IT is only just beginning…

Ten years ago, barely a lawyer in the land had heard of the Internet, and the World Wide Web had not yet been invented.

Today, tens of thousands of lawyers across the world use the Internet for email, while a growing number of firms are setting out their stalls on the Web in the belief that it will be central to the delivery of legal services in years to come.

Many of us who speculated in the mid-1980s about what lay ahead foresaw a general movement of IT from the back office (accounting and secretarial word-processing systems) to the front office – with systems for direct use by lawyers.

No doubt we were a little cavalier in our projections about the rapidity with which know-how systems and litigation support applications would be embraced. we underestimated the likely impact of electronic communication, and we failed to anticipate IT-based case management systems. But the shift towards automating the lawyer as well as the office was one that was well in mind.

Looking ahead 10 years is more difficult now than it was in 1987, and it is said that an "Internet year" is worth seven normal years. Sceptics urge us to wait and see what new technologies emerge and to focus instead on making IT work for us in the short term.

But today's position is very different to the one that existed 10 or even 20 years ago. It is striking to note that even if there are no new advances in IT during the next decade as fundamental as the World Wide Web or the PC (which only arrived in 1981), the foreseeable impact of today's proven technologies on the administration of justice and for the practice of law promise to be profound.

This was not so 10 or even 20 years ago, when what was foreseeable did not indicate such penetrating change.

A general movement of machines from the back office to the desks of lawyers was in mind in 1987, but it did not hold the promise of radical change in the nature of legal service, as some new possibilities do.

For example, a national legal network – with perhaps 100,000 users – which is secure, confidential and reliable, could be developed to link everyone who works in the justice system. It would be a telecommunications infrastructure, not just for conveying conventional messages and documents, but also it would carry video conferencing, databases, bundles of document images, video recordings and voice messaging.

The network would link all users, whether in court, chambers, law offices, at home or travelling. All the business of courts and practitioners would be carried on the network and it would be accessible by physical connections and by wireless technology.

The second possibility is the development and use of legal guidance systems. Alongside all sorts of information, legal guidance, legal knowledge, legal expertise and legal experience may gradually become available on the global information infrastructure, offering access to structured, practical guidance on legal affairs.

These systems would vary in complexity: from electronic check-lists, through automated document assembly systems, to diagnostic expert systems. While they may not actually replace conventional services, such systems would provide simple, affordable access to guidance where this may have been unaffordable or impractical in the past.

A third possibility is multi-disciplinary systems and services. For non-lawyers, legal guidance and information in isolation will come to be seen as rather anomalous. The domestic user, while on-line, will expect legal information to be bundled with other relevant information (integrated, say, with consumer or leisure or health information), while business users will expect and require the guidance they receive to be oriented towards the problems or projects with which they are involved.

Legal guidance systems will either operate alongside or be fully integrated with multi-disciplinary systems, extending into areas such as accountancy, banking, and business and management consultancy. In fact, initiatives such as The Port, which aims to provide a new City Information Infrastructure for London, are ensuring this integration will be technically possible.

It has been said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Instead of shying away from the long view, therefore, now is the time to listen to strategists and policy-makers in the legal world.