Chuck Linebaugh, Director of Information Systems, Chicago's O' Hagan, Smith & Amundsen

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Chuck Linebaugh is the "IT Guy" inside his firm and for the countless readers of his monthly "Ask the IT Guy" column on findlaw.com. He says law firms have a bad reputation for being behind the digital times, but that a "revolution" has shaken up the industry over the last five years.

Linebaugh says law firms can be an ideal setting for cutting edge technology if the senior partners are supportive. Law firms generally have good budgets for technology, he says, but too often the money is squandered on outside consultants with vague ideas of which technological direction the firm should take.

Linebaugh believes there is an old world culture within some law firms. For example, he says attorneys in some firms spend hours in dusty libraries searching for precedents when the same information could be found online in digital form - in a fraction of the time.

With 260 employees, including 120 attorneys and 12 paralegals in seven offices around Northern Illinois, O' Hagan, Smith & Amundsen has just four IT people. How do four people support so many others? Through education.

Linebaugh didn't want anyone to spend time answering simple questions about faulty keyboards day after day, so when he joined the firm almost six years ago he developed a core competency program that everyone in the firm must pass.

"Within three months, everyone is required to take the core competency exams and pass out of them," he said, adding that the firm withholds bonuses if the employee has not passed the exams. "You have to have top-down buy-in to get anything done. You have to have the people making the decisions and signing the paychecks making sure that the people are complying with the requirements."

If people fail the exams - which include multiple choice questions about installing new printers and other basic computer skills - they can keep taking it until they pass. Linebaugh and his team conduct frequent seminars where employees can sit down with an IT specialist and study computer guides and learn how to handle common computer problems.

He says the effort has paid off.

"It's a lot of time in training, but what we find is then we don't have the simple questions coming in. We don't have a help desk position so we can avoid that expenditure."

Attorneys and legal staff are generally well educated and quick thinking, he says. There's no reason why they can't figure out basic computer skills as well, which is why the firm invests so much time in training the staff in computer skills.

"We've invested in our employees, and technology isn't going away anytime soon," he says. "Why keep people at a certain level; at least we've brought them up."

Linebaugh, 32, says the core competency exams also help inter office relationships because, for example, a secretary will at least know that an attorney will understand how to look up certain computer files and vice versa.

"It raises the level," he says. "We don't get a call every time a secretary moves to hook up a new printer. She knows how to hook it up herself." While his firm does not have a standard Help Desk, Linebaugh himself has become a virtual Help Desk with his online column, which focuses on technology issues at law firms and occasionally other types of businesses.

Readers write to him as "The IT Guy" and he responds to their problems.

"The column forces me to look into things - it keeps me fresh through the questions and the problems that other people are experiencing," he says. "So it's mutually beneficial."

Linebaugh, who studied computer science at Indiana University and did some graduate work at the University of Minnesota, says he tries to create a collegial atmosphere in the firm when it comes to technology. He also worked at the University of Indiana and wanted to maintain the culture of collaboration when he moved to the firm.

"The university is great, because of the collaborative atmosphere, which is what I've tried to do with my staff here," he says. "There's more teamwork; everybody covers for everyone."

And most importantly, knowledge is not kept by department heads, it is shared. "It promotes a lot of idea creation, how problems are solved in a collaborative sense."

He says many of the firm's attorneys are always looking for new technology solutions, so he is never bored.

"It's interesting working with the attorneys - their needs always change," he says. "So it's a great growth area in technology. Law firms now are coming out of the dark and realizing that the law firms that are using technology to cut their client costs are moving ahead of the others."

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