The anorak

One area where there does seem to be a definite push towards online legal transactions is conveyancing. Much of the impetus is coming from the Government, which, along with just about every other government in the developed world, says that it wants to make the country the best location for e-commerce. Although much of this is inevitably just e-spin, the UK is taking definite steps in the sphere of conveyancing. Last year's Electronic Communications Bill will allow electronic signatures, make government services available electronically and remove the requirement for conveyances to be completed in writing. The use of the National Land Information Service, which launches in mid-July, will also allow online local authority and utilities searches. All this, together with the fact that a Council of Mortgage Lenders' survey from last year shows increasing enthusiasm from lenders for online operations, makes online conveyancing one of the services most likely to take off.`Companies such as Desktop Lawyer offer conveyancing services, and this is also one of the areas where bricks and mortar law firms, such as internet veteran Fidler & Pepper, are most likely to dabble. Already established in this field is Hammonds Direct. The original Hammond Suddards partners, who held onto the business when the firm merged to become Hammond Suddards Edge, still own it. The bulk of its customers are lenders and financial institutions, but it also has, a business-to-consumer arm. According to partner Luci Dammone, the company completes an average of 4,000 conveyances each month, with the bulk of these coming from the business-to-business service. He believes that the company is well positioned to take advantage of the trend towards electronic conveyancing and predicts that it will be the dominant market player in 10 years time. In terms of the effect that this might have on the rest of the profession he says: “There will always be a market for the high street, but it is diminishing. Those who are unable to respond and invest will find it hard.”`There are a great number of IT managers in law firms who are consciously lulling their practice colleagues into a false sense of security.`Many legal systems that are still in use are based on hopelessly out-dated technology. They are now becoming increasingly and dangerously unsupportable, leaving their organisations vulnerable and exposed to business risk.`Many IT managers responsible for these systems know full well that they have inherent technological risks. A common excuse from these managers for failing to address these risks is that they found the upgrading they carried out to cope with the predicted meltdown from the Millennium Bug (Y2K compliance) resulted in large amounts of time and money being spent with little to show for it. They are now working on the once-bitten-twice-shy principle, but that means that they are failing to live up to their corporate responsibilities.`In many law firms there is a crucial IT system that was made Y2K compliant but which is decidedly old, has fundamental technological weaknesses, but is 'better' than any available off-the-shelf package. In each case, the users are used to the system, but they (and particularly their IT colleagues) see it as far from perfect. The primary complaint is that it does not fit with other more modern systems found on most PCs.`There are many options for these firms. One is to act immediately and select the most appropriate off-the-shelf commercial package and implement it in the short-term, making specific upgrades where needed. Another is to keep the current system with a view to replacing it with a technologically-advanced system in the medium-term. The extreme is to stay with the current system and ignore the potential threats.`In fact, the option that too many IT managers have adopted is to bury their heads in the sand, hope that nobody will complain too loudly to senior management and pray that doomsday will not arrive – at least not while they are still in the job.`Before any decision is made for firms facing problems, a professional technological and business risk assessment should be carried out to determine the best route forward. For any sizeable or strategic system there is no excuse for not doing this and such a project should clearly be led by the firm's senior management.`Assuming that a risk assessment is going to be carried out, it must be authoritative and independent. This means that internal IT departments, internal and external auditors, systems and hardware suppliers and maintainers of the current systems must not lead it. But many potential external leaders of such a project will also have a vested interest in its outcome – they might be looking for follow-on selection and implementation work and/or be tied in with hardware or software suppliers. None of these parties should be considered to lead the project.`The operational work on the project should be led by independent IT experts with appropriate technological and business risk assessment capabilities and a complete lack of bias.`Tony Korn is head of the professional services practice at Cornwell Affiliates