Firms no longer see IT merely as a practice tool but as a way of offering their services online and maximising income, says Richard Susskind.
Why are so many lawyers launching online legal services? What has happened in IT to make it possible?
If we look back as much as 10 years, it is revealing that some of the enabling technologies then were every bit as sophisticated as today's.
At that time, for example, I , along with Philip Capper, then chairman of the Oxford University law faculty and now a partner at Masons, built a computer system that in some ways was better at legal problem solving than any human lawyer.
The world's first commercial 'expert system' in law the Latent Damage System advised on the law of limitation, by indicating the exact date after which a claimant could not start proceedings in latent damage cases. It managed to reduce research time from hours to minutes.
Ten years on, I have not seen a more intelligent system, but I am fascinated to see that many leading firms are investing in systems which share the same philosophy as the Latent Damage System.
The difference is that the new systems are of far greater commercial significance.
The two systems that spring immediately to my mind assist clients in reviewing their compliance – Clifford Chance with its NextLaw service in data protection law and Linklaters' online financial regulations system, Blue Flag.
These firms are using IT to make scarce knowledge and expertise more widely available and more easily accessible.
In addition, these systems are creating a new market for chargeable online service whereas 10 years ago, we were feeling our way in a more speculative way.
Where the managing partner of Clifford Chance, Tony Williams, is comfortable in 1998 in saying that online legal services will account for a serious portion of his firm's fee income within five years, no such views were expressed by top managers in 1988.
So what has changed and what have we learned over the past decade?
One huge shift has been in the number of lawyers using personal computers.
Most senior lawyers now have machines on their desks and, crucially, a rapidly increasing number have direct access to the web.
A decade ago, the web did not exist. Now it is fast becoming the point of entry to most information systems. To use NextLaw or BlueFlag, you do not have to mess about loading discs, you simply go to the relevant web site, enter your password and you are away.
Once in either of these systems, the knowledge to which users are given access is a synthesis of the expertise of many lawyers from many jurisdictions.
This collective store of expertise quite easily surpasses the total knowledge of any individual lawyer and constitutes a major advance on early expert systems work which often reflected the input of single experts in one legal system.
The mode of use is also different the diagnostic system of yesteryear, although much more powerful, has been replaced by a less structured, browsing approach which supports flexible working on audits and compliance reviews.
Lawyers seem to find this way of working more useful (and possibly less threatening), preferring to lead rather than be led.
Above all else, perhaps, we had the wrong business model in mind in the 1980s. Most people working in the field saw expert systems as tools to be used internally within firms in order to improve their productivity and efficiency.
Now we can see that the real benefits will come in using the new technologies to repackage and sell, or 'commoditise' legal expertise on an online basis directly to clients as a new form of legal service.
Using this magic formula, clients will have improved access to legal guidance at a lower cost while lawyers are able to make money while they sleep.
Richard Susskind is an independent adviser to professional and public sector firms.