Law firm Wragge & Co is throwing out Novell’s Groupwise to become the first UK customer for Microsoft’s Exchange Server 2003 groupware product. The Birmingham-based firm, whose 1100 staff include around 500 lawyers, is moving to Microsoft to get better mobile access, to merge voicemail with email, and to save on servers.

“We don’t engage in technology for technology’s sake,” said Derek Southall, partner and head of strategic development at Wragge & Co. ““We have done some analysis on the time we would save, and if it saves everyone 10 minutes a day on voicemail, it could save over £5 million in a year.”

The company will also rationalise its servers, and expects to use half as many with Exchange 2003, as it did with Groupwise. Other benefits include saving money on PDA maintenance and minimising spam, said Southall.

The move may not be as great a blow for Novell as might appear. Novell used Wragge as a reference site a year ago for a range of products including the ZENworks management product, and iChain security. The company is not replacing these products and, indeed, appears enthusiastic to continue with them. However, in groupware, Southall believes the developments in the Microsoft product made the shift “a no-brainer”.

Wragge’s lawyers (“fee-earners” in the jargon) are increasingly mobile, said Southall, and need continuous access to email even when overseas. “There’s been a huge transformation in the legal field,” said Wragge. “Clients are requiring more data form us, and we are sharing a lot more data with them.”

When mobile, Southall said users will be using the Web access to Outlook, logging on through home machines or those in clients’ offices, more often than carrying a laptop running the Outlook client. “We are big users of Palms and Pocket PCs (from Dell and HP), and we have a number of laptop users,” he said. “But to be honest, we’ve tried to major on browser access to our systems. The better that is, the less we have to spend on laptops. We have actually had people voluntarily hand their laptops back, because they prefer to use the web than carry a laptop.”

When a company moves to a Microsoft product, it is often suggested that sales people have pulled the wool over the eyes of relatively inexperienced or non-IT trained managers, but this does not appear to be the case here. Southall was a corporate finance lawyer by training, but decisions are taken by a central IT group, consisting of Southall and three classically trained IT management staff.

There is no apparent Microsoft brainwashing here: Southall is clear on the benefits of the Novell products that Wragge is retaining. He developed his IT savvy on client projects which needed collaborative IT and “went native”, working on IT services within the company for the last five years. “My focus is how we can use this to get an edge with clients,” he said. Wragge has an IT staff of around 45 people.

A major plus for Wragge in Exchange 2003 is the “slick integration of data,” said Southall. “In a time when clients are demanding more and more data, the ability to seamlessly work behind the scenes is important.” With Groupwise, this integration was difficult, he said, though conceding that some integration issues are down to the Outlook client, rather than the Exchange server.

Wragge currently has Exchange 2003 working in a test lab, and will roll it out to 120 users during September, with the rest of the company following in early 2004. “It won’t transform our business overnight, but it will make a significant contribution,” said Southall.

The twentieth largest law firm in Britain, and the largest with headquarters outside London, Wragge & Co’s clients include BP, BT, GlaxoSmithKline, Marks & Spencer, HSBC, and Lloyds TSB.