Answer clients' digital needs

Four of the IT challenges law firms are likely to face in the near future are addressed by Derek Southall. Derek Southall is head of strategic development at Wragge & Co.

Technical advances are driving the legal profession from thinking about "staying competitive" towards a concern to "achieve competitive advantage". Advances in IT are taking place at such a fast pace that today's leaders can be left trailing far behind tomorrow. Yesterday's decisions were about being tomorrow's winners and law firms may only get one chance to get things right in the following four fields.

Internet

A recent survey has indicated that some worldwide law firms need to develop clear internet strategies. The internet is a tool to be used, but with one quarter of western Europeans now online, getting noticed will become more and more difficult.

It is easy to get carried away with website design. Flash animation might impress a client on their first visit, but will it bring them back? Will they instruct you? What is the benefit to them? Law firms need to use their imagination in all their web projects, but they also need to pay close attention to the basics, such as navigation, structure and speed.

The brand value of any site can be wiped out by a customer's bad experience and research indicates that online vendors preference will not be driven by brands.

Extranets and brochure sites aside, law firms' ventures onto the web have been limited to interactive document production, brokering, incubation (as has happened in the US) and the setting up of an internet service provider (ISP).

The Butler Group – a leading European IT analyst organisation – is correct in saying that systems no longer sit in an organisation with no outside connections – "the raison d'etre is to communicate with the outside world". A firm's internet strategy literally has to come from the heart of its systems.

What does the future hold? Clients may prefer exception-based reporting/push technology updates of relevance over their WAP mobile phones. ISDN and ADSL mean the electronic world will get quicker. Hardware capabilities and speed will increase – Pentium's 933 Mhz chip is scheduled and a 1 GHz plus Willamette chip is on its way. Low powered, high performance Transmeta Crusoe and ARM microprocessors will deliver the internet to clients' pockets.

Clients will want access to legal services via their computers 24 hours a day. Web services will have to be deliverable in formats compatible with Palm OS, Symbian EPOC,Windows CE and any other key PDA platforms.

Extranets

Law firms are developing "extended enterprises". Rationales vary and inevitably depend upon clients' needs, such as do they need precedents, financial information or are they constantly on the road?

Fashion dictates that firms create internet brands. Whatever the reason, be it limited liability, effective promotion, fear of the unknown, or internet fever, we should not let this disguise the fact that extranets are about service delivery.

We have seen a spectrum of approaches:

True online advice: This has to be admired but systems have to deliver a service that clients want for an acceptable price. Highly regulated areas are favoured because outside these areas it would be difficult to give the right advice for a particular client. Technology is available, but even law firms in the US are not rushing to set up such systems.

Online access to documents/financial information: This will be a given in the near future and systems such as CMS, Documentum and Solicitec, are developing the ability to deliver this function.

Document exchange/extranets: US-style document exchange sites, which offer a real benefit for international work, have now reached the UK.

Client specific extranets: Law firms are using these platforms to allow access to know-how, documents and case management systems. Java client case management systems provide a simple method of delivering net services. Extranets need to be about delivering value because without this you will merely be another firm publishing content on the web.

There are still technologies to be exploited. Wragge & Co is piloting Real Player and MP3 seminars – with 175,000 copies of Real Player being downloaded each day and MP3 players, including mobile phones and watches, hitting the market. This presents a real opportunity to deliver value.

Which firm will be the first to hold a truly virtual conference? Clients' Advent computers will automatically save web presentations to their hard drives. Replay Networks and TiVo can already provide this service for Digital TV. Internet telephony using technologies such as Global Crossing and PC-based conferencing with electronic whiteboards await to be exploited.

Financial functionality of web systems will increase. Market researcher Ovum predicts that electronic bill presentations will increase to 32.8bn by 2005 and electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) will not be far away. As a result, law firms' financial systems will need to be able to cope with demand.

Knowledge management

Today's buzz phrase or tomorrow's distinguishing feature? Fulcrum, DataWare and Autonomy are among the plethora of cutting edge products hitting the market. Many of these benefit from artificial intelligence the like of which has not been seen by the legal profession before.

Increased volume and complexity of law demands that legal know-how is unconditionally pooled, organised, electronically retrievable and, most importantly, retained for the future because clients will, and quite rightly should, demand this.

Overall organisational solutions are required which allow key information to be retrieved from all information sources in the firm, including CRM systems such as interaction and publishers' products. A sharing culture that values quality is a must.

Expectations of the legal profession will increase and will stifle those firms which do not invest in such technology. Deals will be concluded in days requiring real time access to intellectual capital.

UTBMS (task-based billing) will demand enhanced efficiency, and increased content on the web will result in specialised subscription-based know-how portals emerging. Law may become a commodity and firms will need to add value to the extracted know-how.

True client pro-activity and understanding will require CRM software which will work with intelligent search agents and proxy agents on the web, to anticipate requirements and deliver accordingly.

Document assembly

Hotdocs and Rapidocs are making their mark. Document assembly has been used in the US for many years, but acceptance in the UK has taken time. Firms which invest in products that are capable of producing intelligent interactive documentation for internal consumption and use on the web will hold an advantage.

Speed, cost (subject to development expenditure), time and flexibility are obvious benefits. But quality is not an issue because more advanced first drafts are available for review.

ISPs have utilised document assembly technology as have the British Property Federation and legal publishers. CapSoft's release of interactive forms on the web (Everyform) reinforces the penetration of these products.

Firms will have intelligent precedent banks, and competition from the web and teleportals will be rife. Law firms will also will supply suites of documents to clients and will be paid on a royalty basis. Net-based costing mechanisms will be compared by intelligent agents and e-procurement software – quality and cost will be key.