The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday in Cut Those Costs! (But Not Tech.) that while most companies still look to reduce costs, many “are boosting IT spending, hoping to get a competitive edge”. Should lawyers and law firms do the same? 

The article reports that corporate CFOs have a reputation “for putting the kibosh on promising projects when times were tough” but that their view has changed. They now “see tech delivering ever-greater competitive advantages.” New investment is flowing to collecting and analyzing Big Data and supporting a range of mobile devices. A 2011 Q3 found that many CFOs plan to boost IT spending by 10% this year “even as their confidence in the economy declined”.

If law firm IT spending is up at many firms, and I’m not sure it is, I suspect the money goes mainly to maintain or upgrade infrastructure. It would interesting to know how many firms invest in technology that could provide competitive differentiation: better business intelligence to support alternative fee arrangements, project management, enterprise search to find useful work product or experienced lawyers, tools to respond RFPs more effectively and quickly, document assembly to speed document drafting, or systems that allowed client self-help.

Of course, it would also be interesting to know how many lawyers actually want tools that change how they practice. In Sympathy For The Attorney today at 3 Geeks, Ryan McClead wonders out loud, using a great personal story, whether lawyers want to change what they do. Partners might support bigger IT investment in back-end systems (e.g., BI or RFP generators) that do not affect how they practice. Be sure to read the Doug Cornelius (Compliance Building blog) comment on this post, pointing out how hard change is.

Without good data all this is ideal speculation. But since I’m speculating, I’ll close with what I think is the key question: do general counsels, who are the clients of BigLaw, think and act more like the partners who serve them or more like the corporate CFOs and CIOs with whom they work daily? How they align likely determines the demands they place on their outside counsel. And that ultimately will drive law firm IT spending decisions.