It's good to talk

Linda Tsang examines the growing area of communications and finds how firms are keeping track of their business

Telephone, telegram and telling the lawyer in the adjoining office used to be the quickest ways to pass on any vital information. With the arrival of email, voice mail and video conferencing, that is no longer the case.

And it is not just in the area of telecommunications that firms are developing and expanding. In the related and wider area of information technology, some firms, including Jeffrey Green Russell and Clifford Chance, have recently set up an Internet-based information server. This move gives the firms potential access to over 40 million users worldwide.

In Clifford Chance, telecommunications manager Tony Adams is responsible for linking up 1,100 users of its communications system in the firm's London office alone. He also handles the private networking within the firm which will eventually connect the office with all its overseas offices.

Adams considers that the most important aspect in planning and using a communications system is effective implementation of technology, whether it is voice mail or packet-switching (moving data around), in line with the firm's overall IT strategy.

Most of the larger firms have a telecommunications manager who, either within or in tandem with the IT department, oversees the firm's communications strategy. Their role is to bridge the gap between business requirements and technology.

Technology is not yet at the stage where new facilities, such as video conferencing, can always be simply slotted in to existing systems. However, law firms' demands are such that manufacturers of telephone systems and software houses need to develop products which are compatible with these systems.

City firm Freshfields recently installed a European-wide video conferencing system with the aim of making the facility an integral part of its communications system. David Enders, the firm's communications manager, explains: "Basically, any communications strategy is client-driven – the firm is trying to serve the client in the most efficient and economic way possible."

He considers that providing lawyers with new facilities and equipment, along with proper training, is part of that service.

The essentials of a communications system, according to Linklater & Paines' telecommunications manager Sylvia Partridge, are: "Speed, not just of answering, but in locating and directing calls and information, as well as quality of service and reliability. There should also be a fail-safe back-up system in case there is a breakdown."

She adds: "For a lawyer to be without a phone, or unable to communicate, even for a short time, can be a disaster."

Where a law firm does not have its own in-house specialist telecommunications expertise, management consultants such as Touche Ross can advise on updating the firm's general applications system, which will include its communications.

Managing consultant Fred Hart recommends systems which include document image processing. These store images of documents and correspondence on disk or on a server, and allow anyone to access them. "This overcomes the limitations on physical access to hard copy files and documents, saving time and space."

And email, which speeds up communication and cuts paperwork, provides an extra level of communication to telephone and fax.

National firms like Dibb Lupton & Broomhead have also linked up their offices audio-visually, and the recently-merged Eversheds Jaques & Lewis is revamping its communications system to extend the email system in the former Jaques offices to the former Eversheds offices, which should be implemented by May.

The merged firms' IT manager Laurence O'Brien says: "Ideally, the firm will have a proper enterprise-wide area network so that all the lawyers and clients are linked within a pervasive network."

And international firm Baker & McKenzie, with over 50 offices worldwide, has switched to an international standard communications package with a local office network, which will eventually become a global network.

Director of finance and administration Clark Ray says the firm is also looking at computer telephone integration, tying up a PC-based system to telephone systems. The firm is also looking at a video conferencing system in the US.

Smaller firms, which are often seen as behind in this area because of limited resources, sometimes have greater flexibility in IT and communications planning. They are developing their own individual systems, taking on as much or as little technology as the needs of clients and lawyers demand.

Leeds firm Fox Hayes, with six partners, has a firm rule that all of its correspondence which does not require an enclosure is sent only by fax from the user's screen, using a modem, a word processing program and fax software.

Fox's commercial department partner Colin Frazer describes this as "the ultimate in low-tech", easy to implement, and saving time, money and paper. Another advantage, he says, is that there is a printed record of all faxed correspondence and the equipment is used to its full potential because every fee earner has a screen.

Frazer considers that solicitors can be loath to embrace the latest technology – with fax, he says, they have a proper copy of sorts. He admits that there are advantages to facilities such as email, but cites the firm's experience of subscribing to Telecom Gold (an early 1980s version of email), which failed to improve the firm's communications because of the lack of other subscribers.

Advances in communications facilities are a vital feature in conveyancing where electronic links with lender clients are already well established.

Richard Berenson, chair of the 250-plus legal network Conquest, says it is not simply a matter of the smaller firms catching up with the larger firms; they monitor what the larger firms are using and adapt their systems as appropriate.

He says: "All law firms are striving to reduce paperwork as much as possible. Telephone, DX and fax are all widely used, and direct communication provided by, for example, email, and immediate accessing of information is definitely applicable to both small and big firms."

He sees more direct contact by electronic link with institutions and corporate clients with the smaller firms, especially with the moves toward separate representation.

Another legal network, LawNet, has linked up with City-based McKenna & Co using a communications package which gives the network's 70 member firms contact and access to each other via email and a document-handling system.

As for other developments, deputy managing partner of national firm Dibb Lupton & Broomhead, Nigel Knowles says: "We are looking for flexibility and the ability to talk directly to clients. With 'real time' billing and reporting, clients will be able to use the system to see what the lawyers are doing on their behalf, and check on billing and costs."

And Duncan Scott of Allen & Overy sees an increasing role for the integration of telecommunications system "with computers, especially PCs as the ubiquitous platform for both work and communication".

Linklaters' Partridge considers that although working from home via modem will increase, there will always be a slot for a central operations system, even if only as a back-up, as a nucleus for messages.

Adams of Clifford Chance says that there will be more cordless telephony. "As we reach the millennium, people may have a telephone number for life. It is a reasonable proposition that there will be one handset which serves you in the office, at home and at court."

Linda Tsang is a freelance journalist.