Love it or loathe it, you can't ignore IT

As we all know, the process of becoming a fully qualified lawyer is a long and arduous one. Regardless of future specialisms, a thorough grounding in all the main disciplines is considered essential. A newly-qualified solicitor, therefore, has every right to believe he or she has learned enough to go about the business of law.

In the modern world, however, the majority are deficient in one increasingly important area; technology. We would argue that technology is now such an integral part of legal business, that it should become a central part of law degrees, Law Society examinations, or lawyers' continuing education. Somewhere in the educational process, lawyers will have to learn about the technology which is beginning to define their role.

The obsession with information technology for lawyers has been an abiding one for the best part of a decade. Initially, computers were seen as a glamorous innovation, but hardly a prerequisite for commercial success. But in 1996, an IT strategy is a key component in any modern practice business plan. There are a few Luddites who persevere without technology, but one has to question their future competitiveness.

The nature of the technology, and the impact on the lawyers themselves, has also changed. Back-office accounting systems have been around for years, but the real advances are being made in front office IT. And that means lawyers having to use the computers themselves.

Unfortunately, to the uninitiated, legal technology is a complicated affair. Without IT instruction early in his or her training, a young solicitor will have to face a second steep learning curve just at the time he or she should be focusing entirely on the law.

To those who remain sceptical, it is worth taking a look at how IT will figure in the law office a few years hence. We can safely assume, for example, that lawyers will rely on IT for much of their day-to-day work. This particularly applies to those who wish to work from home part of the time, or who prefer to stay productive while on the move.

Technology will be used not just to manage case load, but to supervise staff. Whilst technology has allowed lawyers to empower their staff to a greater degree, this still requires driving from the top. The "de-skilling process" is very much a part of modern legal practice (and a direct result of technology in action), but it requires the senior fee earner to have sufficient understanding of the system to be able to implement and oversee it.

Modern application systems also generate a wealth of management information. Such information is valuable for only a short time; the ability to extract, analyse and capitalise on such information (using an Executive Information System or EIS) requires a thorough working knowledge of the technology.

One also has to consider the client base. Commercial and domestic clients are becoming more reliant on the use of technology for communication, and will expect their legal advisors to be similarly up to date.

One can draw a parallel between the impact of technology on law and the similar growth of marketing awareness the profession has undergone. Not so long ago, legal marketing was largely an unstructured, ad hoc affair for most. A few firms saw the opportunity, particularly when Law Society restrictions were relaxed, and started marketing themselves in a much more organised manner. Despite the success of their efforts, reactionaries continued to resist the new way of doing things. As more and more firms started to rethink how they brought in new business, a point of critical mass was reached, to the extent that those who chose to opt out of the game started to fall behind. Nowadays nobody questions the need for lawyers to market their services, and most lawyers accept the need for the marketing function they must serve.

Lawyers must embrace information technology with the same willingness, and in the main they are doing so. But if technology is to be such a central part of the job then we must equip them for the role at the earliest opportunity. By the time young lawyers reach their first practice, a working knowledge of technology and its relevant application should be held.

University is the best place to learn these skills. It is a non-commercial learning environment, which understands how IT can be applied to the law, and the specific efficiency gains which can and should be achieved using it.

Neil Ewin of Solicitec and Michael Platt of SOS are the founders of the Integration Partners Group, a collection of software suppliers who work together to create compatible applications.