In-house lawyers look to the future

A survey of in-house lawyers provides a stern request for firms to keep up with developments in IT, writes Ben Kent

IN-HOUSE legal departments are embracing new technology quickly – and they want law firms to be more innovative in their use of IT.

That is the message from a survey of 300 legal decision makers in the UK's largest Plc and financial institutions, carried out by research consultancy CSS.

The survey shows that in-house lawyers make good use of IT and believe it will change the way legal services are delivered.

Ninety-one per cent of the survey's respondents use a PC at work and half have access to the Internet – up to 85 per cent in the largest companies.

Three quarters of the respondents say they expect to increase their use of the Internet, particularly for legal research, and some expect to use the Internet as a means of finding out about law firms and their services.

But many in-house departments want to see improvements in the way firms use technology. Criticism was reserved for those law firms which are reluctant to e-mail documents or to use IT to improve case management.

Nor is it likely that clients will be prepared to accept "window-dressing", with one IT-literate buyer criticising the quality of law firms' Web sites.

Eighty per cent of those questioned say they expect technology to significantly change the way legal services are provided in the future.

Over half (53 per cent) of those expecting technology to change talked about improved, faster communications, particularly through greater use of e-mail.

One third (35 per cent) of legal buyers expect that IT will improve the efficiency of document handling. Thirty-seven per cent of the respondents say they expect the Internet to improve information access.

Several legal buyers gave specific examples of how they believe technology could radically change the way that legal advice is provided.

"There will be a more distributed provision of legal services," was one prediction. "The large "law factories' will become more dispersed and there will be increased numbers of sole practitioners working in niche areas. Their services will be readily accessible… through use of new technology."

Another respondent predicted: "Precedents will be directly available… on the Net. There may also be expert systems where you enter your own situation and the system is clever enough to come back to you with the main issues."

The survey reveals a positive interest in online legal services, such as Linklaters' Blue Flag and Clifford Chance's Next Law products.

One respondent said: "As an in-house lawyer one thing you lack is access to a library so if that is something that outside law firms can sell you that makes quite a lot of sense. It won't reduce the amount of work you give them. It means you spot more issues."

This study shows that there has been a significant shift in attitudes towards IT. When CSS conducted its last survey of legal buyers two years ago, very few of the respondents mentioned technology as an important issue.

The speed of change is perhaps one of the reasons why firms are not keeping up with expectations. If the predicted increases in the use of the Internet by clients materialises, then Web sites will develop into a very powerful marketing medium.

Ben Kent is the legal research manager at market research consultancy CSS. For details of how to obtain more in-depth reports on marketing law firms and client service, ring 0181 332 0808 or e-mail bkent@css-research.co.uk.