical specialists, and can provide the continuous service we require,” adds Ward.

 Now its IT foundations are in place, Dundas & Wilson is looking to the future, as Ward explains: “We have a three-year IT strategy aimed at enhancing our service to clients which necessitates a number of significant advances to our IT systems.

"The infrastructure had to be able to support all these plans, and our increasing use of web technologies. The project meant a lot of changes, but we now feel we have a scalable IT infrastructure that can dovetail to our future requirements.”

He adds: “Computacenter’s approach is very similar to the way we work with our clients – it is prepared to commit resources to get things done, and is very client and relationship driven.”

This article was part of Computer Weekly's managed services business channel, sponsored by Computacenter.

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