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January 2001
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Online Legal Practices

Editor's Note: Richard Susskind will deliver the keynote address at January's Legal Tech New York, at the New York Hilton & Towers, Monday, Jan. 29, 2001. The following is an adapted extract of his new book, Transforming the Law, Oxford University Press, 2000.

By Richard Susskind

Online Legal Practices IN THE not too distant future, I believe that every legal matter (whether relating to a deal, dispute, or advice) will occupy a variety of spaces in the online world. On instruction by a client (whether online or by conventional means), it will become standard practice immediately, and often automatically when integrated with advanced practice management system technology, to create at least four sites devoted to any particular matter.

The first will be an online area to which the client on any particular deal or dispute will have ready and private access. This may be by setting up a secure site on the World Wide Web; or perhaps by offering access to a firm's Extranet.

In the longer term, consistent with the emergence of what I call "second generation client relationship systems," these matter sites are likely to be located in, or very closely linked to, the client's own Intranet.

In any event, the client version of the matter site will offer various facilities including status reporting (allowing clients to track progress), online financial reporting (to check how much of their money has been spent) and virtual deal room facilities for transaction based work, and virtual case room facilities where the matter in question is a dispute. It is likely, for any client, that this first type of matter site will become the first port of call for clients when seeking to assess progress or retrieve documentation.

At the same time, a second type of matter site will also be established -- within the law firm -- for purely internal purposes. It may be that this will embrace the client matter site in its entirety but supplement it with a variety of utilities for use by the law firm alone.

Alternatively, and rather less efficiently, it may be that the two sites will be maintained quite separately (although perhaps with common data feeds).

In either scenario, the overriding purpose of the internal matter site is to support what I take to be one of the key business processes within any law firm: matter management.

I have in mind here the application of traditional project management techniques in support of the progression of any particular matter from inception to final disposal, in a systematic, controlled, methodical and, where possible, standardized manner.

By and large, lawyers are poor project managers. While some display some natural talent in this direction, very few are formally trained in the discipline. This is immensely regrettable. Many matters are highly complex, sophisticated, human resource intensive and lengthy processes, which need tight control, not just to ensure the client receives a high quality of legal service, but so that this happens in a cost effective, timely and non-stressful way.

Project management is precisely about bringing this discipline and control, using well tested and highly refined techniques, to transform a complex mess into a coherent and manageable initiative.

Vital Tool

One vital tool for the project manager, and in turn, for the lawyers being managed, would be this kind of internal matter site. It would be the focal point, the first port of call, for everyone within a particular firm working on a particular matter.

Over and above the tools and information that one would expect in a tightly managed project, such as a definition of the scope of the matter, an indication of relevant milestones and deadlines, an articulation of the various deliverables, alongside all manner of other status reports, the matter site would also be a definitive repository of all documents produced in a matter, including electronic mail messages, presentation graphics, spreadsheets and other files over and above word processed documents.

This internal matter environment would support what I argue to be the central business processes in any law firm (over and above project management):

  • Service delivery (lawyers would control their online reporting and dealrooms or caserooms from the internal matter sites).

  • Business development (up to date information about the overall relationship between the client and the firm would be directly accessible from this site).

  • Client care (access to intelligence about working relationships with particular clients on particular matters).

  • Knowledge maintenance (work product created would automatically be archived for consideration for firm's internal knowledge systems; and, at the same time, knowledge relevant to the particular matter would be expressly linked into that site).

  • Financial management (from the site, accurate information about all relevant financial matters would also be accessible, such as an indication of work in progress and bills not yet paid).

The internal matter site will therefore become the nerve centre of any matter.

Third Site

The third type of matter site that is likely to become popular in the short to medium term is a resource, whether available on the World Wide Web or through Extranet technology, to which all parties with shared interests, in a deal or dispute, will have access.

In a major piece of litigation, for example, this would be a site that might hold all the documentation relating to one claimant's case and would be accessible by all professional advisers, expert witnesses and other authorized individuals and organizations acting on that side.

Again, this would probably be a subset (logically or technically) of the internal matter site, because it is reasonable to expect that all materials that would be of interest to one side in a transaction or dispute are certain also to be of interest to the lawyers themselves.

The fourth and final category of matter site will be a common document repository, to which all parties on a deal or dispute would have access. This clearing house or exchange may well be run by an independent third party, offering a secure managed place to which documents can be posted and from which they can be retrieved.

I have no doubt that many other categories of matter web site will emerge; for example, a public web site, relating to a deal or dispute in which there is public interest may well emerge as a common phenomenon. Further, there will unquestionably be many variations of each category that I have noted. The key point for law firms to acknowledge and act upon is that a series of interrelated, online, shared spaces will be created for every new matter in the future.

Richard Susskind lectures and consults internationally. He is I.T. adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England, and professor of law at Gresham College and Strathclyde University.

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