C-suite career advice: Tim Smith, Insight Legal

C-suite career advice: Tim Smith, Insight Legal

Name: Tim Smith

Company: Insight Legal

Job Title: Founder and Technical Director

Location: Farnborough, UK

Tim Smith has over 25 years' experience in the Legal IT sector. Until 2009, he was responsible for the design and development of all the Windows-based AlphaLAW Solicitors' system. His software was used by in excess of 1,000 firms, winning numerous awards and accolades from both industry bodies and users alike.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? ‘Take your job seriously but don't take yourself too seriously'. Sadly, I can't remember where I came across that piece of advice but I do think it is very valid. We will spend an awful lot of time at work and it is very easy to get consumed by the seriousness of it - especially working with Solicitors. It is worth remembering that although it is advisable to take your role and responsibilities seriously, that doesn't mean you can't have a bit of fun and laugh at yourself (and others) along the way.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? ‘Windows will never take off for business applications.' In fact, you could almost substitute this for any number of such-and-such will never take off. It is often very difficult to predict how or when a new technology will be adopted, if at all. Even so, it is probably unwise to believe others when they say with conviction that something will or will not ever become mainstream. Even if a new type of product isn't an instant success, this does not necessarily mean it never will be.

Google Glass was going to be the next big thing but then kind of disappeared in a puff of privacy and usability concerns. Even given the failure of Glass, I'm confident this technology will be back. In fact, many of the features and functions of Google Glass are coming back in some quite specialist and niche products. For instance, the Jarvish motorcycle helmet. This incorporates many of the functions of Google Glass in an entirely new product. In fact, it looks so interesting I've backed it myself on Kickstarter.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in (legal) IT? If you have worked in other sectors, the legal profession can seem strange and perhaps even a little behind the times when it comes to technology. However, just because not every firm is keen to adopt the latest in technology, this doesn't mean they are at all backwards. There are so many different types of law firm with many different technological needs, that some technologies have little relevance whilst others have become indispensable. Try to keep an open mind about how many different types of law firm there are out there and how they are often trying to answer different business needs with technology. It really is a very varied and interesting field to work in.

Did you always want to work in (legal) IT? No, I wanted to be a Fighter Pilot. Only I didn't have good enough eyesight, so I fell into IT and software development much more by accident than by design. On balance, this is probably a good thing; I'm not sure my enjoyment of adrenaline would have been overly compatible with flying a very fast plane.

What was your first job in (legal) IT? My first job in Legal IT was with the computer dealer MSS in 1993. I had come into contact with MSS whilst working for the Mini Computer manufacturer Alpha Microsystems. MSS resold the Alpha Micro Mini computers along with their AlphaLAW Legal Accounts software.

I started in Technical Support with MSS. After a few years, I found my way into development and then worked on the Windows based applications. MSS had many different types of client, so I became familiar with lots of different types of legal firms. From the top 20 right down to sole practitioners, MSS had a lot of different customers, which gave me a good insight into the number of things that firms do differently and those that are universally consistent.

What are some common misconceptions about working in (legal) IT? Some people look at law firms and assume they are stuffy and old-fashioned. Yet, just because they are in an old building with lots of men and women in suits does not mean they are not engaged in interesting and stimulating work. Okay, sometimes that is not the case but lots of firms do get involved in interesting cases, it is not all conveyancing and corporate contracts. I have been lucky enough to have met many fascinating people working with law firms, who often have hilarious stories to tell.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a senior-level position? There is rarely a shortcut to success. It is usually the case that before anyone becomes a senior member of staff, they will have been successful and accomplished in a series of more junior roles first. Although it is great to have ambition, it is important not to lose sight of the importance of the job you are doing today and ensure you are achieving all that you can in your current role.

A career will usually be a long journey, it is advantageous to do everything well along the way and be prepared to constantly learn and grow. Some of the most successful people in technology companies always set aside a large part of their week for learning and personal development. Along with constantly learning, staying close to your customers is really useful. Not just the nice ones who really like you but also the difficult ones, the ones where you dread taking the phone calls. The really tiresome customers are often able to give you really good insights into how to improve your products and services, or, they might just be exasperating and there is no upside. Either way, it is usually best to engage with them, after all, your customers are usually the only people who send you money.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My ambition has always just been to find a job that I enjoy and can do well. I am very happy with my current role and what I am able to achieve. You can never be sure what the future holds, so I find it best to try and meet the challenges as they present themselves.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? I wouldn't change anything. I am where I am and I am who I am because of everything that has happened to me; both the good and the bad.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? They are both useful and important skills. I have been lucky enough to be able to understand the technical side of things, develop software and keep a sense of commerciality. Even if you don't have both sets of skills there is no reason why anyone shouldn't be successful. Hard work and determination is usually all that is required and a good dose of luck certainly helps.


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