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Even before the events in the US, the economy was slowing. In the UK, although well-focused niche firms continue to do well, law firms will come under increasing pressure to manage costs tightly and work harder for new business. In doing this, many may be tempted to increase their use of the internet because it offers an opportunity to market to a wider audience in a cost-effective way. The problem is that nobody really knows how to do it.
There are many outfits trying to make a profit out of marketing and selling legal services via the internet, but they have yet to show that this is anything more than a sideshow. Attempts to 'commoditise' areas of the market with the provision of online bespoke documents have shown promise, but the demise of Epoch Software, the holding company of Desktop Lawyer, has been something of a setback.
How the sector will develop in the long term, and whether it will ultimately succeed, might best be judged by looking at another area in which the internet is beginning to impact on law firms, that of recruitment.
|"Horror stories abound of CVs being sent to inappropriate people, even to the applicant's own boss"|
It seems that this is one of the few segments of the internet where these promises may be kept. Worldwide, the online recruitment market was worth £1bn last year, putting job hunting second only to pornography as an internet activity. And success has not been confined to the US. Jobserve reported profits of £7m last year - not spectacular in itself, but against a turnover estimated at £10m it is easy to see why this performance has attracted attention.
However, the growth in the market has spawned some 48,000 sites worldwide, many of which are very poor quality. Common complaints have been the advertising of non-existent jobs; exaggerated salaries; the use of poorly-trained staff; and the most serious allegations are reserved for the sloppy handling of personal information - horror stories abound of CVs being sent to inappropriate people, even to the applicant's own boss.
As with any new market, one can expect many of the smaller players to fall by the wayside as the rest consolidate. The bigger players - such as Monster, StepStone and MyOyster - are likely to prosper, and we can expect interesting developments as evidence comes to light of how web users are really using these sites. The 'received wisdom' of this market is being re-evaluated.
It is an interesting fact that most online job searches are conducted on Monday afternoons, leading to the uncomfortable conclusion that most of these searches have been prompted by that 'get-me-out-of-here' feeling. Such individuals are not what the recruiters are looking for.
It turns out that the ideal candidates are not even looking for a job. Recruiters are chasing after people already doing a good job elsewhere, someone who may not even be after another post. Where newspaper adverts and/or a discreet telephone call may work for traditional recruiters, the online variety are going to have to be much more creative. In the search for these elusive 'ideal candidates', they are turning to technology for the solution.
In line with other sectors of the telecoms industry, online recruitment specialists are looking at short message service (SMS) or text messages as a marketing tool to contact people without the need for internet access. Nor is technology being used simply to attract candidates. Initial selection using search engines or online testing is rapidly becoming a reality, and first interviews via a webcam are being tested. Regular emails to keep potential candidates updated on the selection process help to keep the best individuals keen. These techniques reduce the cost of the initial screening and help to make the online recruiters more competitive.
The low cost of delivering information has also spawned some creative approaches to recruitment. Asda's website has 'The Naked Truth' section, which describes the worst as well as the best things about working for the retailer. The aim is to weed out those who will not hack it in the long run. And in the US, Monster is attempting to turn the online recruitment concept on its head with its Monster Talent Market, where individuals put their labour up for auction.
The internet will not replace traditional recruitment methods as first hailed, but as this new medium of the sector begins to mature it is clear that recruitment will never be the same again.
When considering how the internet will affect other areas of the legal services sector, wiser law firms will learn from this. While sceptical about the impact of the internet on their core business, they will nevertheless hedge their bets by developing an internet presence.
Gill Switalski is the chief exectutive officer at Legalpulse