I.T.@Appleby Spurling & Kempe
Designing Your Web Site
The process is the same, no matter what the goal.
By Warren Cabral
HOW can a law firm determine which aspects of its business can be handled electronically across the Internet? First, let's assume that all firms will have an interactive Web presence, sooner rather than later. We all use the Internet for e-mail; most of us also use it to exchange legal documents and to give client advice. Some of us have "deal rooms" or other Extranet services, allowing clients to collaborate with us and review transaction materials.
That's just the beginning. The pressure to expand those basic uses of the miracle of Internet technologies is real; it's here and it's now. You may already have heard of online wills, or online mutual funds advice. Some might argue that one is just a commoditizable form-filling exercise, and the other a sophisticated flow chart of published rules. But that misses the point.
The point is that each of the firms has analyzed its own business, determined its core products, and then analyzed those core products to see if they can be offered across the Web.
Vanity or Leadership?
Why did they do this? In the early days, of course, vanity was a large part of it. They wanted to be seen as technology leaders. But hard business also plays a real part. They wanted to be first to market, even with a commodity, to stake that crucial foothold, and gain experience and market reputation. But there is another reason: Clients expect it. This is the most powerful reason of all.
What do we do in the face of these external forces? We change or we slowly fade away. In some cases, law firms actually go bust if they don't evolve. What is emerging as the new evolutionary form? The e-law firm, of course.
The giant English law firms (Clifford Chance; Freshfields Bruckaus Deringer; Linklaters & Alliance) all have interactive Web-businesses, coupled with global alliances. What global presence and Internet connectivity offers is the ability to serve their clients "24/7," in other words, whenever, wherever.
It remains to be seen whether the economics are wholly there, yet, but it is indisputable that this global reach has put these firms at the head of the pack for the 21st Century. But what of the smaller firms, with limited budgets? They too must play -- or retire from the fray. Here's how our firm, Appleby Spurling & Kempe, joined the "wired generation."
A quick snapshot of our operations: Based in Hamilton, Bermuda, we have a total staff of about 360, including 21 partners, two senior counsel, two senior associates, 48 associates; plus support staff. We opened a full service Hong Kong branch office in 1990.
We established a wholly-owned service company in Guernsey, Channel Islands, to provide administrative services. We also own a management company in the British Virgin Islands. In 1978, we launched A.S.&K. Services Ltd., to provide corporate administrative and resident representative services to the firm's client companies. Our wholly-owned Harrington Trust Ltd. acts as trustee to several hundred trusts; and Reid Management Ltd. offers management, consulting and accounting services.
By virtue of being on an island -- Bermuda -- we have always been forced to think globally and to pay particular attention to communications. So, when the Internet came along, we very quickly grasped its potential to help us to connect with our clients, who come from countries and time-zones all over the world. And there's another trait about Bermudians: We like to pinch a penny twice. That is to say, we saw the potential for cost savings in the automation of our work.
Which brings me back to business analysis. What we did as a firm was examine exactly where our income came from, and thought about what aspects of that revenue stream could be conveniently automated, with a view to serving our clients better, around the clock, and more economically. This is the same exercise which every law firm who wants to evolve and survive in the 21st century must do.
You must define for yourselves what your principal revenue streams are, and break each stream down into its component parts. Then ask yourselves, "Where can savings be made -- or even better, profit derived -- from automation?" Ask yourselves, "How can we better serve our clients and build client loyalty with an unbeatable service system?"
In our case, we recognized that about a third of our business comes from offshore company formation and administration. Fully another third comes from the professional services and legal advice that we can offer to the companies we form once we get them in the door. Thus it was quite clear to us that we had to make the process of getting corporate formation clients in the door as seamless, easy, worldwide and 24/7 as we could.
So we developed www.JustASKinc.bm, our interactive Internet site for the incorporation of Bermuda and Cayman Island companies. However, I wish to emphasize that it is completely immaterial what AS&K chose for its online product. What is important is the analytical exercise of looking at your business critically in the knowledge that the Internet is here to stay, and that clients now demand to access their lawyers over the 'Net. Please don't be misled by recent turmoil in tech stock prices to think that the genie has somehow gone back into the lamp. Sorry, but the genie is out, and we all have to evolve, or hibernate in a lamp ourselves. So, leaving aside what the actual product is, we must perform the analysis. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the method is the message.
I was recently in New York, and was pleased to hear from another law firm that they had performed the same analytical exercise. They discovered that they were quite heavily dependent on one or two clients, one was General Electric. G.E. had laid down two rules: (1) It would deal only with law firms with a strong e-commerce bent; and (2) All GE's worldwide offices had to be in the first tier of tech advancement.
This firm saw an opportunity both to demonstrate the former, and assist G.E. in achieving the latter. They built an interactive Web site advising any registered client on the laws and practice of e-commerce and information technology, anywhere in the world. Clients can log in, and interrogate the system about a host of e-commerce and I.T. topics. The system then offers pre-set texts and documents responding to those questions. It was marvelous. Indeed, everyone watching the presentation was impressed. The moderator praised the system as a "high end" Web system.
I suppose, by implication, the moderator was suggesting that an incorporation service was somehow "low end." I took umbrage, because the moderator had completely missed the point. What he failed to see was that the law firm that offered the e-law advice service had performed exactly the exercise I am describing. What's more, the architecture of their system is largely identical to what we do.
We both discovered the same thing: No matter the final legal product, you work out a logical workflow and frequently asked questions; and attach to each point along the way different legal documents and helpful information. The process is developing the workflow; connecting to the intellectual property within your organizations that will flesh out that work flow; and creating an original product for the benefit of your clients in your specific line of business. It is the process and the architecture which is important; not the finished product.
There is no high-end or low-end. This is the equivalent of the invention of the "production line" method of manufacture -- the very business process itself -- not whether what comes off the production line is a Model T or a Lotus. In our case the workflow produces the documents necessary to form a Bermuda company; in their case, it produces documents necessary to set up a high-tech office for G.E.
We see this as central to our business strategy for the future. We intend to automate every process which can economically be done. We have already created a central hub on the Internet where any registered client can come in and view their work with us, and, critically initiate new instructions.
Even better, clients starting a new piece of work with us can interact with our site. They can generate much of the work themselves, keeping informed and assisted all along the way by drawing on our hundreds of pages of pop-up advice drawn from our well of intellectual property developed over the years, and now reduced to writing and posted online.
We believe in the Microsoft principle of open systems and widespread information. Thus we are not afraid of letting users largely go it alone. We feel sure that by providing the framework and the right level of assistance, clients will look to us now and repeatedly again as a font of knowledge and a provider of services in a format which is so "sticky" that we will enjoy their loyalty for a long time to come.
What's more, it saves us money. Even better, by recycling knowledge and letting machines automate the process -- and accept payment online -- we are able to reduce costs and nevertheless profit at the same time as providing a high level of customer satisfaction.
This may come as a surprise, or perhaps not: Clients like being in charge!
Over time, it is our ambition to convert even complex "pure" legal advice to work flows and automated response systems.
Appleby Spurling & Kempe partner Warren Cabral is practice leader, intellectual property, information and e-commerce. This article is adapted from a presentation for the 2001 TerraLex annual meeting.