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The US legal profession's technology is being driven by management objectives that at their most fundamental level involve increasing shareholder value. For law departments - a support organisation in the corporation - this means constant pressure to get more out of less.
In a LegalTech Los Angeles presentation (May 1999), Dan Scheinman, vice president of legal and government affairs at Cisco Systems, brought the point home, saying: "If you don't commoditise your own services (as a law firm or law department) someone will do it for you. I'll do it for you." He described how one of his outside law firms created an IP tracking system for his department that eliminated hundreds of hours of associate time on an ongoing basis. That firm is one of his company's "strategic partners", a term increasingly and appropriately applied to law firm/law department relationships.
This kind of thinking has led several major US law firms to form technology consulting practices to serve their major clients and, in some cases, non-clients. Technology has become so intertwined with the practice of law that it can be more of a differentiating factor than the underlying legal expertise that lawyers provide. This is heresy to many lawyers. Yet some major law firms in the US and elsewhere have embraced the idea and are aggressively developing strategies, products and new service delivery mechanisms.
Scheinman also said: "The new world law department has to rely on technology, not people." Bear in mind that Scheinman is facing the revolving door of the Silicon Valley job market. Yet fundamentally, he is just restating all the arguments for capturing, storing and reusing institutional knowledge that the legal profession has wrestled with for decades.
Today, the ability to rely on technology is much greater, as traditional barriers drop by the wayside. Web-based solutions help get past the access and training issues. High-speed connections make repositories a reasonable alternative for shared access. Emerging standards, such as Ledes (Legal Electronic Data Exchange Standard), enable streamlining workflow across organisations. Intranets and extranets provide basic collaborative tools which are simple to develop, implement and maintain.
We all recognise that technology is enabling major changes in the way business is conducted. Sometimes it is harder to see close to home. But he assured that leaders in the legal profession around the world are developing a new vision of law practice and the management of that practice. My advice to lawyers in practices of all sizes is to pay attention to the opportunities that technology provides to maximise value.
Jonathan Bellis is global practice leader of the Law Firm & Law Department Consulting Group at PricewaterhouseCoopers.