Communicating for survival. Rebecca Towers finds that lawyers are adapting rapidly to new technology

New technology is providing real cost benefits to the profession as better communications improve both productivity and the quality of work in firms.

E-mail has revolutionised the way lawyers keep in touch with one another – domestically and internationally. This has changed not only the structure of the legal office, but the culture too. Lawyers can now communicate informally and more efficiently with both clients and legal ancillaries.

IT director at Clifford Chance, Robert McCleod, says: “The Internet is used for all information and dissemination and e-mail traffic throughout the worldwide firms.”

The firm is 80 per cent of the way towards implementing a wide area network which will handle all data traffic between its offices. Meanwhile, its lawyers can access the firm's network at home as well as at work and, while out of the office, they can connect laptop PCs to the network via the telephone system.

IT director at Leeds firm Hammond Suddards, Graham Van Terheyden, says: “work is organised by business units rather than geographically so it is absolutely essential that our lawyers can communicate efficiently.”

E-mail is a push technology explains Van Terheyden. “If you send an e-mail you are pushing it at them”. Conversely, the intranet is a pull technology; where information is loaded onto a database and accessed only when a visitor chooses to.

“The external version of the Web is hugely important for growing information – harnessing it is a continual challenge,” says Van Terheyden.

The challenge for lawyers is to find the right balance between the push and pull technologies and avoid being swamped under a mass of information.

A joint initiative to improve communications in the profession was set up two years ago by a group of firms in the North East. The Northern Business Forum was established “to stem the flow of legal fee incomes in the region going to London”, explains chief executive Susan Johnson.

A survey commissioned by the forum identified the attitudes towards lawyers and the extent to which companies used local law providers. On the basis of the survey a number of communication projects were formulated.

Pronet, an intranet service set up in response to the survey, allows participating firms to transfer documents between each other which are encrypted to maintain confidentiality, creating a system which speeds up the transaction times on all legal matters.

Meanwhile, Nabarro Nathanson has a log book on its Web site where visitors can leave their details in order to receive material updates from the firm by e-mail.

With over 150 people – ranging from private individuals, academic institutions and local authorities – using the service, head of corporate communications Chris Hinze is pleased with the results.

Jonathan Fox, joint head of marketing at Leeds-based Dibb Lupton Alsop says his firm uses videoconferencing, e-mail and case management systems to communicate client data. These systems are fast becoming the norm and, according to Fox, can no longer be considered as value-added services. Dibbs has “a large Web site which is in a state of continual development. Everybody has access to online information systems”, says Fox.

One source is Dibbs' grouped network database which is used to communicate client issues, track market sectors and search for press cuttings. Online services, says Fox, are “becoming absolutely essential if lawyers want to research a client and their business needs fully”.

City firm Denton Hall also uses e-mail to communicate both within the firm and with clients via the Internet, while its Web site provides information on the firm's staff and partners as well as publications, career opportunities and press releases.

Director of services Paul Dickinson explains: “We use communications for collaborative working with clients and to enable remote fee earners access to our various systems”.

Over the next few years, Dentons expects to develop “virtual private networks”. Dickinson says: “Using the Internet as a wide area communications network will provide us with the ability to quickly establish communication links with new offices we might want open.”

The communications revolution has made lawyers more accessible. And, says Nabarros' Hinze, as clients gain increased access to material and case information, they will expect a wider, more transparent service.

“That is the challenge for firms in the 21st century,” he says.