Law and order


21 Oct 2005

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As students go through the annual ritual of heading off to college, it’s hard to imagine many of them will experience an induction week that includes an IT manager standing up in a lecture theatre telling them how to log on to the college computers using their own unique passwords. That’s what’s in store for graduates entering a career in law.

The same students are also issued with an email address and surveyed on their grasp of IT, after which they will receive thorough training to fill in their knowledge gaps. A tour of the campus facilities will introduce them to a lecture theatre with cutting-edge presentation facilities and dedicated IT rooms where they can research and study.

Welcome to state-of-the-art education at the Law Society’s education centre in Blackhall Place, Dublin. Responsible for the professional training of law graduates taking their next step towards becoming practising solicitors, the centre has a huge role to play in the Irish legal profession. If you were harbouring notions of bewigged lawyers with reams of paperwork under their arms, or of crusty old gentlemen wearing wire-frame glasses that had never looked at a computer screen, you had better think again.

Six years ago it was a little different at the education centre and old preconceptions might have been borne out. “There was nothing, not a PC,” says IT manager Tom Blennerhassett, “and it’s only when I really stop to think about it that I realise what we’ve achieved.”

In those days all student assignments were either handwritten or sent out to a bureau for typing up. Things slowly began to change, thanks in part to the never-ending tribunals. “They definitely contributed,” says Blennerhassett. “There had been the image of the guys in their gowns and paper everywhere until the tribunals came along and everything was burnt on to CDs. There were no longer the big boxes of paperwork. People finally saw technology was making an impact on legal cases.”

From the perspective of an experienced IT manager the prospect of radical change presented an exciting career prospect. Back in the Nineties Blennerhassett had progressed as far as he could with TNT Express in Ireland — only a move abroad could advance his prospects. The alternative was to change tact entirely.

When he saw the Law Society was looking for an IT manager, the opportunity was too great to miss. He joined in November 1998 knowing that one of the main projects earmarked for him would be to build up the education centre. “The society had made a conscious decision to get as much IT in there as possible,” he recalls, “and it wanted someone who had worked at the sharp commercial end of IT.”

There was no doubt he fulfilled the criteria. He had been with TNT since 1989 when there were just two IT employees in a single depot running an old IBM mainframe. When he left there were four depots supported by Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) 9000 server family. “The competition was so extreme within the freight business that you’re at the cutting edge of technology all the time. You’re constantly trying to get one up on the competition and persuade customers to integrate their systems with yours.

“When I made the change I wanted something completely different. I got it,” he laughs. “I’ve gone from an environment where the customer and the bottom line is king to something completely different. It struck me as a challenge where I could come in and make a mark. It appealed to me that there was absolutely nothing here.”

While the budget was in place to work the change there were other constraints on Blennerhassett’s new challenge, not least a limited amount of resources in terms of physical real estate and the number of people that could fit into it. It was greenfield site, albeit one with quite a small footprint.

There was also work to be done on improving the teaching environment, bringing in audio video presentation systems to the lecture theatres — quite a change for a teaching establishment where PowerPoint was still a rarity.

The abiding principle was that whatever was introduced to students at the learning centre was something they might well be using in legal practices tomorrow. “We wanted them to be well up on technology so when they went out to work they could bring their knowledge with them,” explains Blennerhassett.

In search of the core solution for the centre’s IT infrastructure, he found out what the bigger law firms were up to, talking to their IT managers about how technology was being wielded for competitive advantage. He also spoke to other law colleges to see what they had done in their computer labs, to see where the probable pitfalls lay.

“In some cases it was equipment going missing — there was one report of RAM being taken out of a machine,” he recalls, “and lots of examples of settings being changed on the desktop, making it a mess for the next student coming in. I had all of this at the back of my mind.”

Early in the research process he had Citrix in mind and nothing he heard was dissuading him. Although he had never worked with its access and infrastructure software he had read the white papers and attended its forums. He’d even spoken to Citrix in the US. The thin-client model, delivering applications from centralised servers not only prohibited the end users meddling with desktops it also made it easier to manage, an important factor considering Blennerhassett only had the budget to recruit one extra IT person at the time.

“We went to market with what I’d describe as a fairly woolly tender document to see what would come in,” he explains. “We asked people to come back to us with a solution rather than saying ‘This is what we want.'”

Vendors were invited to pitch for a greenfield site with 70 workstations. Some applicants were able to provide some of the solutions but not everything, but rather than face the prospect of multiple suppliers the shortlist was quickly whittled down from 10 to the five that could provide a single service.

“I had to find a scenario that was the easiest possible for us and the students,” explains Blennerhassett. “If something goes wrong you phone one party and it says it’s the other’s fault. We wanted one point of contact. That eliminated some candidates immediately.”

Some came in with full PC solutions, others with thin client. Datapac emerged as the winner because Blennerhassett felt confident it had the strength to deliver all of the kit for a Citrix solution, on time and within budget. “And I was very impressed by the knowledge of its engineers,” he adds. “Datapac was a one-stop provider, supplying everything from monitors, servers and thin clients to a printing solution.”

The first Citrix server went live in 2000 and soon the iteration cycle was under way. “The best white papers said it would cater for 50-60 users but after the first year we discovered the limitations. The load on a server that was doing everything from basic file storing to surfing, research and printing was simply too much. We were working to its maximum all the time, so we put in a second server,” recalls Blennerhassett. Improved response times were the instant payback.

At the front-end of the system were 15-inch HP monitors supported by Wyse terminals. These tiny white boxes are still going strong some five years later. After an initial outlay of IR£420 for each of them, the only upgrade has been boosting their memory for around €70 per unit. “That’s the only change we’ve made to kit that we bought in January 2000,” says Blennerhassett, tangible proof that the Citrix mantra about reducing hardware refresh costs stands up to scrutiny.

When an old PDC (primary domain controller — a server used in the Windows environment to authenticate network logins) was decommissioned a third Citrix server was added. The drive was always on improving response times for the students and the number of applications that students could access but part of the service was also to give them what they wanted. There was huge interest in the Microsoft suite of products, particularly Outlook, that could no longer be ignored.

“We started off with Ireland.com as our mail provider. From there we went to Campus.ie, which does a lot student-related services and provided us with mailboxes. At the time we didn’t have the time and resources and didn’t want the headache of managing Exchange at the same time as brand new Citrix,” explains Blennerhassett.

Last year the decision was taken to go with Microsoft Exchange Server and Outlook, enabling students to access their mail from outside the building. “What we were finding is that a lot people wanted to be able to use the full Microsoft suite including Outlook, which is, after all, just about the most prevalent piece of software out there,” explains Blennerhassett. “And because there were so many students coming in with different providers, Hotmail, Yahoo! and so on, we needed to standardise email to be able to use it as the main communication tool, letting people know if lectures were cancelled, for example, and for the social aspect as well.”

An Exchange Server added to a fast-growing system that is now built around a total of 10 servers, which includes a Citrix farm of six. This is serious scaling up by anybody’s standards, brought about because of increased applications to the education centre. The number of students has risen from around 240 in 2000 to the 670 that will be using the site this autumn.

Concurrently the system can handle 225 external and internal logins, a capacity that is pushed to limit during Friday afternoon assessment time when demand for access leaps. Blennerhassett and his team will endeavour to provide more but there are challenges, in terms of real estate and physical space as well as technical, to overcome.

Maximising the environment is an ongoing priority. During slack periods in the centre the state-of-the-art IT rooms are opened up for other organisations to use for training. Solicitors can also use the facilities for research. The lecture theatres are also opened up for one-off events, especially if there’s a legal angle.

The introduction of remote access and the sheer scale of the system necessitates an ordered approach to security that is run by the internal IT team in conjunction with specialist firm Baker Consultants. Blennerhassett boasts that the system has never been brought down by a virus but there are other challenges around content screening, as he explains. “The problem with legal research is that if you’re doing work around sexual abuse, for example, you are going to need access to content that might normally be off limits. It’s a fine line.

“The first iteration was blocking important court documents that were coming into the library. In a sexual discrimination case the system would flag 2,000 mentions of the word ‘sex’ and the system thought it was doing the right thing to stop it coming in. Now, ‘sex’ and ‘sexual’ are okay but ‘sexy’ isn’t. We’ve had to look at different keywords. It’s been quite entertaining.”

Such challenges are a consequence of a new era of information access, one that the Law Society has embraced and is happy to pass on to its students. He only wishes that other educational establishments were as circumspect in their use of IT. Blennerhassett expresses concern that students are leaving second and third level with poor IT skills. “I expected more,” he says candidly, “but we have responded by investing a lot in the induction training.”

Once in the centre students are also given access to specialist legal software, early experiences that will serve them well in their subsequent careers. “Citrix does good educational discounts and even Microsoft products are competitively priced. So we are able to provide students with a broad range of packages,” he says.

The learning management system that sits on top of the Citrix infrastructure is Moodle, the acclaimed open source e-learning platform deployed and hosted by Enovation Solutions. It provides a flexible approach to learning that allows teaching to continue beyond the confines of the classroom. Using the system, students can go online to receive lecture notes, submit their assignments, take part in class discussions and access a whole range of other learning services.

“We had an information repository that was uploaded to the web but it wasn’t enough,” says Blennerhassett. “We can now post up everything for particular courses on our intranet.”

The online system is only as good as what’s uploaded. Blennerhassett is delighted to report that course co-ordinators and tutors have embraced it, posting up huge amounts of material. A final piece in the jigsaw is the use of O2’s web text service to send students SMS alerts to inform them when assignments have been uploaded.

It has taken five years for Blennerhassett to move from greenfield to a pioneering learning environment that would be the envy of any educational establishment. Inevitably, his attention has started to shift to other aspects of the Law Society. With four IT staff in the education centre and Datapac on hand for all maintenance, hardware and software support, he’s created the space to move on. “I’ve moved away from the hands-on part. I tell my team I don’t want to look at the match anymore, I just want to see the result. There are all the other areas to consider. Education is just one project.”

In the rest of the organisation, which includes administration, regulatory, finance and policy departments, the plan is to move away from legacy systems, a process that is already under way. This year 150 desktops have migrated to Windows 2000 from 95 and 98. And yes, Citrix infrastructure is being considered for other parts of the organisation.

Looking back on the education project the results are best measured by the enormous growth the centre has enjoyed. “The IT has helped drive the growth. Thankfully we had the foresight to go with Citrix in 1999 and it’s paid off,” concludes Blennerhassett.

By Ian Campbell