Adapting to an IT future

Douglas Fry takes a look at how the UK's leading firms are developing computing solutions to give them a competitive edge. Douglas Fry is a freelance journalist.

The UK's top 10 law firms have researched their it requirements, invested heavily in systems and implemented diverse solutions. These solutions reveal a number of IT trends as well as some unique methods.

Microsoft, inevitably, is making inroads, particularly with its Word word processing package. Until recently Corel WordPerfect had 75 per cent of the UK law firm market but Word has gained a lot of ground. Graham Low, IT director at Nabarro Nathanson, comments: "When WordPerfect was sold to firstly Novel then on to the Corel Corporation there were concerns over the long-term strategy and support on offer from Corel." At Allen & Overy, IT director John Rogers says the time is right to move his firm over to Word.

In response, Corel is launching a suite specifically aimed at the legal sector. It will include macros, templates, forms and spell checkers designed for lawyers and will be available later in the year. In addition, WordPerfect 8 will be released in the UK in June. These new offerings could be enough to stem the migration to Word and ensure firms stay in the WordPerfect environment.

Many of the top 10 law firms have or are about to install PCs with Pentium processors. Freshfields has gone one step further and is equipping its fee earners with laptop PCs. "each fee earner will have a laptop by September which will dock with its base unit on the desk," explains the firm's IT director David Hamilton. The office PC will have its own screen and keyboard but the user will not have to be update it each day with the work done at home because the laptop simply plugs in to the desktop PC and communicates directly without the use of floppy disks or cables.

Linklaters & Paines has a very different IT system in the form of Sun Sparcstations. According to IT director Simon Thompson these "bring the benefits of low-cost ownership and improved reliability". Many of the firm's applications have been developed in house, such as time capture, billing and accounting. Linklaters is the only firm to use this solution, which has now been successfully in place for two years.

Alternatives to PCs being considered by several firms include the recently launched Network Computer. Terminals at each desk are linked to a powerful central server which can download applications to each terminal on demand.

One advantage of these machines is their speed: the terminals have their own built-in Pentium processor, but all files and documents are kept on the central server. NCs are cheaper to buy and run than PCs and IT managers could upgrade all a firm's software at once from the central server. The disadvantages are few but significant at present. For example, they need an extensive amount of high bandwidth cabling which would cause a lot of disruption to install. Also the initial capital cost of replacing all a firm's PCs would be high.

Web access varies considerably from firm to firm but is generally on the increase – from the comprehensive access to all partners offered at Nabarro Nathanson, to Rogers at Allen & Overy admitting that "there is little demand for Internet access at present…although everyone has e-mail". Firms like Lovell White Durrant are waiting until the facility is specifically requested and will then provide it on an individual basis.

Over the next few years it is likely that accessing a law firm's web site will be considered a viable alternative to visiting the office and speaking to a lawyer in person. The first real step in this direction is online legal advice which is just starting to take off in the US and one or two firms in the UK are also trying it. Guildford-based Merriman White, for example, offers free online preliminary advice specialising in civil and commercial law.

The firm's IT director, Chantal Brace, is positive about the future of this facility. "I receive on average two e-mails per day from clients all over the UK, and the number is increasing. Not all of the enquiries lead on to instructions, naturally, but this facility has been a success for us."

E-mail is now considered to be an essential communication tool. Most fee earners in the top 10 UK firms can be contacted privately by e-mail.

The new e-mail programs offer a good level of security, coupled with the ability to send files containing text, images, video and sound.

IT is only a tool to help lawyers practise law and an examination of the IT profile of the country's top firms shows that any well-thought-out system can serve this purpose. But practices will have to continue to monitor the latest developments to maintain their competitive advantage.