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November 2000
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London Insider

Is "Best of Breed" the New Tech Standard?

By Charles Christian

THE "best of breed" approach to legal systems integration has long been regarded as standard practice among large City of London firms with extensive in-house I.T. resources to carry out the implementation work.

But now it appears to be emerging as an increasingly popular option for the next-tier-down of the U.K.'s commercial and regional firms -- the ones that previously relied on just one I.T. supplier to meet all accounts, practice management and case management software needs.

Solicitec, a long-time advocate of "partnership" deals in the U.K., has just seen its SolCase case management software go live at Beachcroft Wansbroughs, in a joint implementation with an Elite PMS system.

Also at McClure Naismith -- one of the largest law firms in Scotland -- in another joint deal with Elite.

Given the increasing cost of developing new applications (or even programming major upgrades to existing legal software products), it can only be a matter of time before other systems suppliers start adopting the "best of breed" rather than continuing to reinvent the wheel. It should result in law firms being offered better products -- and in the longer term it may even help bring prices down.

Another Upheaval for Litigation Support

Whatever happened to the U.K.'s home-grown litigation support services industry?

Earlier this year the London Docklands-based Combined Solutions Group (CSG) ceased trading. In August Millnet, the City of London financial printing-to-legal photocopying group, acquired the Bowhawk litigation support services business for an undisclosed sum. And, at the time of going to press, the U.S. legal services giant IKON Office Solutions is in the process of acquiring the IGL group.

Bowhawk's departure is particularly poignant as the company's founder Nigel Murray (who has joined Millnet as a director of its new legal services division) was one of the pioneers of the U.K. litigation support services market. (Along with Elliot Slone, since acquired by Williams Lea, and Legal Technologies, which was taken over by the Oyez Straker group.) So what happened?

One explanation may be that the U.K. legal market is not big enough to support companies that only provide imaging-related litigation support bureau services including document scanning, coding, image processing, "bibles" and the supply of contract paralegal staff to help on major projects.

In this respect it is notable that Millnet, Williams Lea, IKON and Oyez Straker are all major suppliers of broader-based reprographics services -- everything from photocopying to outsourcing and facilities management --and can thus usefully offer litigation support as a complementary service to their existing clients.

But, there is another interpretation and that is the U.K. legal market is simply not big enough to support a viable litigation support industry, period.

This was the experience of American litigation support companies when they tried to invade the U.K. market in the early- to mid-1990s. Despite, in some instances, setting up U.K. offices and spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on marketing and promotional activities, companies like Quorum eventually threw in the towel, packed up their scanners and headed back home across the Atlantic.

In the case of the U.S. firms, the major headache they encountered was that the U.K. litigation process makes little or no use of pre-trial depositions, thus rendering many of their systems' key selling points irrelevant. As to the home grown industry, despite endless attempts by suppliers to educate the market, U.K. law firms have never truly caught the litigation support habit.

According to suppliers, the logical approach to legal work is to install litigation support technology as an integral part of the law office automation/case management environment so it can potentially be used on every case from the outset. But, the approach favored by most law firms is to handle matters manually and only resort to technology -- or calling on a litigation support bureau to supply them with a team of paralegals to handle the bulk scanning and coding -- when the paperwork was threatening to overwhelm them.

In fact, top 10 U.K. firm Simmons & Simmons took this approach to its logical conclusion in early 1999 when it effectively closed down its in-house litigation services department in favor of outsourcing the work to external litigation support bureau!

The Law Society's "Category Killer" Site

The English Law Society (the U.K.'s equivalent of the American Bar Association has launched an online version of its directory of solicitors. Called Solicitors-Online (www.solicitors-online.com), not only does it offer 24/7 access to a directory of 80,000 lawyers in England and Wales, but its extensive search facilities allow searches to be made on the basis of location, name, languages spoken and up to 52 different categories of legal specialism and work type.

In addition, because the listings are updated daily and based on information taken directly from the Society's own official REGIS membership database, users can be certain this is the most up-to-date and authoritative source of information about solicitors on the Web.

Interestingly, although the service is primarily designed for members of the public looking for legal assistance, we understand from law firms involved in pilot tests of the service that it has also proved a useful way of vetting the credentials of job applicants, including whether they have a current practicing certificate. Would-be counterfeiters should note that the service contains a number of security measures, including "seed addresses," to prevent it being ripped off and copied.

The Law Society seems to have what is known in Internet circles as a "category killer" -- a site offering such a comprehensive service that it is hard to see how anyone else can compete. With more than 20 U.K. sites already offering little more than online marketing directories of solicitors and law firms searchable by speciality, the Law Society service threatens to render most of them redundant.

Afterall, why should lawyers pay to be listed on one of these other sites when they will now automatically qualify for a free listing in Solicitors-Online and benefit from the Law Society's accompanying marketing activities?

Over the next six months a number of services currently relying on law fir banner advertising for their revenue risk going to the wall. In fact, files recently shown to me reveal the owners of one such site, which in May this year valued itself at the equivalent of $160-$240 million, have already downgraded this valuation to a mote conservative $32 million.

Clearly we live in interesting times.

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