SCL Award 2000: Virtual Gets its own Award

March 1, 2000

Whether as a result of communal relief at surviving Y2K with no more than aheadache or the effect of so many New Year’s resolutions, there was a positiveair to this year’s ceremony. The Lord Chief Justice, the Rt Hon the LordBingham of Cornhill, presented the Society for Computers and Law Award 2000 toSolicitors’ Chambers for their development of the Virtual Solicitors’Chambers at a prestigious gathering at the Law Society on Monday 24 January. Anew trophy was presented, which was designed to accord with SCL’s increasingpresence and impact.

As well as a welcome from Law Society President Robert Sayer, there werespeeches from Ed Dean, the Lord Chief Justice and SCL Vice-Chairman LaurieWest-Knights. The full text of each of those speeches is available on the SCLWeb site.

Ed Dean

Ed Dean of Lovell White Durrant, Chairman of the SCL Award judging panel,introduced the contenders:

‘This last year has been a very busy and successful one for the Society as well as for the annual Award which is now in its eleventh year. On this occasion we ended up with 26 nominations for different products or services which was slightly down on the number of nominations the previous year, but was roughly on a par with that of two years ago. I can only assume that the large number of nominations for the previous year meant that there were fewer new products launched onto the legal market over the last 12 months. Or that eyes were firmly focused on Y2K issues rather than filling in nomination forms. I must confess that this was certainly the case in my firm. The proof of this hypothesis will be next year when I would hope that members of the Society will set new records for the number of nominations received.’

He thanked Ruth Baker and Caroline Gould of SCL and his secretary PauletteGrant for their vital assistance in the work on the Award. He also thanked hisfellow judges Michael Chambers, Editor, Commercial Lawyer, Matthew di Rienzo,Online Services Research and Development Manager, Clifford Chance, AndrewLevison, Head of Information Systems Consultancy and Partner, Grant Thornton,John Howells, Head of IT, SJ Berwin & Co, Sarah Richardson, Barrister,Enterprise Chambers and Mark Slade, Partner, Fidler & Pepper.

In addition to Virtual Solicitors’ Chambers, the finalists were:

Everyform – Capsoft UK

Early in 1999 Capsoft, in conjunction with The Law Society, launched anInternet site distributing the Legal Aid Board forms in automated, digitalformat and free of charge. When launched the web site featured more than 400forms, split into packs to limit the download size and to allow users to choosethe most relevant sets. Initially, these included forms for Companies House, TheCourt Service, the Patent Office, the Department for Education and Employmentand the Department of Trade and Industry. This list is growing rapidly. They arestill free of charge.

InterAction – Interface Software

InterAction claims to be the only firm-wide relationship management softwaretool designed specifically to accommodate the unique needs of the legal market.It enables a firm to consolidate its client and contact information into acentralised, relational database that is accessible to any authorised user.InterAction enables fee earners to cultivate stronger client relationships,source new business opportunities and maximise client service. It also helpsmarketing teams to design and implement sophisticated client developmentcampaigns as well as to monitor and analyse their success. It also helpssecretarial support staff by providing quick access to data as well as enablingthe streamlining of repetitive administrative tasks.

Rapidocs/Directlaw – Epoch Software

Traditionally legal precedents are created by lawyers in word processingformat. The lawyer goes through each part of the document and works out whatchanges need to be made to fit the circumstances, but he also decides on whatconsequential changes need to be made as a result of this decision process. Itdraws on the lawyer’s experience and know-how and is usually time consumingand inefficient. Rapidocs enables an intelligent precedent to be createdallowing an untrained end-user to easily produce a customised document from thetemplates by answering questions set by the author. The template uses theanswers given by the user to add or remove or alter variables such as theclauses in the document in real-time. The software is e-commerce enabled and hasproliferated on a number of public Internet service provider legal channelswhere it is used to deliver legal document templates to the mass market. Over50,000 customers have been serviced in this way.

The Lord Chief Justice

The Lord Chief Justice was in congratulatory mood, focusing on both LordJustice Brooke and Richard Susskind as well as the finalists and entrants. Heremarked of the former that ‘he is just the evangelist that a youngish scienceneeds in an oldish profession, and I’ve no doubt that the Society owes him anenormous debt as we all do.’ He reported his delight on hearing that RichardSusskind was to be granted an OBE ‘which perhaps restores one’s confidencein the honours system. It shows that it is capable of being perceptive anddiscriminating and it would justify itself even if it only honoured him’.

In presenting the Award and certificates he remarked on many of the changesin practice that IT had brought about:

‘I don’t know how long it is since we all became alive to the expression ‘‘IT revolution’’ and began dimly at first perhaps to appreciate the impact that this revolution was going to have on all our lives, both personal and professional. No doubt, since the Society was founded in 1973, like most other things it’s longer ago than one supposes. And I think in those early days one would have been utterly unable to envisage the range of applications which we now take for granted. The first thing I suppose one thought of was word processing and one was impressed by the ease of amending things, as compared with one’s practice in the old days when one had a choice between sending out a draft that one wasn’t totally happy with or asking the typist to do it again – in which case the first option usually prevailed. And then one became alive to the possibilities of information storage and retrieval, an obvious bonus to lawyers who are dependent on case law and statute law, and desperately in need of a painless means of searching for information. And then I think perhaps the computer as a means of communication, and then the initiatives in video conferencing and then… the techniques of transcription by Livenote and so on’.

The Lord Chief Justice praised SCL for its efforts over many years to educatethe legal profession as to the virtues of the use of IT, efforts which wereclearly being rewarded – to the great benefit of the legal profession and itsclients:

‘We are an old profession. Slow to change in some ways, set in our ways. We went on speaking Norman French for several hundred years after the Conquest. We were the last profession to adopt the wig when it became fashionable and the last to relinquish it when it ceased to be fashionable (the bishops abandoned the wig in the 1830s). So it would be surprising if all members of the legal profession had eagerly embraced the new technology. But embrace it it has, and this Society has been I’m sure a gadfly, a catalyst and a standard-bearer. All of you as members play a vital role, stimulating new ideas and initiatives and new departures. I offer to all of you my last in the list of congratulations, and express the confident hope that the Society will go from strength to strength.’

Laurence West-Knights

The evening departed from its usual format in that Laurie West-Knightsreported to the audience on the great strides which had been made in ‘theproject’ – the move to make primary legal materials available on the Internetfor free. Given the sympathies of the audience, his presentation was designed tobe practical rather than to enthuse – but, as he remarked, there may be threatsto the achievement of the goal and the mere fact that it has been described asunstoppable does not mean that it can simply be left to roll.

He paid copious tribute to others who had been involved in gaining the wideco-operation which was now on offer, particularly Lord Justice Brooke, LordSaville, Amanda Finlay and Richard Susskind. He also identified the vitalingredient – the providers of funds, including individual sponsors who had notpreviously been identified. He also expressed his gratitude to the men fromAustLII who had given up an enormous amount of free time to help with theproject and whose continued involvement was vital:

‘Our plan is to emulate the AustLII model and to use the AustLII software and to use the AustLII learning. There is an alternative, which is in the first instance to go to some very rough and ready system of using new, simpler, computer programs to index and link the stuff together, that would make the site go live more quickly but we are satisfied that that would need to migrate to the more sophisticated „AustLII-type system and then ultimately, in the final out-turn of the pilot, we might yet migrate to a third system a sort of super-AustLII, being as it were the bomb-proof world-class Rolls Royce service that will be in place in say three years.

So although the use of the AustLII software is complex, we have decided that the better thing to do is to push these data through the AustLII software as soon as reasonably practicable. AustLII have offered us, for virtually nothing, all of the help we could possibly want. My initial concern was the question of time difference, Sydney being 13 hours different from England, but AustLII effectively already work all night to give us advice so that we can talk to them during the day.

The advantage of using that software and their processes is that they have pre-learnt a huge amount about the practical difficulties of acquiring data from people, of obtaining permissions, of taking judgments written by different kinds of people using different templates.’

He was able to report very positively about the arrangements for access tomaterials. Certainly it seemed that enough was likely to be immediatelyavailable to make for a viable pilot scheme.

A business plan was in the latter stages of development and plans were afootfor an early pilot but arrangements needed to be made for a home for theproject. There would also soon be moves to widen participation in the steeringbody.