Keeping in touch

Masons' communications systems have evolved to a level of sophistication which most lawyers could not have imagined a few years ago. The driving force behind these changes has been the firm's determination to exploit all appropriate forms of technology.

Before Masons moved into its present accommodation in mid-1990 the various tools for communicating – post, telephone and data – were all compartmentalised, with their own strategic and support resources. Just a few years later, there exists a much more integrated set of services offering worldwide support to a growing band of peripatetic lawyers. How has this been achieved?

First, voice communications are rapidly being supplanted by email. With this technology, discussions can take place between a group of people irrespective of their geographical location and consequent time differences. We regularly have teams of people working away from the office and in different time zones, such as Malaysia, the US or Continental Europe, and, via email, communications are maintained without the need for lengthy telephone calls.

Coupled with email is the ability to access data both from a lawyer's normal office and from any other Masons office. Bristol, Manchester and Leeds are connected permanently with digital leased lines and we use dial-up for Brussels and Hong Kong.

Our network system appears as a single entity to any lawyer, thus giving access to the firm's collective expertise. With these two facilities (accessed via PC and modem), Masons' lawyers can work effectively off-site, whether in clients' offices, hotels or at home.

These facilities depend on the normal public telephone systems for access, and in some parts of the world the quality of lines is less than ideal. To overcome this, we have installed BT's GNS service. This X.25 network allows users in virtually any city in the world to make a local call and then be connected to our London office. A PAD (packet assembler/disassembler) in London then makes a transparent connection to the Banyan network or the email gateway. The connection is much more reliable, and the high cost of international calls is avoided.

We also have an Internet gateway so access to this growing business network will take its place in our lawyers' communications toolbox.

For those of our clients who still use fax, we have installed Group 4 machines in London and Leeds and we plan to provide all offices with this high-speed digital system.

As a result of all this technology, paper and telephone communications have reduced, and our existing systems in these areas will be able to cope efficiently in the foreseeable future. However, emerging technologies such as voice processing and voice mail hold the promise of significant benefits and we are assessing these systems.

Martin Telfer is director of IT and Mike Stephenson director of office services at Masons.