Surfers' paradise

Will lawyers embrace the online future and become flexible hot-deskers and happy home-workers or will they resist and risk being left in the wake of their most wired rivals? Rebecca Towers investigates.

Okay. So you have work due today and you are just too busy to think about tomorrow. But what about your competitors? Do they share your inability to find the time to look ahead? Are they also mired in the present? Increasingly, the answer to these questions is no. In fact, top law firms such as Clifford Chance are employing people to do nothing but think about tomorrow – today.

The future may appear to most lawyers to be a far away and irrelevant place. But just 20 years ago in law firms, technology which is now seen as essential – laptops, modems, e-mail and the Internet – was the stuff of science fiction.

Today, luddite partners are being forced to grasp technologies which can change the face of legal services within months rather than lifetimes. And perhaps the most significant changes are taking place in office communications.

With law increasingly moving beyond old local and national boundaries and becoming a truly global profession, some bigger firms are putting all of their legal expertise online.

In this brave new world, where fast and accurate communications are vital, the world's largest law firm, Baker & McKenzie, is leading the way with Bakernet, an intranet service developed to transmit material internally to each of the firm's 2,300 worldwide lawyers.

Bakernet has a global reach covering 59 offices and 35 jurisdictions. Baker & McKenzie's London lawyers can use it to access legal precedents from anywhere in the world. Don Jerrard, IP partner at Bakers' London office, says the system retrieves material using “highly-sophisticated information systems tracking the activities of clients and local data through an arrangement with information suppliers”.

He says the range and sophistication of communication technology available today is “quite amazing” and finds it “almost impossible” to give an informed prediction of where it might lead the profession in the future.

GCI Communications accounts director Conor Pickering, whose firm provides PR services to some of Europe's top law firms, says: “Lawyers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to adopt an integrated communications strategy – one which permeates all communications.” Lawyers are already selling clients their use of communications technology as a value-added service and using it to raise practice profiles. Pickering says this will continue.

At the top-end of the market, a firm's legal competence is not in question, Pickering says. But he insists lawyers must be fully aware that clients now expect a high level of market knowledge about communications technology and its latest developments from their legal advisers.

But what about smaller and medium-sized firms? How do they keep up with the pace of change? Brian Marson, managing partner of Bromley-based firm Marsons, thinks speed will be the overriding requirement for future communications systems – irrespective of a firm's size. He says the emphasis for small and medium-sized firms will simply rest on whether they have enough money to invest in communications and training.

“Communications systems create far greater choice,” according to Marson, “allowing firms to take advantage of worldwide markets and clients.”

But for Marson, lawyers are notoriously bad at taking advantage of change as a business opportunity. He says many small firms currently lack the vision to invest in IT and their catch-up period will get longer and more expensive.

Some firms are also making an effort to use the embryonic communications technology outside the boundaries of their own organisations. Linklaters' Blue Flag database was the first legal advice service on the Internet. It covers the UK, Continental Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, offering comprehensive advice on local regulations.

Lawyers at Linklaters claim Blue Flag has proved an invaluable research tool since new European investment and banking directives removed trading licence requirements.

Linklaters marketing officer Emma Huntingdon is also convinced of Blue Flag's intrinsic marketing value, claiming Linklaters has picked up work it would not always get.

Jane McNeil, sales and service manager for BT Legal, is part of the telecommunications team which is responsible for looking after many of the UK's top 20 law firms. She believes the changes brought about by the communications revolution will be felt most strongly in the arena of flexible working. “It's a hot issue now but will be even more so in years to come.”

As firms introduce hot-desking facilities (staff using whichever desk is available rather than having their own) and a flexible working environment, the challenge will be whether lawyers will embrace new working patterns. For McNeil, the business benefits are obvious – people will work more effectively and firms will be able to cut costs.

BT is already testing computer technology which will support lawyers in the future. Information will be tailored to meet specific requirements and lawyers can look forward to a time when computers will learn their individual work patterns and information needs. These smart systems will also “push” material which they deem relevant to individual lawyers via the Internet. McNeil says this technology “will be commonplace in the next five years”.

City firm Davis & Co is at the vanguard of lawyers using technology to overhaul the way they conduct business. The firm has adopted the model of the organisation of the future by maintaining a small head office in the City for meeting clients and a network of satellite offices, connected by a central telephone system. Chief executive Christopher Davis says this network-style has enabled the introduction of new work concepts such as tele- and flexi-working.

For Davis, the benefits offered by flexible working are primarily personal. “It's about reducing the conflicts between business and personal life, which in turn reduces stress,” he says.

But other plus points are clearly financial. While firms can generally expect to pay up to 10 per cent of their income on premises, practices whose lawyers work flexibly from home and satellite offices can make significant savings. Further benefits include a streamlined management team and a 20 per cent more productive workforce, according to a recent BT report. Most importantly, savings can be shared with the client in an increasingly competitive market.

Davis concedes that the flexi approach does not suit all fee earners – flexi-workers at his firm must be senior fee earners with a minimum of three year's post-qualification experience. But he believes this new method has lead to the firm “developing interesting ways of communicating with clients” – including extranets.

Extranets use the same technology as intranets but connect to people outside the organisation. “We have developed an extranet to communicate with clients and other advisers on acquisitions,” says Davis. “It allows you to control, communicate and co-ordinate.”

Legal IT guru and author of The Future of Law, Richard Susskind, is more aware than most of how communications technology will change the legal sector. He predicts advances in communications to help lawyers “share bodies of know-how to which they can gain access, often by laptop, from anywhere in the world”.

“Technically these are all available today,” says Susskind, “but only now with intranet technology is the basic infrastructure in place to help lawyers share information.

“One of the major tasks for lawyers in the future will be identifying, collecting and controlling the quality of information held in the system. Ultimately this is a major cultural challenge – a challenge to encourage lawyers to work less on their own and in small teams and work more as professionals who are, on an ongoing basis, contributing to their firm's institutional memory.”

Lawyers will not be replaced by communication technology, assures Susskind. However, it will create a new legal market which will increase the public's interaction with lawyers.

“It does mean that lawyers will have to think of new entrepreneurial ways of repackaging their expertise,” says Susskind, “moving from years of personal computing to interpersonal computing – all of these technologies bring a multi-site practice under the one virtual roof.”