Boom on the horizon

Fred Bartlit is founding partner of US firm Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott.

THE BOOMING US economy is being driven largely by dramatic improvements of more than 5 per cent in productivity. The reason for these gains is technology.

And the efficiency and productivity gains that computer technology has brought to the general economy are being dwarfed by the productivity gains that computers are now bringing to the law business.

US law firms have seized the lead in adapting computer technology to the law business and are seeing their investments rewarded with overwhelming competitive advantages. And the results are not just domestic but global.

Some European firms have made half-hearted efforts to "computerise". But implementing a successful across-the-board technology revolution requires understanding of and adherence to three principles:

Use "off-the-shelf" "simple" technology. No special proprietary applications marketed by outside consultants.

Every lawyer in the firm must use the same technology. No learning curves; no "pockets of Luddites".

Hands-on technological leadership must come directly from the firm's leaders. They must set the example in terms of understanding, skill and motivation.

Technology must drive every aspect of the firm, from marketing to the delivery of legal services to the metrics needed to benchmark against competition and thereby drive continuing improvement. These include:

Marketing: Development of an information-centric website which is consistent with the internet ethic.

Communications: Development of an "email culture" which creates a law firm "transparent" to clients and enlists clients as full members of the firm's team.

Search technology: "Free" computer searches of transcripts and files done in seconds instead of today's costly and error-prone hand searches.

Retrieval technology: Use of off-the-shelf internally programmed databases to provide free, instant retrieval of every fact, lawyers' note, and document in the case, along with no-cost refiling.

Document handling technology: Scanning oversized hard drives and computer mark-up tools to solve the "black hole" of litigation.

Presentation technology: Use of computer animation applications and document presentation software to control courtroom presentations and simplify complex issues.

Business data technology: Use of time/cost control software to create the metrics needed to win the competitive war.

These technologies do much of the costly "heavy lifting" now done by inexperienced lawyers and paralegals. Projects can often by completed in one-tenth of the time currently needed. Lawyers can be freed from routine paper-shuffling to concentrate on value-added application of their experience and brain power. Time lost by filing, refiling, losing, copying, recreating, etc, is eliminated. Time lost by clients being "out of the loop" and not up to date on projects, results, and decisions is eliminated.

The firm that can offer these competitive advantages will recruit the top young lawyers who want to practise law, not shuffle paper. It will retain partners and associates because they are doing mission-critical work, not shuffling paper. And it will attract the most forward-looking, important clients because the cost advantages, quality superiority and work ambience of such a law firm will stand out against today's landscape of mediocrity and inefficiency.