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Exploiting IT to add value to services is the only way for firms to survive into the next millennium, believes Richard Cohen. Richard Cohen is the senior partner of Landau & Cohen and legal director of Epoch Software.
Despite the fact that over the past 10 years firms have made increasing use of IT, lawyers essentially practise law in the same way as they have done for generations.
Until now, IT has made no real inroads into automating the delivery of legal services. For example, although many think the Internet will become central to the delivery of legal services, at present it is restricted to being used as an advertising and communication medium.
But technology has recently become available which allows legal services to be delivered directly to the client. This has enormous implications for the legal profession, which needs to embrace IT and to take advantage of electronic commerce to remain competitive.
Just as the Internet will eradicate third parties that add no value to a transaction, those legal practices which expect clients to pay for the repetitive element of their work will be wiped out. Streetwise clients will be prepared to pay only for "added value", rather than the constant reinvention of the wheel.
Lawyers must depart from the strictures of the time sheet and personal service ethos. Instead they need to concentrate on the delivery of products and find alternative methods of pricing services. If they do not take action now, others will capture their market.
A market that can be "productised", will be. The technology is available and the legal market is ready.
Competition will come from those better organised and capitalised than law firms, such as banks, financial institutions, accountants and computer companies using their dominant position in the market to brand legal services.
Lawyers can view productisation as an opportunity or as a threat. Firms that exploit the latest technology will reach new and latent markets, increase their productivity, add value to existing client services and be able to defend themselves against the impending deluge of competition.
Interactive legal document assembly software already exist, such as Desktop Lawyer, which is produced by Epoch Software and sold directly to consumers.
Desktop Lawyer provides more than 25 fully interactive legal documents. It is an expert system which guides the user through a question and answer sequence giving advice and examples along the way. At the conclusion of the process the desired document is drafted automatically.
This product represents legal services packaged in a box, but it does not provide consumers or clients with follow-up advice from a legal practice familiar with the documentation.
However, with appropriate specialised software any firms' Web site can now be used not only to advertise its services but to deliver them as well.
For example, using DirectLaw, one of the world's first completely automated legal services delivery systems, a firm's template documents can be downloaded by the client in a locked format and unlocked when paid for on-line by credit card or credit account. The client can also request further assistance, provided by telephone.
The downloaded document then automatically integrates itself into Rapidocs Assembler, a 32-bit expert assembly system which can be downloaded from the Internet by clients free of charge.
Similar to Desktop Lawyer, it is easy to install and use, and intuitive. It also enables the client automatically to e-mail the completed document back to the firm that originated it.
The template document (downloaded by the client), containing all of the logic and text to drive the assembly system is produced using Rapidocs Originator. This enables a firm to take its standard precedents and, with a simple point-and-click system, build up the template using variables to create the interactive questions and examples.
Thus an entire precedent bank can be turned into interactive templates for completion by the client, avoiding the constant repetition involved in producing documentation without sacrificing the quality of construction.
The complexity of the templates prepared using Rapidocs Originator is directly proportional to the ingenuity of the draftsman in devising the interactive questions and examples. It is also useful in the office for producing complex documentation rapidly.
Current methods of legal practice are under threat, as is the notion that clients will continue to pay for the repetitive element of lawyers' work.
Firms that fail to grasp the nettle and continue to pay homage to the time sheet will be under such immense pressure from competition in the next millennium that their survival is at stake.