The Internet: stirring up a mixed response

Elizabeth Davidson reports

Despite a residue of cynicism, lawyers are embracing the Internet with ever-increasing enthusiasm

THE results of a survey by The Lawyer on the Internet arrive during the heart of what has been described as a technological "revolution" among law firms. Or, as The Future of Law author Richard Susskind puts it: "The results of this survey would have been very different a year ago, and will be very different again in a year's time."

Despite the residue of cynicism uncovered by the survey, its general message is that solicitors do appreciate the value of the Internet. The solicitor who described the Internet as an "executive toy" in one of the answers is probably the exception that proves the rule.

For Susskind the survey results show "there is no longer a grudging resignation towards new technology but an overall encouraging level of enthusiasm and uptake". An encouraging 58 per cent predicted the Web would play a "valuable" role in the future of the profession, and 19 per cent saw it playing a "very valuable" role.

Firms are also getting to grips with Intranets and 40 per cent of respondents claimed to have the Intranet at their work, an encouraging response according to Susskind, who said the use of browser technology and hypertext links made

Intranets easier to use for lawyers. He predicted the figure would rise to 80 per cent in a year's time.

Sixty-three per cent of the respondents said they had access to the e-mail at their firm, and the vast majority received or sent between one and five messages a day. Those using external e-mail said it came in most useful for sending and receiving messages. Only five per cent used it for sending letters and documents.

However, a quarter of the respondents with access to e-mail said they did not find it useful for their job. Tellingly, the reason most often cited was that not enough people used it. Other reasons included lack of security, that fax and telephone were quicker and easier, and that they had "no need". Sixty-three per cent of all respondents thought they would find a more secure external e-mail system useful.

Despite these doubts, however, Andrew Levison, head of legal information technology at The David Andrews Partnership, predicts that all law firms and chambers will have access to the Internet by the end of the century. "In the same way lawyers cannot now imagine working without the fax, e-mail will become the main means of communication," said Levison. "It will be quicker and more secure than the fax."

A quarter of the lawyers in the survey had personal access to the Web at work and 13 per cent accessed the Web at least once a week, usually for less than one hour at a time. They visited legal publishers' Web sites most often, closely followed by the Web sites of other law firms or chambers, followed by clients' sites and those of governmental departments and companies.

Respondents wanted Web sites to be updated frequently, and provide topical and searchable information quickly. They also gave a long shopping list of services they would like to be more widely available, which included profiles of lawyers and firms, library facilities and precedents, legislation and Hansard, improved search facilities, legal publications and back issues of periodicals, court listings, company information, secure financial services and legal information updates.

But although 30 per cent of the lawyers surveyed said the Internet was easy to use, they also had complaints about it. "Too slow" was the most common gripe. Other complaints were that search mechanisms were inadequate, the respondents had not been properly trained or that they were overloaded by information.

Susskind predicts the Internet will have a massive impact on the way the law is conducted, and the survey does show that an increasing number of lawyers are coming to appreciate the merits of the Internet. But when asked how much of an influence the Internet is already having on the life of the practising lawyer, a mere four per cent thought the Web had so far made a "significant contribution" to the legal profession. As far as lawyers are concerned, the revolution may still be a long way off.

the internet survey

Aspects of a Web site deemed most important for business use:

1 The fact that it is updated frequently

2 Fast information upload

3 Topical information – searchable for your needs

4 Announcement and noticeboard facility for the profession

5 Product advertising for the legal profession

6 Opportunities for questions and feedback

The Internet survey

Why don't lawyers use the Internet?

1 Do not have access to it

2 Does not contain relevant data and/or not relevant to line of work

3 Too slow and/or time consuming

4 Lack of knowledge and/or training

5 No client demand and/or low usage by clients

6 Confidentiality problems