So much nonsense has been written about the Internet over the past few months and so little practical information exists on how law firms can benefit from it that it is not always obvious where Information Superhighway hype ends and the serious commercial applications of the Internet begin.
So what do the Internet and the Web offer today's lawyer?
At one level, the Internet is just another resource in the law office technology re-engineering process. Just as the fax machine replaced the telex, email is beginning to replace the fax, both as a method of communication and as a means of delivering the work product.
Internet email capability is fairly inexpensive to install and operate and enables “universal translation” between otherwise incompatible systems.
There are recognised security problems but many of these can be overcome by the use of encryption.
Reflecting its origins in the research and academic sector, the Internet also gives the lawyer access to an increasingly relevant global network of on-line information sources.
But the challenge for the lawyer is to exploit Internet opportunities in the broader context of pressures on legal practice.
Lawyers' incomes are being squeezed by clients wanting a higher quality product but at a lower price. To survive, firms will have to contain costs, slim down their infrastructure and radically re-engineer the traditional service production and delivery process.
The younger executives in clients' organisations who are increasingly handing out work are likely to have a better rapport with computer literate lawyers who use the same technologies as they do rather than octogenarian senior partners with fountain pens and postage stamps who will not turn on their computers.
Lawyers who lack computer literacy or connectivity will find themselves cut off from the resources, ideas and contacts which are becoming available on the Internet.
Another reason why lawyers should take the Internet seriously is because it is a valuable source of new work.
The experience of Jeffrey Green Russell's Internet Services Group indicates there is no shortage of interesting work, often breaking new legal ground. Many new clients are appearing and now is the time to meet the Bill Gates of the future. Indeed, the meteoric growth of companies like Netscape in the US clearly indicates that the Internet is a market where today's small business is tomorrow's mega corporation.
In September 1994 Jeffrey Green Russell became the first UK law firm to establish a Web site. We have gained a number of new clients through going on-line, including Demon Internet, a major Internet provider, and Net Expressions, which designs Web sites.
The Jeffrey Green Russell Web site has four main purposes: it is our shop window on the world; a way of meeting interesting people; a fast and inexpensive communications device for our existing clients and contacts; and a statement of our broader technological capabilities.
But it is not a virtual fishing line in cyberspace stream, expected, by itself, to “net” new clients.
If you are thinking of establishing your own Web site, “surf” the Web yourself to see what others have done, particularly in the US. Be different – there are too many boring “me too” sites out there.
Your legal practice will succeed or fail on the Internet on its ability to provide constantly changing, value-added content, not slick graphics.
Our Web site is rather long in the tooth so we are working on a new one which includes email discussion forums, an interactive slide show on spinal injuries and newsflash email.
We are also developing software to allow individual law-yers to update Web pages quickly from their desks, cutting consultants and laborious hypertext markup language conversion out of the loop.
Although the Jeffrey Green Russell Internet experience has been positive there have been some disappointments.
It is very important to think through what you are trying to achieve, and to assess, ignoring the hype, exactly how the Internet will help you.