Gap in Top 100 I.T. Plans
by Charles Christian
ANEW SURVEY, undertaken by The Lawyer magazine, into the use of I.T. by the U.K.'s top 100 law firms has revealed some surprising gaps. Many firms still lack any form of case, document, knowledge or client relationship management software.
The survey questioned firms about use of technology and software. Fifty-eight firms actually bothered to respond to the survey (which is actually a good turn out in this market), ranging in size from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (Top 100 ranking: 3, with 275 partners and a turnover of £380 million); to Bircham & Co. (ranking: 99, with 22 partners and a turnover of £12 million). However it should be noted that the majority of the responses (nearly 60 percent) were from the smaller firms at the bottom half of the top 100. There's a very big gap between the top dozen or so firms and the rest of the field. (All rankings and figures etc. are based on The Lawyer Top 100 chart for the year 2000.)
It was, of course, no surprise to learn that all firms ran some form of practice management system. But it was unexpected to see the wide number of products in use. A total of 14 firms were running products from Axxia Systems; 13 from Elite Information Group Inc.; Solution 6's CMS OPEN was cited at six firms; Norwel was also in at six; five firms reported running ResSoft Ltd.'s ResSoft 5; and three using Keystone Solutions Group PLC products. But there were also eight others suppliers, including AIM; Miles 33; Pilgrim Systems PLC; Sanderson PLC; Timeslice and Videss Ltd., with users in this market, as well as a couple of its own firms running effectively bespoke systems they had developed for themselves.
There was a similar broad spread among firms running case management software. Both Axxia and Laserform Law Ltd. products were in use at seven firms; Hatton Blue Ltd. (now part of London Bridge Software Holdings PLC) products could be found in five; and four firms were using software from Solicitec Ltd. However there are also at least 12 other case management products in use and 22 firms had no case management systems whatsoever.
This low take-up is particularly surprising given that after accounts and word processing systems, case management software is the oldest established category of legal I.T. application in use today, with antecedents dating back to the late 1970s.
Next up document management systems. The accepted wisdom is that today no large firm can cope without some form of DMS, yet the survey proved otherwise: 13 firms (and not just smaller firms at the bottom of the top 100) still think it unnecessary to invest in DMS. Still, in terms of suppliers the picture was a lot more clear cut, with a straight two-horse race between Hummingbird International's PC DOCS, in use at 21 firms, and iManage Inc.'s namesake product, in use at 12 firms.
But what about knowledge management and client relationship management products? Despite the fact these are currently two of the most hyped products categories on the block, the survey found that 22 firms had no KMS system and a massive 25 firms have no CRM systems in place. Of these categories, variants of the DOCS/Fulcrum system are the most widely used KMS product, with also-rans including Verity, Autonomy and iManage. Interface Software Inc.'s InterAction, in use in 18 firms, dominates the CRM market. In the latter case, it is also noticeable that only four firms were using the CRM module within their accounts/practice management systems.
So what conclusions can we draw from these figures? Call me a cynic, but I think it confirms a long held suspicion of mine and others that after a quarter of century of legal I.T., most law firms -- even large City of London practices -- really have not progressed much beyond word processing and bookkeeping applications.
Tales of Brave Ulysses
Titan Software is an Irish software house, with offices in both the Republic and Northern Ireland jurisdictions, that has just completed development of a new software system designed for the legal market. Called Ulysses, it is a Web-enabled application offering both law firms and their clients 24/7 access to their files from any location worldwide. Other features of the system include: accounts and practice management functionality, a Web browser interface, an integral workflow and document management system, support for case management work, full integration with e-mail and a comprehensive diary and reminders system. Gary Matthews, one of the co-founders of Titan, recently told me that after over five years of development work he was confidant that Ulysses was at the forefront of the legal software market. However, he also said that he recognized the need to seek a strategic alliance or joint venture deal with another company "with the resources, experience, distribution network and motivation" to sell, deploy and support the Ulysses software in the legal I.T. marketplace.
"Currently one of the directors of Titan is running two major legal practices and the second is a leading software engineer," said Matthews. "We feel that Titan is best placed to act as the nucleus of the operation, supporting, updating and guiding development rather than actively working on the ground selling, distributing and maintaining the product." E-mail him at email@example.com
Is That a Smoking Gun?
Among the topics at the recent Disclosure & Evidence Conference in London was digital evidence. This follows suggestions (first heard at LegalTech New York) that as much as 80 percent of all possible documents in the discovery process now only exist in an electronic format -- and that it may contain evidence (the proverbial smoking gun) not normally found within conventional paper files.
But before anyone gets too excited, it is worth taking into account that digital evidence involves its own unique discovery problems. You need to be sufficiently familiar with the technologies to capture the "hidden data" associated with electronic files. Or, to put it another way, if you merely print out paper copies of electronic files, you may miss some of the juicier pieces of evidence.
For example, e-mail messages may not only contain attachments, but the "header" data on the original files may disclose "cc" and "bcc" recipients -- or the true identities of recipients shown merely as "nicknames." Document management systems may reveal earlier drafts of the document. Wordprocessing files may disclose embarrassing "metadata" in the "properties" file. (One U.S. firm got egg on its face when a client discovered the document they were being billed for was originally drafted for another client.)
This is all fascinating stuff, but it does also require technically savvy people to undertake the discovery process otherwise they risk damaging, corrupting or losing this data. For instance, many word processing documents have an auto-update feature that sets a fresh day's date each time the file is opened, but this is the last thing you want if you are trying to establish the true date when one of the parties first learned of a salient fact. Likewise, retrieving this kind of data from multiple PC networks, server hard drives, tape back-up systems, archives, laptops and PDAs is not a job for amateurs.
Finally, there is a very important strategic issue to consider: Do you actually dare pursue the discovery of electronic evidence against the other side? If you do, they will inevitably reciprocate and it could be that what they find in your files proves to be more damaging to you than the evidence you recover from their files. For instance, are you confident none of your staff have ever sent e-mails containing derogatory comments about the other side to third-parties or messages revealing that your own business ethics may be less than pure as the driven snow?
The disclosure issues associated with digital evidence are undoubtedly a subject we'll all have to learn to live with (and in fact it is hoped there will be a session on this topic at the LegalTech London conference in the fall), but for the time being the only clear messages to emerge are that this is a far more complex issue than it first appears and that it is also a potential double-edged sword.
Charles Christian, a member of the LTN Editorial Advisory Board, is the publisher and editor of the U.K.-based Legal Technology Insider newsletter and LegalTechnologyNews.com ezine.