4 December 2000
It is difficult to believe that it is only around seven years ago that firms began to invest in PCs and they first started to appear on fee-earners'' desks.
Back then, emails, if they were used at all, were only for internal communication. In the intervening years, new technology has changed the working lives of lawyers dramatically. Now, like it or not, lawyers are judged not only on their legal skills but also their familiarity with IT. There is nothing more frustrating to a client than when a lawyer cannot respond to his technological requirements.
Every law firm has to invest in new technology to be able to offer an adequate service. This investment also requires a commitment to improve IT skills and instil the idea that time spent improving such skills is beneficial. To do otherwise is merely short-termism.
New technology also creates pressure among certain firms to be ahead of the game and invest in the latest "state of the art" products. Not only does this impact on overheads but it is also transforming the traditional office model, and instead of word-processing typists there are now voice recognition machines and electronic dictation devices. Secretaries today are increasingly performing the role of the traditional PA, with greater emphasis on managing files and organising fee-earners' diaries.
With the ever-increasing demand to reduce overheads there is speculation that some firms are considering using typing pools in countries where the cost of labour is comparatively cheap. With new technology, dictating to a secretary sitting in an office in Bombay may be more cost effective than sending a tape to the next room. Typing would be done overnight and sent back to London electronically and be sitting on a fee-earner's desk in the morning.
Fee earning is increasingly moving away from the office. The recent chaos of the rail system has served to highlight the value of technology in enabling flexible working. Fee-earners can take a laptop home, divert the phone and work just as if they are still in the office. Of course this has its downsides. The office now does not have a door that you can close at the end of the day. Clients now expect to have your mobile number and a home fax number. The reality is that today you are never "away from your desk".
There is also an increasing expectation that because an email can be returned with the click of a button, lawyers can work the same way. Rather than getting a response by return of post, clients expect immediate advice.
The ability to have immediate access to a law firm's database and files has encouraged law firms to offer "transparency" to their clients. Clients are able to access work files and have up-to-date accounts of work in progress.
But such transparency has certain inherent dangers, including the preservation of confidentiality. No electronic communication system is fail-safe and the electronic data always attracts the hacker.
The advent of the electronic age has encouraged new working practices such as the introduction of paper-free transactions. But the advantage of dispensing with a messy travelling draft agreement may be offset by the risks that the document has been interfered or tampered with.
The Law Society needs to act on the issue of the security of online documentation. An international standard encryption system needs to be implemented to provide a secured legal environment to conduct business. However, it is pointless for a law firm to invest in expensive encryption software if the firm it is sending documentation to does not share the same commitment.
Jonathan Blair is a partner and head of digital convergence at Theodore Goddard.