It is difficult to imagine that anyone has escaped the hype surrounding the World Wide Web. Many organisations have invested time and money in setting up web sites and, although the take-up has been slow among law firms, a number of sites have got off the ground. Masons' is one of them.
The first tranche of law firm sites followed the "traditional" web site model; in essence, duplicating the firm's marketing material. It seemed to us that this type of site was of little practical value.
As we see it, the main reasons for setting up a web site break down as follows:
source of profit;
"risk management" (everyone else is doing it… or clients expect it).
At this firm, we set to work on our second-generation site – that is, one which contains substantive legal information as well as information about the firm. We also made it clear up front that this is the first stage of a broader vision for the future, and set up links to other sites of relevant legal interest.
We believe that this adds much greater value to our site – indeed we hope to become the de facto "jumping-off point" for legal information in information technology, and, soon, in construction/engineering and our other practice areas.
Four assumptions are of particular importance:
conventional legal service will increasingly be provided via the web, and law firms will compete for business through this new medium;
new ways of delivering legal services will evolve on the web;
by 2005, use of the web will be commonplace and the entire legal marketplace will be accessible in this way;
law firms' web sites will determine the nature of know-how systems, which will become available to clients and others in central "knowledge pools" beyond the originating firms.
improvements in IT hardware and telecommunications will mean that huge quantities of digital information can be transmitted around the world at suitable speeds;
electronic traffic increases will cause transmission costs to fall rapidly; and
secure payment and transfer of funds across the web will facilitate charging mechanisms for legal information services.
Characteristics of legal information services
Visitors will be able to visit legal resources in three modes:
The legal library mode – in this mode, visitors will browse around publications held in their conventional form but represented in hypertextual form. The materials will be held according to the type of publication, rather than organised according to subject matter.
The legal discipline mode – materials will be organised according to subject matter.
The "real life" mode – in this mode, visitors will be exposed to information which relates to problems which arise in daily life.
Four principal facilities will come to dominate legal web sites:
search and retrieval systems (initially, basic text searching but gradually more advanced identification of materials based on concepts and meaning as well);
legal guidance systems will present practical, step-by-step assistance on legal matters, helping visitors not by presenting extensive narrative but by delivering "desert island nuggets" to help them in all sorts of practical situations;
diagnostic applications – using knowledge-based systems and expert system technologies, visitors will engage in dialogues on legal web sites.
proactive services, whereby relevant legal information and guidance will automatically be sent out from legal web sites to interested parties. Techniques such as that of "intelligent agents" will be used here.
In years to come this firm (and others) will develop its web site along these lines as the technology, communications facilities and changes in the legal marketplace materialise.