A Supplier’s Perspective

June 30, 2000


Stuart Holden manages the leading IT legal market place provider. Axxia has approximately 25% of the market for practice management systems and has a substantial percentage share of the market for most of the other leading IT applications of relevance to solicitors’ practice. His views and expectations should not only be of interest to the readers of this magazine, they may well affect the way in which legal IT solutions develop in the course of the next few years.

I met a relaxed Stuart Holden, comfortable in the success of his company and fresh from the receipt of a Lotie Award on the previous evening. Things cannot however always have been quite so comfortable, since Axxia is the product of a buyout which took place only five years ago. Stuart, after an early grounding in IT as a programmer at the DHSS had worked his way through the Kienzle Data Systems Company until he had become its general manager. By that time the company was owned by Digital and did not seem to fit with the grand strategic plans of that company. One solution to that lack of strategic fit was to wind the operation up but it seemed stupid to Stuart to close down something which was eminently successful and he persuaded Digital to give him the opportunity to put a buyout team together. Doug McLachlan and Bob Hadingham were the successful buyout team and the company has moved to a position of greater strength since that time.


I suggested that the buyout, with the inevitable debt that it involved, must have required a certain amount of bravery but Stuart brushed that suggestion aside and emphasised that it seemed like a natural progression. He had faith in the organisation, knew the product was good and knew the people working with him were good: ‘I know that everybody says that it must have been a very scary thing but at the time it was just something you had to do and the investment you make was just one facet of doing that’. He feels that his job is to let the people in the company do their job most effectively:

‘I don’t think there is a magic formula it is just hard work and the people are prepared to put in really good quality work. Of course you get mistakes as you do in any business but you must put them right. We try not to risk too much and to put the customer’s business first. It is not easy to develop truly robust products but because of our position in the market we have to be in a position to be able to sell and deliver quite a lot of any new product within the first few months – so we have to be sure that the product is robust.’

One advantage of being a major supplier is, in Stuart’s view, that Axxia has sufficient income to reinvest effectively. He sees a problem in a market with too many suppliers chasing too few sales and many having problems supporting adequate investment as a consequence.

Lawyers and Standardisation
I see defining the market as particularly difficult because of the great diversity in the types of legal operations which companies such as Axxia supply. Stuart sees no such difficulties:

‘Our market is the lawyer. A lawyer is a lawyer. They do different work, they work in different infrastructures, their clientele is different – but they still practice law. There are more similarities in what a lawyer in Clifford Chance does and an ordinary high street lawyer does than they themselves would perceive. From the systems analysis point of view, rather than from a legal perspective, both are involved in a process with a similar end result. Lawyers are intellectually high up the scale (we have sold into markets where customers are not so intellectually gifted) and perhaps because of this lawyers will see greater complications in their processes than exist from a systems analysis point of view. Lawyers will say that we can’t plan ahead because every time they take an action the reaction is different – and they are technically correct. But when challenged they accept that there are identifiable permutations. From a systems analysis point of view, if you can say that one in a thousand times you will have to produce one particular document and one if five hundred times you will have to produce another particular document then you are moving into an area where computers have real strength and we can put branches in to take account of even those rare eventualities. There will be some aspects of the practice of law which will be extremely difficult to systemise and these will be the last to be processed by computers.
I argue that even if you don’t know what you are going to do next it might be useful to record what you have done so that in say two years you would have the history of several cases and there is material available for analysis which can help you identify what aspects of that process can be automated – saving many hours on a case. It is all down to ‘will it save time?’ It has to be looked at from a practice point of view as well as from the point of view of the individual lawyer.’

It is Stuart Holden’s view that clients require standardisation and that it is their requirements which will eventually bring increasing pressure on individual lawyers to find ways to standardise processes. I asked him if he saw that as the major influence on future practice developments. Stuart is fond of the analogy of the purchase of drinking glass. As he points out, from time to time you may well want to buy hand-crafted glass but most of the time what you want is a glass you can drink from and machine tools produce a perfectly adequate product at a very cheap price. Applying the analogy to legal practice, he sees case management software as a form of machine tool from which cheaper and basic products can be produced. The skill is not in the creation of the product but in the creation of the tool or template. Since more recent versions of case management systems have all sorts of conditional branching within them, they do allow for the application of complex logic and do not merely produce documents but can be applied to the entire litigation process. These are still in their relative infancy in his view, and he sees them growing in influence, in the same way that spreadsheets such as Lotus 123 have grown in influence in the world of accountancy, until lawyers view them as an irreplaceable tool and their practice has altered to take account of those tools: ‘Already some firms are winning beauty parades by virtue of the quality of their case management systems – those still relying on the personality of their top lawyer may well rue that strategy. For the client, 99% of the time it is the system, and the price reductions it delivers, which really counts.’
He now finds that certain types of firms are actually making demands on Axxia for particular types of product, particularly boutique firms. They tend to be strongly entrepreneurial and refreshingly business-like. Once they have recognised a market opportunity they are directing Axxia to come up with a product which enables them to exploit that opportunity. ‘They are the ones that see a link into e-commerce because if you can process and put that process into a case management procedure, you have got the basis of an e-commerce solution, or at least an e-delivery solution’.
Stuart is proud of Axxia’s policy in cooperating with clients. He points out that they often come in with an entirely different outlook to the firm which has called them. Sometimes that can lead to insights which far exceed the value of the software ‘patch’ which they were expected to deliver. Certainly they are well positioned to spot problems in the process, and this could lead to ‘business process reengineering’ which benefits firms to a far greater extent than anything else.

Software Coding Standards
One of Stuart Holden’s main reasons for giving an interview was his concern that legal software coding standards need to be developed which will be of universal, or at least very wide, application in the UK justice system. While he is very pro competition, he points out that case management systems are likely to start having to talk to each other. This is inevitable and it is important that there is compatibility between the systems, otherwise one firm of solicitors will complete an activity and, in an electronic age where court files are openly available, there will be no way of updating files automatically or for the solicitors on the other side to understand what has gone on.

‘Standards will be necessary. They will either emerge through evolution in which case they will be neither structured nor thought out, or they will be decided by the people who have the biggest market share just as happened with Microsoft in many other spheres. We need to do basic things such as give a code to certain activities. In the USA they have activity codes that are published but in the UK we do not. So each law firm makes their own up. There will come a point when the courts and law firms generally will see the clear need for standardisation for things like activities and locations, but it may by then cost them a fortune to re-code the data they have and on which they rely. The objective is that at the moment we have discrete lawyers working in discrete systems but in the future we will have one case plan where both sides of the litigation and the court use the same case plan, although they only see parts of it. For that we need standard codes. We are sitting here in India House but no computer will understand what that means. It needs a code which is unique to India House – and if this was Southend County Court then it would need a code to identify Southend County Court which was universally recognised across the entire justice system. These codes need to be adopted and are of relevance well before litigation actually begins. Once litigation has begun it is too late to think about re-coding numbers into some sort of standard. It is nitty gritty boring stuff, but it is very important to get this thing right.

So who, I asked, was going to determine these standards. Stuart Holden has consulted with other suppliers but does not feel that the establishment of standards is a legal suppliers’ issue – or certainly not a legal suppliers’ issue alone. It may be proper for them to fund some of the work involved but the establishment of standards and the imposition of requirements in relation to them has necessarily got to fall under the responsibility of government. It may be that the Law Society also has a role (as indeed might SCL) but under the present structure it would seem to be the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor’s department. I pointed out that at present we have not even got such standards for litigation support and yet that seems to present much less of a challenge. One of Stuart’s concerns is that not only might there be great delay in establishment of standards ‘it’s an example of something we could get right down and do something positive about today which will have a lot of benefit and will save us a lot of time and money in the future’. Citing the computer problems faced in the passport and immigration field, Stuart is wary too of a tendency in government circles to take a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and to ignore the fact that the relevant wheel may already have been invented – or at least be on the drawing-board. He would not like to see a ‘grand strategic solution’ which overlooked the interests of the solicitors who have such a large stake in making the system work. Since there is no evidence of which he is aware of those responsible for the grander government plans talking to the suppliers of solicitors’ systems, he suspects that some of the difficulties that will eventually arise will prove to have been avoidable with adequate consultation and contact.