Interview with Neil Cameron

March 1, 1999

Shortly after completion of a four-yearstint as Joint Chairman of SCL in January, Laurence Eastham met him and whatfollows is an edited version of the informal interview.

LE: It is tempting to assume that readers of Computers andLaw will know all about you but I suspect that, despite four years as JointChairman and a position of real prominence as an IT consultant, not all will.For how long have you been involved in IT applications and the law?

NC: In 1979 I was at the Bar and my bank manager asked to see me onthe only day the bank was open between Christmas and New Year. I was in practiceand I was working, but not being paid, and I had a large overdraft. This was abank in Chancery Lane so they should have known what barristers’ lives werelike but he dragged me in and he said ‘Mr Cameron, I am afraid that you aregoing to have to get a proper job.’ So it was after that comment that Ianswered an ad to work for Butterworths on the then new Lexis and joined them inMarch 1980. I had been playing with gadgets for years and had done a term ofcomputing when I did my law degree, which was considered quite weird in thosedays. I had constructed a natural language search engine which could answerquestions like ‘What is the capital of Norway?’ by replying ‘The capitalof Norway is Oslo.’

So I was attracted to a job which involved my two interests: computers andlaw. I had not used computers in my practice of law – they had not been goinglong enough and I couldn’t afford them. So I joined Butterworths to work withKyle Bosworth, who many people will remember. At that point Lexis had acorporate membership of SCL.

I think one of the first meetings I attended for Lexis was a meetingorganised by SCL where Butterworths explained to law librarians what Lexis woulddo for them and why it was to cost so much. A lot of law librarians bought itbut they resented paying the high prices that were being asked. It’s a miracleit is still going and it is difficult to see how it will sit in the same stableas the new Butterworths Web site.

LE: There are some interesting tensions there.

NC: What Butterworths have now got on their Web site, which Inominated for the SCL Award this year but which did not even get on theshortlist, is what I dreamt of years ago for doing research, as long ago as whenI was at University. The ability to do research using hypertext links, althoughthey were not even invented then, between cases and statutes. I think it isbrilliant – it just happens to cost too much.

I had four years at Lexis. Using the corporate membership of SCL I attendedall the Conferences – I was paid by Butterworths to attend. I think York wasthe first one. That enabled me to meet people like Colin Tapper, David Andrews,Richard Morgan – most of the founder members of SCL.

LE: So at that stage the solicitors’ practice side, which presumablynow takes up most of your time, was something you did not know much about.

NC: I was a vendor. I have now been on all three sides. At first I wasa practitioner, although not for very long; then I was a vendor for four years;then I worked for Allen & Overy for two years. I was a professional supportanalyst, a phrase they invented for me – working out ways to make computershelp lawyers practice, mostly relating to knowhow. Then I went to work for KPMGfor eight years.

Allen & Overy also had a corporate membership of SCL; I made KPMG joinSCL so I was the corporate membership and then, when I left KPMG, Ruth Bakersent me an invoice. As I had just been appointed Chairman she worked out that Ineeded to take out a new membership.

LE: I thought that the emphasis that you lay on the Internet andknowledge management was of relatively recent vintage but that is obviously verymuch the product of what you had always thought was most important or mostinteresting.

NC: That raises an interesting issue. There is no doubt that that iswhere I started and that was my primary interest as a student and it remained soat Lexis and at Allen & Overy. So for six or seven years I was all aboutknowhow but when I joined KPMG and started advising law firms they liked to buyall their advice about technology from one place and they liked the fact that Iwas a lawyer – partly as a result of the time I spent at Allen & Overy,they thought I understood what they were about. That has been a significantfactor in my working life in the last ten years. There was not a lot of work inadvising law firms about knowhow, although that has changed to some extent. Whatthey did want advice on was office systems, which is what I had also beeninvolved with at Allen & Overy: word processing, document management (in1985 document management was almost unheard of), e-mail, etc, etc. Then theywould say, ‘We want some advice on buying new accounting systems’. For thefirst three or four times I just indicated that I didn’t know anything aboutaccounting systems. Then I decided I had better learn about accounting systemsand do it.

The irony is that some people think I am a specialist in practice managementsystems. I had a call from a large firm two or three years ago asking me to helpthem buy a new practice management system and I asked what made them think of mein relation to practice management systems. I was told ‘It’s what you doisn’t it?’ I tend to be pigeon-holed by reference to the context in whichpeople first heard of me. I find some people think of me as a knowhowconsultant, some people think of me as an office systems consultant and some asa practice management consultant. In fact I have advised law firms on almostevery angle to do with technology: from strategy, through recruiting ITDirectors down to refereeing between two firms as to which Word template theyshould use after they had merged.

I said I knew nothing about accounting systems at one time but I was askedwhen I was at KPMG to design one. I came up with the design system for anaccounting system for lawyers which is still in use at Linklaters, and a newgeneration of it is just being implemented at Freshfields.

LE: That mix makes sense in that I associate you with the message:think strategy and think IT across the board rather than apply IT to onespecific task or another. So by virtue of that outlook, you are bound to need toknow about all aspects of IT and the law.

NC: There are some idiosyncrasies about partnership management youneed to know, but most of it is common sense.

LE: I admit I tend to be wary of people who say that in any context– it hardly ever seems to be true.

There are two reasons why people buy advice: one is resource constraint; the other is experience constraint. They either want someone with the experience of having accomplished the task before or they know exactly what they want to do but have not got time to see the task through.

NC: If you have time to sit down and think about it, it usually istrue. The problem for busy practitioners and busy managing partners, and evenbusy Directors of Finance and Administration who are brought in especially to doit, is that they have not got a lot of thinking time. They are too busy runninga law firm. There are two reasons why people buy advice: one is resourceconstraint; the other is experience constraint. They either want someone withthe experience of having accomplished the task before or they know exactly whatthey want to do but have not got time to see the task through.

People like me have time to reflect and write an article – people pick itup and say ‘that’s a good idea’. When I was speaking to Richard Susskindabout his book he suggested to me that I should write a book, I said it’spointless because it is all common sense – everything I would write would beobvious. I have now come to realise that most people at the other end of thetable don’t think it’s obvious, but that amazes me – but I still do notthink I am going to write a book.

LE: One of the things which has come out of the SCL 25th Anniversary,and for me from looking at old copies of the magazine, is that you could takebig slices out of SCL articles from 1977 and place them in the magazine – andnobody would know it was written 22 years ago.

NC: Because it hasn’t happened yet?

LE: It’s going to happen soon in some instances, so it was said in,say, 1977 – and it’s still going to happen soon, although it looks a lotmore real now.

NC: Or it has ‘happened’ many, many times, like voice recognition.That has ‘happened’ every two years – someone says ‘it’s cracked,finally it works’.

LE: It has worked in a fashion. There are a lot of people who havemade it work and stuck with it.

NC: And there are many who have tried it and cannot make it work. Ithink 20 years ago we expected that one day the ‘voice recognition thing’would be switched on and we would all be using it overnight but no technologieswork that way.

LE: It has been suggested that the current SCL Award winner, the LandRegistry, has actually won with an application which should have been in place15 years ago

NC: If Theodore Ruoff had had his way it would have happened yearsago.

LE: What are the big changes? If you had to pick out the big changesin what is more or less 20 years, what are the things that have made adifference.

The biggest change for me is that it is now a given that lawyers will use computers, with their own fingers at their own desk, all day.

NC: The key revolutionary change is that it was then generallyaccepted that we were talking about applying technology to small groups of userswithin law firms. For example, for three years SCL was completely occupied by adebate between Unix and non-Unix. We were mostly concerned with activities whichhad nothing to do with what an individual lawyer might personally do. Eventhough there were people who, at that time, were revolutionary in their thoughtson what computers might do for practices, they generally did not dare expressthe hope or expectation that lawyers would use them themselves. At that time wewere talking about updating central systems and accounting systems. So thebiggest change for me is that it is now a given that lawyers will use computers,with their own fingers at their own desk, all day. They may not be doing thatnow but it is accepted that that is going to happen and there is nothing you cando to stop it. Twenty years ago, only people like Nicholas Bellord and RichardMorgan would have dared to envisage lawyers seeing computers as an essentialtool for them to have on their desk.

That change has only really come about in the last two years. We still hadpeople debating two years ago whether lawyers would have computers on their deskbut the argument is over now.

LE: Do you find that people react to your views by saying ‘Well thatis the sort of thing someone who operates in the City of London would say’. Doyou have much contact with small firms and does that tend to alter your views.

NC: I do work with large firms but I work with small firms too. Mytime is probably spread evenly in that respect. I spend half my time in Londonwith large firms and half the time with smaller firms, sometimes down totwo-partner firms. My experience is that the move to lawyers using computers istrue across the board.

LE: Might there not be a bit of self-selection there? The firms thatapproach you are likely to be the more open-minded.

NC: If they are a small provincial firm, usually one of them isopen-minded and I am prayed in aid. Half the time all I need to do is stand upand say ‘What Joe has been telling you for two years isn’t science fiction.Everyone else is doing it.’ Sometimes that’s enough and the partners allagree at once, and Joe has been banging on the table for two years but they donot believe what he says because he has a reputation as a known gadget-freakwith a computer at home. I turn up and say, ‘No, this is standard’.

Attitudes are changing. I find that when computers are going to be used bylawyers that there is always someone identified as being resistant – ‘OldFred will never use a computer’ – and half the time they are right and halfthe time Old Fred demands to know why he has not got one. Even where there isresistance, it is a temporary problem because the resistant retire and thepeople being recruited want to know where their computer is.

LE: You have a reputation for giving legal publishers a hard time. Doyou think they deserve it?

NC: It may be an overreaction arising from the fact that I took somuch stick in my four years at Lexis.

Where publishers should have embraced new technology they have run from it terrified. They have not known what to do with it – they have overpriced it because they did not want it to be popular and threaten their traditional businesses.

Generally legal publishers have been very backwards with new technology.Lexis was an exception because it was picked up by a couple of people atButterworths. Every other time where publishers should have embraced newtechnology they have run from it terrified. They have not known what to do withit – they have overpriced it because they did not want it to be popular andthreaten their traditional businesses. What they should have been doing isrealising that the traditional business is going to die and they should begenerating new business to replace it. That is only just starting to change, butit has taken 20 years since Lexis began. All the discussions at the time aboutaccessibility and pricing was to do with the fact that there were people atButterworths and other legal publishers who, whenever a new technology productwas released (a CD-ROM or whatever), would say that it must not be allowed tothreaten their traditional business – and so they made it too expensive forpeople to use. What these people do not seem to realise is that theirtraditional business is being threatened not only by other publishers but by thelikes of Linklaters, which is now a legal publisher – for what is Blue Flag ifit is not a replacement for a book.

LE: I don’t think that the inroads into the legal publishers’markets has happened. I can see that structurally maybe it should. But it hasn’thappened yet.

NC: The overpricing has had two effects. It succeeded in protectingthe traditional publishing product and it bolstered the publishers’ beliefthat these new products would never catch on anyway. Of course they had madesure it could not catch on by making it too expensive. Look at the ButterworthsWeb site – it’s brilliant but if a large firm wants to use it and put it onevery desk it’s probably £60,000 a year or something. It’s over £6,000just for one user.

LE: But is the Linklater-type innovation really impacting on legalpublishers. The only way you would expect them to change is when they saw thatthreat cutting their profits, and I am not sure I see that happening at themoment.

NC: They would not recognise it until it was too late. Linklaters wastwo years ahead of its time; Clifford Chance have only just launched NextLaw –and at the moment that’s it. Both these projects cover two very particularsubject areas and, for reasons which escape me, other firms have not rushed todo similar services in other subject areas. So the impact is very limited atpresent. Other law firms are now picking their topic and it’s when you see arange of different services, perhaps 10 or 20, that you might start to seeinroads into publishers’ catalogues. It is inevitable.

If there is one thing I would claim to be able to do, even though I thinknearly all of it is common sense and don’t know why people pay me for it, it isbeing able to see the inevitable before most other people. I was advising lawfirms in 1990 not to install WordPerfect because it was obvious to me what wasgoing to happen and I claim to be 100% right about that.

LE: So you don’t think the decline of WordPerfect in law firms is yourfault.

NC: WordPerfect think it is but it cannot be my fault. It cannot be myfault that law firms are being forced to install Word by clients; it cannot bemy fault that the clients are all using Word.

LE: I think that the perceived wisdom that firms had to go with Word speeded up a process which would have happened anyway because of the external factors you mention. It seemed to me that a lot of firms switched without having the foggiest idea why they were doing it.

NC: That may be true but I thought I had worked out a reason why. The firms that are doing it now are doing it because of client demand. No firm should let things go that far. They should be ahead and they should be able to say that they use the same word processing package as their client and they have X400 (which is now effectively dead) or whatever and can connect electronically. If you wait to change your technology until the clients are all complaining it’s a bit bloody late.

That was diversion from my theme that other law firms have been slow to pick up on the lead from Linklaters Blue Flag but there is no doubt that there is money to be made from it and there is no doubt that other law firms will do it. Therefore it is inevitable that that will eventually have an impact on traditional catalogues. The great thing about Linklaters is that once you have established your service and recovered your cost, maintaining that service is a much lower cost so that if any other law firm or publisher wanted to compete in the area of providing electronic advice about financial services regulation in Europe then Linklaters could afford to halve their price or give it away. There is no reason why they could not give it away because it would have a fantastic effect on getting new clients, and no publisher can compete with that because they have no follow-up work on which to gain a margin.

LE: Plus the upkeep costs for Linklaters are costs they would, for the most part, have incurred anyway – they have to have that information.

NC: And it is Europe-wide and the coverage of the other European jurisdictions is provided by other firms.

In publishing, I think secondary sources and commentary, analysis and regulatory advice are all going to go to law firms. The only thing that will then be left is primary materials with a first layer of annotation (and in the long term the law firms might provide that too) and there I hope the publishers will have to compete against the Government rather than going along in the nice cosy, hand-in-hand relationship that they have for the last hundreds of years in what looks like a conspiracy to prevent generic access to legal materials.

LE: That seems quite topical at the moment. We have this contradictory attitude of the Government with the Woolf rules being published at a ridiculous £250 but then the principal elements of those rules are freely available to anyone who wants to do the legwork of downloading and printing from the Web site.

The principle is that the law should be generally available, but there are too many people in Government with a publisher’s mentality.

NC: I think that I can explain this apparent contradiction. The Government is a publisher and has the mental attitude of a publisher. So when you suggest that it would be good if everyone could access statute law via the Internet for nothing, the initial reaction of the Government is that the development would threaten their traditional business – ‘we sell these things’. Now you should be able to tell the Government something you cannot say to publishers – ‘Good. Fine. So what?’. The principle is that the law should be generally available, but there are too many people in Government with a publisher’s mentality. We need more liberals and more Tom Paines. So it will cost a bit of money, that is not a sufficient objection to overcome the advantage of people actually having access to the law.

The other objection, which I find hard to describe politely, is that it is pointless making the law available to the man in the street because he won’t understand it. I have two answers to that: first they underestimate many of the men and women in the street and second the answer is to write the law in English. There are occasions even now where the only obstacle to the person in the street is gaining access to the relevant law. People should be able to go down to their local library, with a bit of hand-holding perhaps, and get that information immediately and for free.

LE: I certainly agree that there is a tendency to underestimate the capacity of the man or woman in the street to understand. Very often, where their interests are at stake, they will make themselves understand.

NC: If a man can become a neurological expert by reading in prison, as in a recent case, then it shows that where there is sufficient time and interest it is amazing what people can find out about.

LE: You sound rather pessimistic about the chances of free access whereas a year ago you seemed more hopeful.

NC: I am more pessimistic because in discussions with some of the agencies we were given to believe that the tide was turning but we are still yet to see a White Paper which we were promised for June and there seems to be no change in policy at the LCD on public access to the Statute Law Database – that’s the lynchpin. At the moment it does not even seem to have sufficient funds to complete the project; also it has some serious flaws – it doesn’t for example have hypertext links within it as AustLII does. As I understand it the current LCD policy, from below the table rather than from the horse’s mouth, is that the SLD will not be generally available. I think that they are going to make it available at a cost so as to recover their costs in setting it up. I feel that if there is a way to differentiate and charge lawyers for the use of it then that’s fine but if someone is going to use it for private purposes, not for commercial gain, then they should be allowed to.

The trick now is persuading …that it is not just a question of using computers but of using them well and productively.

If they cannot differentiate then give it to the lawyers for free. There is still scope for a clever and articulate publisher to sell supplementary value-added services on top of free primary sources. I do not see any objection to the idea that, when you read s 3 of an Act, you can be offered the chance to click onto the Butterworths or Sweet & Maxwell annotations – at that point you enter a chargeable area. Most lawyers do not want to know what the law is, they want the answer – in that sense they are much less patient than the man in the street.

I discovered again and again while working at Lexis that most lawyers do not understand enough about the law to formulate a serious full-text search request – they were the slave of indices and their librarians. They also did not want to know what the law was – they just wanted the answer. What interested me about the law, as an intellectual exercise, was discovering what the position was by reading the judgments – 90% of the students when I read law did not even read the judgments, just the headnotes.

LE: Can we move on to SCL and its future. I know that is slightly difficult in that you have just retired as SCL Chairman after four years but you are still on Council so there must be something you still want to see it achieve.

NC: I still believe firmly in what SCL does. The irony is that SCL is at the most difficult stage in its development, given that at some points in its history its very existence has been in doubt and that is not a problem now at all. The question is what kind of SCL should we be. Now there is generic acceptance that computers will be everywhere, some people have said ‘Why do we need a Society for Computers and the Law, we don’t need a Society for Telephones and the Law’. The argument is that everyone will have an interest in computers and they will just become a fact of life – so there is no need for a Society to promote them. On the other hand I think there is still a lot of scope for people getting together and sharing their experiences, and that is what SCL was really invented for, so as to learn how to do things better. There is still a lot of difference between general use and best practice.

The job of persuading lawyers that computers are relevant to their work has been done and in a sense the pendulum has swung the other way. The future success of the Society would be established if it was felt by most lawyers who had reluctantly accepted IT that they needed to join the Society in order to learn how to use it more effectively.

LE: So the emphasis is on SCL staying at the cutting edge and involving the people who are on the cutting edge.

NC: The trick now is persuading people who say that they have computers and use them all the time that joining SCL is relevant. Persuading people that it is not just a question of using computers but of using them well and productively. There are lots of people who will recognise that a tool is necessary, resent it and learn the minimum necessary to make it work. At the other end of the scale are the people who realise that something is necesssary and learn it forwards and backwards and really make it sing and dance for them. There are still going to be a gap between those two.

I have always been in the latter category. Some one was making fun of me last week as I was doing something with my new mobile phone, which I have had a week. He said, in an accusatory tone, ‘I bet you’ve read the book for that phone.’ In fact I have read the book three times from cover to cover and I haven’t finished yet! If I am paying £150 for a new phone I am determined to learn everything it can do and exploit it to its upmost capability. I read instructions booklets again and again and every time I learn something new. On the other hand, there are people who buy gadgets like this and they will make them work by trial and error – they’ll work out that you type some numbers on and press the green button.

LE: You really cannot imagine how people can be like that?

NC: No I can’t, I actually can’t. My parents always invite me round after a power cut to reset all the clocks because their video is always blinking, as apparently are 60% of domestic videos.

LE: I think you will find that your son comes home from university eventually – that’s my theory.

NC: It amazes me that when people buy expensive grey goods that they do not read the instructions booklet.

I have to admit it interests me. I want to know. Look at this (four by six hand-held computer, no bigger than a small envelope and thinner than a matchbox) – I have resisted the hand-held computer for years. People raved about Psion and yet it was too big for me. I think Paul Brenells and I are the only people on the planet ever to have bought a Microsoft watch which you used to synchronise with the screen. People used to laugh when they saw me do it until they realised that it was working. But you could not input anything into a watch so I have moved to this. The whole of my Microsoft Outlook is here – 900 or more contacts, diary, to do list and I can input it here. It is an Everex Freestyle and I will review it for the magazine shortly. It is a Windows CE palmtop not a PalmPilot. I do not believe in using proprietary technologies when I can avoid it – the cynic would say that this is a Windows CE device and therefore it is Bill Gates proprietary technology but the point is that the hardware is separated from the software. If you do not like Everex’s palmtop computer then you can run exactly the same applications on a Casio, a Philips or eight others whereas with a PalmPilot you are stuck with what the PalmPilot does. Now this is my office: the mobile phone and the Everex.