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Everyone is talking about the Internet but is it of any commercial use to law firms developing their practice? Articles appear every week on connectivity, service providers and the wide range of facilities available, but what are the strengths and weaknesses of the system from the viewpoint of a firm of solicitors.
Email is the most widely used application on the Internet, with the number of subscribers rocketing. It is extremely cost effective and mail can be received by anyone with a PC, a modem and a telephone line.
Even subscribers to service providers with proprietary systems, such as Compuserve, can communicate direct with anyone on the Internet.
So if it is so easy and cost effective to use, why have law firms been reluctant to come on-line?
The reasons fall into three categories: speed, security and comfort. When you send a message over the Internet it vanishes into a black hole and eventually reappears on the recipient's host ready for them to collect. The message will take an unspecified amount of time to reach its destination and the time taken has no relation to the distance it has to travel. A document could take just five minutes or it could take a day to reach the same destination, because the route between sender and recipient cannot be selected and the Internet system decides the message's path.
As a result, the route could be direct from one provider to another, or via other providers around the world. For example, if you sent the document from a location in Bromley, Kent, to an address in north London the document could go direct from one provider to another, or it may go via the US, Canada, Manchester and then to the recipient's host in London.
To compound the problem, the Internet does not provide any automatic notification to the sender that their document package has been received by the intended recipient.
Another major question is security. How secure are your documents in transit? The answer is that they can be intercepted and read fairly easily. In addition, if you are brave enough to connect direct to the Internet, who can gain access to your system?
It is possible to limit access using "fire walls", but the technology to do this is still evolving. At this firm, the view is that as long as you are selective about how you make use of the system it can provide a useful means of communicating. We have used the Internet for some time as a means of communicating with clients and other professional organisations.
Although email is the most widely used application on the Internet, World Wide Web services are becoming popular.
From a law firm's point of view, a WWW site can provide an opportunity for an interactive electronic advertisement which can be accessed anywhere in the world 24 hours a day. The advertisement is a form of bulletin board which can include both text and graphics, which if required can automatically link to other pages on the Web.
This can be very useful if you have links with other international organisations who also have Web pages, for you can link them so that users move direct from one page to another, moving around the world as they follow their enquiry through, all for the cost of a local phone call.
Users can also download information to their PC in a very selective way. The cost of publishing the advertisement on the Internet is inexpensive and can be updated as often as the owner feels appropriate, ensuring the latest information is always available.
We currently include information about the services the firm provides, with details of our international offices. Movement around the pages is easy, with graphical buttons and linked text. If you have access to the Internet the firm's home page address is: http://www.gold.net/denton/.
So, the Internet does have commercial value for law firms as long as they are aware of the disadvantages of using the system. The Internet can be linked to all PCs within law firms so that every fee earner has direct contact with other users world wide. In effect, it is used as part of the firms electronic mail system. Email received can be read and responded to direct by the lawyer and copied to any other members of the firm who need to be kept in touch with developments.
In future, usage of the World Wide Web will offer more exciting possibilities for sharing information, communicating with clients and other professionals and describing the services law firms can offer.
Mark Turner is a partner and George Brandon is business development operations controller at Denton Hall.