It’s the Clients, Stupid!

November 1, 1998

In one of those quirks of fate that make life so interesting, the first 25 years of the Society of Computers & Law’s existence coincide almost exactly with the period during which information technology first came out of the controlled-environment computer room closet to occupy, initially, the end-user desktop and, more recently, the homes of a rapidly expanding section of the general public.

In the process, this increased accessibility of IT has clearly made computerisation a technically and commercially viable option for almost all practising lawyers. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that although the last 25 years have seen a growing emphasis being placed upon the distinction between front office ‘fee earner support systems’ and back office accounts and practice management systems, not only have they made very little practical difference to the way lawyers actually work but as far as the real world is concerned these are essentially internal, inward-looking support technologies.

Or, to put it another way, for all practical purposes these technological advances have been totally irrelevant to the needs of lawyers’ clients and prospective clients. Compare and contrast this with the experiences of the First Direct telephone banking service, one of the UK retail banking sector’s biggest success stories in recent years.

Now obviously to have been able to start from scratch and build up a successful banking operation within the space of a few years suggests First Direct must have some very good internal IT systems.

  • They must have a good marketing system to be able to identify and maintain contact with prospective customers, as well as the equivalent of a client database for looking after all the current account holders’ records.
  • They must have good internal accounts systems for processing all the payments going in and out of customer accounts and for ensuring that any deductions for bank charges and interest payments are accurately identified, calculated and allocated.
  • They must have the equivalent of diary reminder/workflow management software to ensure direct debit and standing order instructions are paid in or out of customer accounts on the correct date and for the correct amount.
  • They must also have a smooth document production system – the banking equivalent of word processing – to produce and send out neatly printed statements each month.
  • And, they must have a good document management system so they can locate and dispatch extra copies of statements when they are requested by customers.

For all practical purposes these technological advances have been totally irrelevant to the needs of lawyers’ clients and prospective clients.

But, frankly, who cares? I did not open an account with the First Direct because they had all this backroom support technology lurking under the bonnet. The reason I switched to First Direct was because of the value added services they could offer – which in this case was a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days a year telephone banking facility. Of course the accurate processing of transactions going through my account is important, as is their ability to handle my direct debits without a hitch and send me accurate statements each month, but I assume that as a modern bank First Direct, in common with all the other retail banks, would automatically provide these ‘support’ services as a matter of course.

Now look at the situation prevailing at over 99% of law firms in the UK. Almost the whole emphasis of their IT projects and expenditure is on inward-looking systems but, once again, who really cares? A commercial client does not take new business to a City practice because the firm has migrated from Unix and WordPerfect to Windows NT and is now producing all its correspondence on Microsoft Word 97, or because they are impressed to learn that partners have desktop access to online legal information services. No, they go there because they know (or at least hope) they will receive the best possible advice.

In fact as long as the service is good, most clients – commercial or private – probably couldn’t care less if a law firm’s entire document production was in the hands of a bunch of chimpanzees sitting at manual typewriters and taking time off from recreating the entire works of Shakespeare.

The human resources directors (as personnel department managers now prefer to be known) within large firms talk about the importance of a practice’s support facility (IT, secretarial, library, accounts, paralegals) being able to deliver a good service to their ‘customers’. By ‘customers’ they mean the partners, solicitors and other fee earners who rely on these support services, but the only ‘customers’ who actually matter are the clients!

In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising lawyers have not yet managed to find a killer application that will transform the ‘lawyering’ side of the legal professions’ work (in the same way the VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets almost single-handedly transformed the lives of financial managers and accountants) and have had a frequently less than satisfactory experience with computer technology. Quite simply, they spent the last 25 years approaching the subject from the wrong direction. Lawyers have been throwing all their energies (and money) into inward-looking technologies when they should have been following the example of some of their competitors (including banks, insurance companies and estate agents) and concentrated on outward-looking, client-facing systems.

Most clients couldn’t care less if a law firm’s entire document production was in the hands of a bunch of chimpanzees sitting at manual typewriters and taking time off from recreating the entire works of Shakespeare.

What makes this major exercise in missing the point all the more pertinent is that we are now starting to see the emergence of a generation of computer literate, digitally-aware clients who know what is possible with the newer digital technologies, such as voice mail, Internet e-mail, interactive Web sites and video conferencing. They have them in their offices, they encounter them during their daily lives and, increasingly, they have them at home. (The high street electrical goods chain Dixons claims to have signed up more users for its Freeserve free Internet e-mail service in eight weeks than CompuServe managed in the UK in eight years.)

From being the hobby for the ‘early adopters’, technologies such as the Internet are now emerging as mass market consumer services on a par with television and the telephone. Or, to put it another way: if the people using the Internet today equate to the managers of those businesses that make up the commercial client lists of ‘The Legal 500′, the households that are now starting to come online equate to the private clients of high street firms. And it is for precisely these reasons that the legal profession must wake up, smell the coffee and be prepared for the changes that are coming.

As with all new technologies, usage patterns tend to begin with non-essential experiments. It is the same with the Internet. The initial reaction to the World Wide Web is to surf with no particular destination in mind and follow up every hyperlink that crosses our path. When the novelty wears off it starts to be used for more ‘serious’ purposes, such as academic or business research to locate items of information that cannot be found by more conventional methods and, increasingly, as a commercial medium for buying or requesting further information about products and services.

So how are people using the Internet today?

  • They are using it as a giant reference source, in effect a global ‘Yellow Pages’, for locating the suppliers of products and services – even to-your-door pizza delivery services.
  • They are using it as a way of ordering and in some instances paying (via secure credit card transactions) for those products and services – currently the most frequently purchased items are computers, software and books.
  • They are using it to track and monitor the progress and fulfilment of the products and services they have ordered. The best known examples of this is the Federal Express (FedEx) parcels service in the USA which has an interactive Web facility allowing customers to track the progress of parcels from initial pick-up, through shipping stations across North America and finally on to when it was delivered and who signed for it.
  • And they are using it to monitor the financial consequences of buying these various products and services. For example, a growing number of banks in the UK now offer Internet-based online banking services that allow customers to check account balances and transactions, pay bills and transfer funds between accounts.

Why should this be of any interest to lawyers?

Within three years interactive Web sites and Internet e-mail addresses will have become as essential to law firms as fax machines and telephone are today.

As the digital communications revolution rolls on its way, one-time niche technologies, such as the Internet, are rapidly moving into the mainstream. This in turn is having an impact upon the user market. From relatively small numbers of IT enthusiasts, early adopters and aficionados (the so-called ‘digiterati’)we are now seeing the emergence of a far broader digitally street-wise audience: the ‘Martini generation’. They have the technology, they understand how to use it and they know it has the ability to deliver the right answers to the right people at ‘any time, any place, anywhere’.

They are now coming to expect the prospective suppliers of the goods and services to be as equally wired up and Web-enabled as they are. And if suppliers are not sufficiently digitally aware to be able to provide the interactive service levels consumers are demanding, they will switch their allegiance to suppliers who are.

  • If you can search the Web for new insurance cover or estate agents’ property particulars, why can’t you also search it for details of solicitors’ practices and other providers of legal services?
  • If you can order and pay for books and computers via the Web, why can’t you also send new instructions to a solicitor, obtain a quotation on how much it will cost to have a firm handle a conveyancing transaction for you, or make and pay for a new will?
  • If you can monitor the progress of a parcel as it makes its way from Seattle to Savannah, why can’t you use the Web to find out if the company you are suing for bad debts has paid up, made an offer or otherwise responded to the ‘letter before action’ from your lawyers?
  • If you can communicate with a supplier via e-mail or an interactive Web site from anywhere in the world and at any time of the day or night, why can’t you contact your lawyer after 5pm on a Friday evening until sometime during the following Monday morning?
  • And, if you can log on to your bank’s Web site to see if your salary cheque has been paid into your account, why can’t you also log on to your lawyer’s client account records to see how much of your money has already been spent pursuing some ongoing litigation?

What we are seeing is a revolution in communications. Just as face-to-face meetings and correspondence by post has been superseded on a day-to-day basis by fax and telephone communications, so we are now moving into an era when Internet e-mail, Web sites and other forms of digital communicationswill be the norm.

At the time of writing there are only about 500 law firms within the whole UK that have their own web sites. But, given the current momentum of digital technologies, within three years interactive Web sites and Internet e-mail addresses will have become as essential to law firms as fax machines and telephone are today.

The old lawyer-client relationship is long dead. Forget the latent legal market, this is the impatient legal market where a Martini generation of computer literate and digitally-aware clients are no longer prepared to tolerate the inefficiencies and shortcomings of law firms who think computerisation begins and ends with the installation of a new accounts system.

If you can monitor the progress of a parcel, why can’t you use the Web to find out if the company you are suing for bad debts has paid up.

The legal world has devoted a quarter of a century looking for systems to make life easier for lawyers when it should have been concentrating on systems to meet the needs of clients. A case of: think not what your technology can do for you, but what your technology can do for your clients.

Perhaps when the Society for Computers & Law gets around to celebrating its golden jubilee in another 25 years’ time (and I know I intend to be around) we may have finally seen some positive progress in this direction !