Talk about communication

The increasingly global reach of major City firms and their ever-growing size benefits clients in many ways, but only if the firms’ internal communications systems are effective.

Most have invested heavily in the vast array of modern technology available – emails, internet, intranets, extranets and video-conferencing being some of the most popular. Their efforts to channel these technologies provide a salutary lesson to smaller firms now seeking to establish a coordinated information infrastructure of their own.

Many firms and companies continue to rely on an ad hoc system of knowledge management, and with most firms it continues to be department heads who retain responsibility for the distribution of information. But Clifford Chance claims that it is the only practice to take on a management consultant to oversee the entire operation.

Paul Greenwood, Clifford Chance’s director of knowledge and information management, says that it is now standard practice in the US for firms to employ someone to oversee internal communications.

The logic is obvious – if someone is there to improve the speed and efficiency with which lawyers can access and update information, the better they will be able to do their jobs. However, there is no consensus of agreement on which tools and technologies provide the most efficient service.

For some of the larger City practices, video-conferencing is a big thing. Most of them have it. Lawyers simply put a camera on top of their computers and talk into it, while seeing their counterparts on the screen.

The benefit of this system is that it can simultaneously link up lawyers in a number of different offices across the globe. For Clifford Chance this is the way forward. “We use video-conferencing a lot. Yesterday we had three video conferences, one in Australia. Sometimes we have several countries participating,” says Greenwood.

Neil Morgan, head of personnel at Slaughter and May, agrees that video-conferencing is a new key tool. Morgan adds that his firm uses this method so much that sometimes it even interviews candidates for jobs over the screen. “Clients often want it as well,” he says.

Dissension, though, comes from some of the US firms in London. Chadbourne & Parke‘s London managing partner Bill Greason says: “Clients are not demanding video-conferencing. They think it takes too long to set up and there are technological handicaps.”

Greason explains that his firm does use it internally on occasion, but that it is a flawed system. “When the camera focuses it usually just sits there and looks at one person. That can make people feel very nervous. And if people talk it is hard to focus on them. The technology is not quite there yet.”

Steven Beharrell, London senior partner of US firm Coudert Brothers, has another reservation about video-conferencing. He says he is looking into using cameras to communicate internally, but adds: “We don’t do it [now] because it’s so expensive.”

As yet, many in-house lawyers have chosen not to use video-conferencing themselves, so they are not demanding it from their outside advisers. Some, though, are looking into it. Benita Kumar, divisional director of asset managers Henderson Global Investors, agrees with Beharrell when she says: “We want to use it more, but it must come down in price first.”

For Kumar, as with most lawyers, email is the key method of communicating internally. She explains that this is the best method for Henderson to communicate with its parent company, Australian insurers and other subsidiaries around the world. She says teams are targeted for emails on updates in the law and other business information.

In private practice it is again the head of department who will generally take responsibility for the distribution of information. They send information in block emails to several relevant people about such issues as changes in the law. Special directories are often created to facilitate this method of sending emails to ensure that only the relevant people are contacted. Emails sent to and from individual lawyers are more discretionary, and usually not monitored.

But most employers have a policy against blanket emails. If one needs to be sent within a company, the head of legal usually has to clear it with a superior, and in firms they can only be ratified by the managing partner. Ian Terry, managing partner of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, sees email as probably the most significant communication tool available for lawyers. He says: “People are on their computers most of the day. They are constantly monitoring emails for clients anyway. When you’re doing that around the whole world it is hugely effective [for internal communications].”

But how can firms avoid their email in-boxes getting clogged up with irrelevant messages? “We suffer from email fatigue because so many are forwarded to various people,” says Ian Dinwiddie, finance director at Allen & Overy (A&O). Dinwiddie says that at A&O, secretaries sift through the messages and pass on the relevant ones to lawyers.

But Greason says: “It’s really hard to filter out junk emails. You must at least take a moment to see what they are.”

Partly in response to employers’ concerns that personal emails are clogging up their systems, the law in the UK is changing to allow companies to monitor staff. However, Greenwood believes that a tolerant culture is beneficial to staff morale, especially as many emails are sent internally between employees anyway. “It helps them to feel part of the culture,” he says.

US firms and companies already take a much stricter line in relation to the use of email for non-business use. Joe Blum, London managing partner of Latham & Watkins, says: “We really discourage non-work-related emails. We make sure people don’t do that.”

And there is evidence that this tough line does prevent the system getting clogged up. “We don’t have much problem with email fatigue,” says Blum.

An alternative form of internal communication that can alleviate a firm’s reliance on email is the intranet. This offers a central pool of information, containing anything from press clippings about the firm to legal updates. Generally, firms set up specific intranets for legal issues, in particular practice areas. These are constantly updated databases of more technical information, which can be accessed by anyone with the relevant password. It may be more expensive, but it enables the information to be targeted much more specifically to individuals, who can be grouped according to practice area or seniority.

Intranets are also used for more sociable bulletins that announce things like employees’ marriages – just another tool that can help spread the firm’s culture. Terry says that all of these computerised tools helped to integrate Freshfields after its mergers, on both a cultural and a professional basis. “They give people the same knowledge around the firm. We want all our lawyers to have access to the same information. This helps us to achieve consistency,” he says.

The benefits of a well-established infrastructure for internal communications are obvious. Email, intranets, extranets and videoconferencing all have their uses, but there is no one single method that can do it all. With the vast amounts of information that have to be distributed throughout international law firms every day, it may be that at some point even small firms will have to follow Clifford Chance’s lead in appointing an information manager to avoid reaching an information deadlock.