IT: an automatic choice?

Love IT or loathe it, there are few lawyers left who have not used IT – even if only a word processor.

And, if Lord Woolf has his way, many more will be using computers in the near future. The final version of his report, Access to Justice, is scheduled for publication next month. If its recommendations on IT follow those in the interim report published last year, it is likely that Woolf will call for pilot studies into the use of video conferencing, for every judge to be equipped with a laptop computer and for the automation of case listings.

The interim report said the increasing computerisation of the judicial system would control costs, enhance the performance of judges, reduce duplication of administration effort, improve service and provide information to the public on how to use the civil justice system.

According to Christina Archbold, the Law Society's IT adviser, the profession is ready for computers.

"You can't make sweeping statements, but there is a feeling that things are changing," she says. "People realise that computers are here to stay. Until a few years ago there was an idea that they were optional, but now there is growing awareness that lawyers need IT to run a modern business."

Barrister David Travers, of 3 Fountain Court, Birmingham, and a member of the Bar Council's IT committee, says: "The profession is no more out of touch about IT than about anything else.

"But there will always be people who are resistant to change, who wield a quill pen as a badge of pride and regard IT as the fruits of Satan."

Nevertheless, he says many chambers are now using practice management tools and computer aided research, while nearly all barristers have equipped themselves with portable computers.

The factors that appear to be breaking down the decade-long resistance to computers are myriad, but Archbold highlights two key factors: the public's fascination with the Internet and multimedia PCs, and the IT push from clients.

Firms with computer-literate commercial clients are finding that they want to be able to contact them via email and, in turn, solicitors that invest in telecommunications expect to contact barristers in the same way.

Masons partner Richard Susskind was appointed as a consultant to the Woolf Inquiry. He agrees that lawyers are now more interested in what IT can do, and more receptive to new technology.

"Technology has been rising on management's agenda because of market pressures and it is now being addressed at the highest levels," he says.

"People haven't made the jump yet and there is a danger from accountants who can use their technology skills to mark themselves out as different. They provide another impetus for lawyers in an increasingly competitive market."

But Travers believes the threat posed by computer-literate accountancy firms may be exaggerated. "An accountant has immediate contact between the work they do and the facility provided by the software, but it is not like that for the Bar because software does not tell us the answer," he says.

This difference in what IT can do for the profession, points out Susskind, is one of the factors in its technophobia.

"The benefits of IT are often qualitative, not quantitative, for a law firm. A back office system may bring a reduction in costs but when it comes to automating lawyers the benefits are in terms of quality," he says, adding that until recently firms felt unable to justify the investment because much of the technology was not refined enough to warrant introduction.

But while the technology becomes more sophisticated and lawyers more receptive to it, the profession is divided between firms that can employ dedicated technologists and the small to medium-sized high street firms which cannot.

Archbold's work focuses on high street firms. "Our concern is to get fee earners to make more creative use of IT," she says. The Law Society has produced guidelines, fact sheets, arranged IT consultancy through Business Links and promoted discount software schemes, in an effort to increase the use of IT.

So while the profession appears more eager than ever to see what IT can do, so the next set of hurdles appear on the horizon. Among these are cost, issues surrounding the copyright of statutory documents made available on the Internet, and, as Woolf's report points out, standardisation of systems.

The last is most important. Imagine the irony if, after years spent dismissing IT as a fad, firms were to rush headlong into the arms of computer consultancies, only to find, a couple of years later, that the systems they have installed are incapable of communicating with any others.