Revolution by the back door

There cannot be many people who have not heard about Windows 95 and how it is going to revolutionise the world. Yet another revolution has taken place this year and has gone unnoticed.

An unprecedented number of lawyers have installed electronic document-based litigation systems. Firms such as Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, Martineau Johnson, Norton Rose and Nabarro Nathanson are among those which have recently implemented such systems. Why this sudden upsurge in IT use with its up-front costs? Has the herd instinct taken over? It appears not.

Technology has grown up enough to give lawyers exactly what they want, there are genuine savings to be made in the use of the technology and client pressure cannot be ignored.

Now a lawyer can install a system that does not just convert paper into an image. The paper can be read by an optical character recognition package, creating a massive searchable text base from within the documents themselves.

Documents can be annotated and commented upon, they can have coloured lining and sticky notes attached without defacing the original page. Documents can be shared with colleagues, counsel or experts without a single copy being made. All comments made are searchable, under strict password control. Intermediate bundles can be created for witness interviews, instructing counsel, or just breaking documents down into a manageable form. Discovery lists and final trial bundles can be produced at the touch of a button. Documents can be published to CD-ROM, and carried into court or examined while sipping a gin and tonic on the Croisette. In the courtroom all parties can have direct access to the bundles and images can be directly interfaced to the LiveNote transcription service, currently in use in the OJ Simpson case.

The initial costs of a system soon fade, when considering the costs of using paper. Four or five photocopies of half a million pages comes to a tidy sum and clients are no longer prepared to pay lawyers to run a photocopying bureau.

Gouldens partner Stephen Pearson said recently that he estimated the savings to his client as being about £40,000 on copying alone in a case with only 60,000 pages. It is not possible to put a value on the savings in lawyers' time.

Having instant access to all the paper in a convenient form means lawyers are not spending fruitless hours ploughing through piles of paper. Or waiting for somebody else to plough through them and hoping they have not missed anything important.

Real time can be spent in providing the client with a better 'hands on' service.

Many lawyers comment that these savings are not savings to them and effectively reduce the bills that they render to clients.

Alan Whitfield, a senior lawyer with BT, touched on this point at a recent conference on IT in legal practice.

He said: “The legal profession seems to me to be in a state of some hesitancy over the use of information technology…information technology enables us to use it for the things which we have not previously done in such a time and labour intensive manner.”

He concluded: “Some [of my ideas] may be viewed as unnecessarily radical and possibly even unwelcome to my colleagues on the supply side of the equation.” The message is clear, clients expect their suppliers to use whatever means they can to provide a more cost-effective service.

Lawyers who have already embraced this technology, such as those mentioned earlier, have seen the sense of the argument. Many others are less easily convinced. They should be wary. This spring saw the commencement of the terminal 5 inquiry, and all the document preparation was carried out by BAA itself, using R/KYV, the same system as that used by lawyers.

This system has also been ordered by Dalgety, Arjo Wiggins and Guardian Royal Exchange.

So, perhaps when lawyers read the Windows Start-Up hype, they will think about powering up and taking control of their documents. Law firms, no matter how large, would do well not to underestimate these innovations.

Bill Cannings is managing director of Ymijs.