Get wired or get lost

As partner in charge of the information technology law practice at Chicago's Freeborn & Peters, Craig Bradley regularly meets prospective new technology clients. At one recent meeting, Bradley listened attentively as a potential client discussed a desire for access to on-line billing from the firm. But it was when the client mentioned the possibilities of immediate electronic payment for those bills that Bradley sat up.

Indeed, the new possibilities of electronic communication are heralding a clarion call for lawyers across the US – understand the Internet or lose out to lawyers who do.

"The Internet and electronic communication are the wave of the future because they open up the lines of communication between lawyers and clients, and because clients are driving the movement towards technologically proficient lawyers," says Bradley, whose corporate law firm represents a number of multimedia and information technology clients such as Information Resources.

It seems that everyone is catching the technology wave and "surfing" the possibilities and resources available on the Internet. Even the American Bar Association is now available on-line by calling http:www/

Among the benefits of being on-line is the ability to communicate electronically with clients, colleagues and US courts, to market legal wares to a previously untapped audience in cyberspace and to download free software for personal or business use.

Among the hottest trends for US law firms is to set up home pages on the Internet's World Wide Web.

Home pages, like chapters in a book, are one of a series of electronic postings that serve as gateways for information. Although Freeborn & Peters is currently in the final stages of readying its home page, many other US law firms are up and running on the Web.

Minneapolis-based Fredrikson & Byron was one of the first US law firms on the Web when its home page went on-line last December, rife with electronic copies of its brochure, newsletters and articles written by the firm's lawyers.

Today, over 30 US law firms are active information providers on the Internet.

"There remains some novelty about being on the Internet, but that will wear off quickly as law firms understand the benefits of on-line communication," says Simon Root, chair of Fredrikson's technology committee. For firms like Fredriksons, which has a London office, on-line access is useful for routine matters with clients, such as confirming meetings or checking the status of projects.

But Root also stresses that on-line access has broader implications.

For one, there are now more than 500 substantive legal discussion groups available to on-line participants.

"Participating in these groups not only allows a lawyer to make a direct pitch for services but it allows you to position yourself as an expert within your field of law," explains Root.

In addition, virtually every US government agency is now on-line as are the key original sources which lawyers rely upon in their everyday work. These include US Supreme Court cases, the US Code, the Federal Register, pending legislation, and Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Like all the resources on the Internet, access to this kind of information is available free-of-charge, less the cost of the local telephone call required to enter the system.

Yet with all these cost-free benefits, Root cautions that a commitment to the Internet must be a long-term one.

"To date, the firm has not received any new business directly from our presence on-line, but the fact that we are there demonstrates our commitment to technology. The day for our pay-off will not be far off," he adds.

Whether a lawyer or firm wants to join the electronic bandwagon, technology proponents say that the Internet should at least be part of a lawyer's basic knowledge.

As Burgess Allison, a Virginia-based lawyer who has been an Internet advocate since he first went on-line in 1973, points out: "The most important message for lawyers to understand is that they may not need to be on the Internet, but they should know enough about it to make an informed decision about its benefits."

Anne Gallagher is a freelance journalist in the US.