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Clients see the main impact of e-technology on the provision of legal services as being concerned with working smarter: improving the quality, speed and general targeting of the use of legal time. For lawyers, it is about removing the routine drudgery and allowing them to concentrate on the legal aspects of work.
Management of client relationships and deal-doing are the two key aspects of current IT developments in the law. E-technology has a role not just in the general marketing of clients, but, perhaps more important for multinational law firms today, it is used increasingly in the management of client relationships - and by clients to manage their lawyers. We are moving rapidly from simple websites to tailored sites for individual clients which enable clients (or, more accurately, legal departments within clients) to monitor all the deals on which a firm is working for that client; all substantive advice given to that client around the world; the sums billed to the client; and details of time outstanding.
This will bring individual client demands for consistency of information, formatting, language, style and currency - each client having different demands, thereby increasing pressure on the IT side.
An important issue is whether all this access to information gives one - or both - sides too much information about the other. Do all sections of a large corporate want others - or even its legal section - to know exactly what areas of law they are researching?
Over and above the management of client relationships, it is in the field of transaction management and execution that success or failure will be determined in the new technological age. Lawyers are, after all, in the business of selling legal knowledge and services.
Maximum commoditisation of legal services requires a marketplace which has agreed standard forms with little negotiation. Here it is easy to distinguish the derivatives and capital markets fields from the more traditional banking and corporate fields where each agreement and transaction is separately tailored.
But it is not just in these straightforward structures that the marketplace is looking for change. Document drafting is the area that gives greatest scope for efficiency savings. With access to their own house-style tailored precedent banks in a law firm's library, clients can take on board much of the drafting themselves - or have law firms do it more quickly - so saving the grind of the initial drafts (and, often, wasted expense, as the deal changes).
With the greater sophistication of data and drafting banks (which all require initial high legal technical skills and judgement), how are junior lawyers to be given practical experience if everything is reduced to ticking the boxes in a series of multiple-choice questions?
What about development and implementation costs? These are significant - and largely being duplicated in law firms around the world. Given this, will individual transaction costs really reduce?
What does this mean for the structure of law firms? Will law firms hive off IT/technical development departments into joint ventures - either to raise the additional developmental capital required and/or to produce independent profit centres from which technical IT people can be remunerated with their own profit share?
All that said, lawyers will not become mere technicians for some great software-house. The key attribute clients seek in lawyers is judgement. As long as lawyers do not teach judgement and discretion to computers, lawyers will always be wanted.
Chris Roberts is managing partner, North Asia at Allen & Overy, Hong Kong
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