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Podcasts, vodcasts, webinars and blawgs. You can hardly pick up a newspaper or click on a website these days without being bombarded with a string of techie jargon. But how many of us actually know what these terms mean. And how much impact are these technologies having on a profession that is dictated by the - very much printed - letter of the law?
David Jabbari, global head of knowhow at Allen & Overy (A&O), says: "There's a societal change away from centralised formal communications. You have to create informality and participation if you want to build a communication channel that has any interest for people - just look at websites like MySpace.com or YouTube.com."
But Will Chalk, a corporate legal director at Addleshaw Goddard, argues: "From a relationship point of view, we still prefer to go and present to clients in person. Face-to-face presentations provide a more satisfactory outcome because you can gauge feedback from your audience and establish a rapport far better than you can using online media."
Whatever your stance, there is no denying that an increasing amount of communication, both internally with staff and externally with clients, is being conducted over the internet. And as with many technological advances, our cousins across the pond have embraced online video and audio technologies more readily than UK firms have.
US firm Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, for example, has been using vodcasts (on-demand video clips that can be played over the internet) to communicate management announcements for more than a year and a half.
For example, last month (April) chairman Ralph Baxter made a vodcast (or 'webcast', as Orrick calls them) on the firm's increase in salaries for associates on the West Coast.
"We do webcasts for things that the firm feels couldn't be communicated as well on the written page," says Baxter. "We can communicate instantly to the firm by email, but this makes it more personal, as you can hear the person's tone of voice and see their facial expression, and it feels more like a conversation. We're determined to make the firm feel as connected and integrated as we can."
Orrick has also been using vodcasts to introduce lateral partner hires to the firm for the past six months. New joiners are asked to discuss their practices and divulge a few personal details on a short video clip, which is distributed via email and on the firm's intranet.
"The firm has 1,500-plus staff across 18 offices. It's difficult to have one-on-one communication all the time, so we supplement that with webcasts to provide a feel for the person and their personality," explains Baxter.
Linklaters leads the way
Despite many UK firms having a wide spread of international offices, few have so far followed in Orrick's footsteps. Linklaters is the clearest exception, having historically been one of the most advanced UK firms technologically.
This is because Linklaters operates the same technology platform and systems globally, enabling easy links between offices.
Managing partner Tony Angel has used vodcasts in the past to make internal management announcements, while partners David Cheyne, Giles White and Robert Elliott also made video presentations to the partnership during the senior partner race last year.
Others have followed suit. For example, Jabbari says A&O also uses vodcasts to communicate management messages to "the firm's global offices when it's difficult to get people together".
Linklaters also has the ability to stream audio and video to every desktop within the firm. This technology has been available for around 18 months and is used alongside other technology which is able to link partners and clients around the global network for 'virtual' meetings.
"There are elements of this being technology-led as the technology and platform are now available, but there were requests from the business to cut down on travel time as well," Tony Bland, information systems strategy manager at Linklaters, says. "The thinking at the moment is on mobility and whether this technology could be broadened out to BlackBerrys."
Maintaining personal contact
But while vodcasts are widely considered a positive tool for internal communications, many firms are steering clear of using such technology for client communications in favour of maintaining direct, personal links.
Instead, UK firms are more likely to use internet-based communication technologies for training purposes, either internally for staff training or externally for client knowledge management.
Herbert Smith, for example, has followed in the footsteps of a number of US firms, including Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, and has been trialling webinars, a desktop-based training programme, for general counsel. Head of legal knowledge Richard King explains that lectures are videoed and made available on demand on secure external websites for client general counsel, along with supporting documents and a podcast (an audio-only version) of the seminar, which is downloadable to an MP3 player.
"Less than 50 per cent of the people invited [to a physical seminar] might turn up, but this offers the other 50 per cent the ability to access the seminar when they want," says King.
So far the trial has been claimed as a success, with 200 unique users accessing the product after 80 clients were initially emailed about the product. King says that any concerns of firewalls blocking access to such products have also proved unfounded, as only one client has asked for a CD version of the webinar after facing difficulties accessing the service on the internet.
"The technology has reached a level of manageability in the sense that we can cope with it without spending vast resource, so it's now feasible to do," King explains. "It's also differentiating, to offer something a bit different and distinct."
A preference for traditional ways
Despite a long list of banks, accountancy firms and other large corporates having dabbled in producing their own webinars and other e-learning technologies, variations of more traditional versions of communications remain the most popular.
Adam Rose, head of Berwin Leighton Paisner's (BLP) business and technology services group, claims that, far from there being a great clamour from clients for live video-streaming of meetings or seminars, many prefer face-to-face meetings and seminars or other knowledge-sharing products to be available on demand.
Podcasts remain a popular choice because of the convenience of being able to listen to the product while on the move.
Addleshaws, BLP, Dundas & Wilson and even the Law Society of Scotland have all produced podcasts within the past 12 months, largely as a knowledge-sharing tool, although many firms steer well clear of using the term 'podcast', as it is a trademark of Apple.
Dundas's employment team has been producing monthly podcasts since last December on the latest developments in employment law as a supplement to the group's traditional paper bulletins.
Head of employment at Dundas Eilidh Wiseman explains: "With the rise of MP3 players we decided that a podcast was a good option. There's still a role for traditional communications, but a number of clients also asked to be able to listen to our bulletins, for example, while they're in the car or at the gym."
Addleshaws is similarly using podcasts as a way of reaching a wider number of clients. Chalk says: "We expect that clients get an inordinate amount of literature from different firms, and to make that easier and to provide clients with a heads-up on what's in our bulletins we provide a podcast with a summary, so that the client can get the information at a convenient time."
Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) has gone out on a limb in order to differentiate itself. Last month (April) it became the first UK firm to launch a virtual presence in the virtual world Second Life.
FFW expects to use its presence in Second Life as a communications tool to provide information on the firm, advice on legal issues related to the virtual world and to enable virtual meetings and training seminars to be held for both the firm's own staff and external clients. In fact, FFW has already received one job application through its virtual presence.
"It was never our intention to start billing for legal services through Second Life right away. We're more focused on the collaboration and communication opportunities," technology, media and telecommunication partner David Naylor, who is leading the project, explains. "It's a brilliant communications tool, as you can hold a seminar with people from all over the world in real time without anyone leaving their desks."
But do not expect a flurry of firms to follow suit just yet. As one industry commentator points out, several other products offer the ability to hold online seminars and meetings without the legal and privacy issues raised by operating in a virtual world. Firms are also unlikely to want to be tied to a single provider.
"The potential is there, but the question is what the level of appetite will be," the commentator says. "I'd expect to see a few niche firms such as Field Fisher opening up in Second Life, but until other suppliers begin offering similar products, or firms are able to create and operate such online presences independently, it's unlikely to become a competitive necessity."
Rose agrees that, while BLP has been experimenting with new technologies and how clients react to different ways of information being provided, there is little demand for technologies such as Second Life just yet.
"You must distinguish between interest in technology and the actual use of technology," he concludes. "I'm sure that over time we'll do more video and voice conferencing over the internet, but at the moment most communications are done by email, and lawyers and clients like that, as it gives time to think before sending."
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