20 Years: Blooming tech

Last week’s issue of The Lawyer (19 February) led with a story about Barclays’ radical new billing technology. The bank’s new system, provided by US supplier DataCert, will allow it to monitor the exact composition of the bills it receives from its panel firms.

The story was interesting enough in itself, but the fact that a story concerning the use of technology made the front page shows how far the UK market has changed over the course of The Lawyer’s 20-year life. Tracking back through early issues, stories on the front news pages concerning lawyers’ use of technology are rare, if not non-existent.

Being a trailblazing magazine, The Lawyer’s early issues from November 1987 onwards did feature a regular ‘Information Technology’ page. Doubtless they would provide a few giggles for any technology specialists reading them today.

One of the top stories included ‘Herbert Smith’s £1m office’ (The Lawyer, 19 November 1987), which detailed Herbert Smith’s £1m investment in an accounting and management information system from Hoskyns Group.

One charming piece some months later (The Lawyer, 10 March 1988) told of a campaign by the Bar Council’s technology working party to encourage barristers “confused by computers” to enrol for basic classes on the subject.

While another early sighting of a technology-related piece reported that Turner Kenneth Brown (TKB) was forking out £30,000 on a survey to provide it with a strategy for computerising its London office (The Lawyer, 3 December 1987). Sadly the money could probably have been better spent elsewhere, as TKB bit the dust in September 1995 when it was acquired by Nabarro Nathanson (The Lawyer, 5 September 1995).

First IT steps
The stories, in retrospect, are quaint because, over the course of the past 20 years, and the past 10 in particular, the UK legal market has embraced new technology wholeheartedly.

Twenty years ago a customer relationship management (CRM) system would have been a Rolodex. The only way to know if a colleague had ever heard of one of your clients, or was already working for them, would be to ask them.

Now all major firms have CRM systems, such as Microsoft CRM and Pivotal, which offer a complete map of an organisation’s relationships at the touch of a button.

A number of the UK’s top 100 firms, including Eversheds, have introduced InterAction, a system owned by LexisNexis. As an indication of how technology is helping lawyers become more competitive, Eversheds is not only using it as a central database for its entire network of contacts, it can also use InterAction as a forecasting tool. Any new client opportunity can be fed into the system, which then calculates how much income the firm would lose if it took on the work because of a conflict.

Document management systems have also revolutionised the way lawyers work. “Twenty years ago you were talking about a filing cabinet for hard copies of every document, most likely kept in a dusty cellar,” says Laura Gulliver, a director at legal technology-focused PureTech Marketing. “Now firms such as Allen & Overy are trailblazing a paperless office with the Omnia system, in which all post is scanned at the door and delivered to a lawyer’s email in-box.”

One of the biggest, and most recent, changes to a lawyer’s life has been in relation to time recording. Previously this all-consuming process involved logging the time spent on any matter on paper, be it a phone call, writing a letter or drafting a document.

The introduction of Carpe Diem into the UK moved the market significantly and it rapidly became the industry standard. Now, with mobile and remote working becoming increasingly widespread, lawyers are looking to record time on the move.

A new product, DTE InHand, has just been launched in the UK which synchronises billable activities on a lawyer’s BlackBerry and sends it directly into the firm’s time and billing system automatically.

“The legal market is now in a situation where the majority of lawyers use a BlackBerry or other handheld devices, and capturing time on them is a serious advancement,” says Gulliver. “Firms can now look to capture time that would have previously been lost, but they can also look to increased accuracy of time recording, a benefit not only to the firm, but also to their clients.”

The future
One of the few things that is certain about the future is that technology will play an increasingly large part in lawyers’ lives. The growing trend for outsourcing (or ‘co-sourcing’ in vendor-speak) non-core functions, for example, is already pointing the way.

One specialist in outsourcing, CCE, is currently responding to the increasing demand for co-sourcing and managed services supplying firms such as Osborne Clarke. Derek Kindercliff-Jones, CCE head of enterprise services, says firms are proactively searching for alternative methods of increasing the productivity and service delivered by IT to the business. “Co-sourcing, which covers all aspects of IT, from hardware, software and staff, is just one increasingly popular option,” he adds.

The market has come a long way in less than 20 years, from having no PCs to the appearance of virtual firms. The ones that continue to use technology as a differentiator are likely to be among the leaders 20 years from now.