US lawyers turned on to Internet

Elizabeth Davidson reports

The ABA uncovers cautious optimism about the potential of the Net

TOP US lawyers have "embraced" technology and IT systems, according to new research.

A survey carried out this year by the American Bar Association (ABA) on the state of technology among the 500 largest private law firms in the US showed a "cautious optimism" about the potential of the Internet and "commonplace" usage of it at work. The use of other technology had also "dramatically" changed, according to the ABA report. "Large firms have embraced the use of technology," it said. "[They] are demanding powerful computers and Windows-based software programmes to improve the efficiency of their practices."

All but a handful of those responding to the survey used the Internet for legal research, with a third of those participating in the survey using it to locate expert witnesses, and more than 90 per cent using it to communicate with clients.

Half of those responding said their firm had its own Web site, and more than 60 per cent of the remainder said their firm intended to create one this year.

These figures reflect the situation in the UK, with research published by The Lawyer last week showing that half of all UK firms surveyed already had or were about to create their own Web site.

Other types of research technology also fared well in the US survey. All respondents said they used online services such as Lexis-Nexis for research, and almost all used CD-ROMs.

There are currently more than 1,100 law-related CD-ROM titles available in the US, whereas Butterworths' electronic publishing director Ivan Darby estimates that there are only about 100 law-related CD-ROMs in the UK.

According to Darby, there are 10 times as many legal publishers in the US as in the UK, and there is "much more acceptance" of technology in the US.

But Darby predicted that use of CD-ROMs would decrease during the next five years and be replaced by on-line publishing, and that research has shown that more UK lawyers have access to the Internet than to CD-ROM technology.

"In France the view is that the Internet will become more valuable than stored information such as CD-ROMs, and the replacement process will take 10 years," said Darby. "In Australia they think it will take one year, and my own view is somewhere between the two."

Every US firm surveyed said it was investing in new or upgraded software this year, with a third of respondents spending at least $200,000. Microsoft's Windows system was the chosen software system of almost all the firms. As far as hardware was concerned, half of those surveyed used Pentium-based systems.