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December 2000
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London Insider

Glen Legal: Law, Golf & Whiskey

by Charles Christian

OCTOBER SAW THE second outing for "Glen Legal" -- the legal I.T. forum at the world famous Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. Some 200 law firm I.T. directors and legal systems vendors spent two days discussing technology issues; playing golf; and listening to top-class conference presentations (Boston management consultant David Maister was the keynote speaker); and consuming many glasses of malt whisky from the hotel's range of more than 140 different brands of scotch.

So what lessons were learned from the event? Well we heard a lot about online legal services. Several U.K. firms (including Lovells and Clifford Chance) have recently launched new legal e-business programs (with the caveat that Clifford Chance partner Christopher Millard admitted the firm's latest developments were primarily the result of internal moves rather than a response to specific client demands).

We also heard a lot about the "virtual dealroom" concept -- secure Web-based Extranets that allow a law firm and a specific client to share documents and exchange information relating to a specific deal. When Allen & Overy announced the first of these in the spring of 2000, they were regarded as rocket science. However, in the intervening nine months not only have they become more commonplace, but they are also rapidly becoming a commodity product. For example, the latest version of the iManage document and content management system offers what is, effectively, a virtual dealroom-in-a-box system. My own view is that within 18 months virtual dealrooms will have become the new e-mail -- in other words, one of the standard tools of the trade among law firms with serious commercial practices.

We also heard a lot about the ASP (application service provider) model --although the actual words coming out seem to suggest that both law firms and legal IT suppliers are having second thoughts about the merits of this approach to systems procurement. As in the United States, law firms have worries about the perceived inherent security issues. "What, we keep our confidential client records on the same box as those of our bitterest commercial rivals? "

There are also concerns about the delivery mechanism. There is still very little broadband telecom access in the U.K., opening up the prospect that, like Blondie, ASP users will be left forever hanging on the telephone.

And it is quite clear that some suppliers are now having doubts about the commercial viability of the ASP business model. Not the least because many law firms assume they will be able to rent applications on an ad hoc basis for a low cost (rather like the $2 per session rate Microsoft will be charging people for using MS Office from easyEverthing Internet cafes in New York, starting this month). That's a bit different than the £200-£300 per seat/ per month/for-a-minimum-of-three-years fees ASP suppliers have in mind. And more than the cost of buying a new system out right. This time last year the ASP model was being promoted as "the next big thing," but it now looks as if ASP may be a concept whose time has already come and gone.

The Case for the Case

ANOTHER SESSION at Glen Legal that struck a sympathetic chord with the audience concerned the role of case management (or workflow) software. Eversheds (the nearest the U.K. has to a national law firm) partner Kevin Doolan stood up and admitted that not only was computerized case management inappropriate for some times of legal work, but that many of the safe assumptions about this type of technology were wrong.

Far from being a universal panacea, said Doolan, in many instances all that law firms were achieving with case management software was to replace old labour intensive and complex manual processes with new labour intensive and complex computerized processes.

Why? Because often the clients were not consulted at an early stage. Had they been, the project development team would have learned that what the clients actually wanted and what lawyers thought they required were worlds apart. And, talking of project development teams, Doolan is also a firm believer that "You don't leave the kids alone in the sweet shop" -- otherwise they will specify an I.T. system that is both colossally complex and unduly expensive.

Another piece of advice Doolan had to offer was that the people involved in a case management development project should not try to be too clever. By this he meant a project's initial target should be relatively modest -- and probably just rolled out to a few fee earners in one department -- to act as a pilot for shaking out the bugs and resolving the training issues. Only once this pilot is safely out of the way should the firm move on to the next phase of a more sophisticated and widely implemented system.

Doolan said another lesson Eversheds learned, and that other firms would do well to note, is that far from improving productivity a newly implemented case management system will initially "destroy productivity" as the firm goes through the trials and tribulations of training staff and dealing with the inevitable software bugs.

This does, of course, prompt the question: If case management is going to be such a pain, why bother with it all? The answer, according to Doolan, is that when it does work, case management can bring some spectacular benefits.

As for the cost, yes it can be a lot of money but this needs to be seen in the context of a market where U.K. law firms are currently spending 10 times as much money on accounting and practice management systems as they are on case management software. In otherwords, what chance does case management have when lawyers are apparently so much more interested in counting the beans than they are in making them?

Row & Maw Ensure Lawyers Know

FINALLY, WE'VE all sat through conference presentations about the benefits of know-how system. But last month City of London commercial law firm Rowe & Maw became what it believes is the first U.K. firm to roll out a knowledge management system on a practice-wide basis.

The new system, called KnowMaw, was developed in conjunction with legal systems integrators Tikit and is based around Hummingbird's PC Docs Fulcrum document and knowledge management software. Following the successful completion of a pilot project this summer involving 50 fee earners and secretaries, Rowe & Maw began rolling out the system to the whole firm in November.

Using standard Web browser technology, KnowMaw will enable fee earners to simultaneously search across a whole range of different information sources (including the firm's group databanks, precedents and professional practice notes, inhouse publications, library index, Intranet, marketing and skills database plus fee earners and secretaries own e-mail and Microsoft Outlook folders) for a specific item of information.

Other features of the system include: full text searching (of both document profiles and the underlying documents); hyperlinks from KnowMaw direct to the firm's intranet and web site; and, the use of "push technology" to automatically send e-mail up-dates sent to individuals when new material matching their search criteria is located.

Charles Christian is a member of the Law Technology News Editorial Advisory Board, and is the publisher and editor of the U.K.-based Legal Technology Insider newsletter and Legal Technology News ezine.

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