The Impact of the Internet on the Provision of Legal Services

April 30, 2003

In considering how the Internet now affects the provision of legal services – and what the future holds – it is useful to give a brief history of the Internet, explaining how it started and how UK law firms began using it. I shall then describe what makes up the Internet and how the different areas are (or are not) used by law firms. I shall then briefly cover what UK law firms are doing on the Internet at the moment and look at how the Internet has changed the way in which law firms work, including the impact on the lawyer/client relationship and issues that have arisen. Finally, I shall look in my crystal ball and offer some brief suggestions as to how Internet technology might affect law firms in the future.

What is the Internet?

The Internet is actually made up of four distinct parts, but businesses (including legal practices) only really use two of the parts:

1. World wide web: This is the most widely used part of the Internet and what most people think of as being ‘the Internet’. It is, however, just that part of the Internet where users browse or surf and where all the graphical pages are stored.

2. E-mail: Sending messages via the Internet is now the main means of business communication and no business or profession could now function without this facility.

3. Usenet: Text-based (ie no graphics) news groups/discussion areas (see, for example, covering any and every conceivable topic, where users can create discussion groups and ‘post’ public messages to others with a similar interest. This part of the Internet is considerably less well known to most business users and is arguably where the ‘underground’ element that made up the original Web users has gone to ground (Usenet tends to be the preserve of the more technically/socially/politically aware users). There are tens of thousands of news groups.

4. IRC: Internet relay chat areas are electronic meeting places on the Internet where people can ‘chat’ to each other by typing messages. Not dissimilar to telephone chat lines, messages are sent (usually with the sender identified only by a ‘handle’,), and received, instantaneously and are visible to all visitors online in the chat room.

5. Intranets and Extranets: In addition, and for completeness, Internet browser technology has spawned intranets (private, internal Internets for use by staff within an organisation) and extranets (semi-private Internets, access to which is granted to trusted externals on a secure basis). These are not covered in detail by this article but they are now an important component of Internet technology.

How it all began.

The Internet as we now know it was first developed as ARPANet (‘Advanced Research Projects Agency Network’) in the late 1960s/early 1970s by the US Department of Defense as an experiment in wide area networking that would survive a nuclear war. With no single central server and no clear network architecture it was reasoned that, by spreading the network as widely as possible with multitudinous routes for signals to take, it would be impossible to destroy through enemy action (or friendly fire). Towards the end of the Cold War, the US military, seeing no obvious future use for ARPANet, handed it over to the world of academia, from whence the Internet (‘International Network’) sprang. Although (thankfully) never put to the test, the Internet is proof that the Department of Defense was correct in its original thinking.

The Internet first ‘surfaced’ as an issue for UK law firms in the late 1980s/early 1990s. However, initial use was limited for a number of reasons, principally the following.

1. Technically impossible: The absence of networked or standalone IBM/Apple Mac computers meant that firms simply did not have the ability to access the Internet even if they wanted to (see below). At that time law firms were either using electronic typewriters and/or bespoke word processing (such as Wang). If there were personal computers around they were unlikely to have external access to anything and, if IBM-compatible, most certainly would be running under pure DOS and not have had any form of graphical user interface (i.e. Windows) products installed (therefore being impenetrable to all but the most technical user).

2. Irrelevant: The Internet (at that stage) was – rightly – not perceived as being of any value or interest to lawyers. There was no (or very little) legal material online, and that which was online was regarded as being of dubious quality. Furthermore, the Internet was generally regarded as an anarchic place for “techies” and best avoided by professionals with heavy professional liability policies.

3. Daunting: Lawyers have traditionally been slow to adapt to, and wary of, technology and it was difficult to gain acceptance of the concept that computers should move from the back office (accounts) to front office (lawyers’ desks).

4. Insecure: There were major technical security concerns and worries about maintaining the confidentiality of clients’ and firms’ data if transmitted via the Internet, or even if firms’ networks were opened up to the external world.




(Berwin Leighton Paisner, Deloitte & Touche and WorldPay plc)

Tailored documents and advice on VAT liability for small and medium-sized companies, privacy and data protection.

Standard documents with notes, news service, free articles, IT, advertising
and e-commerce advice.

Blue Flag


Production of draft documentation and transaction management online.

Daily news stream, search facilities.

Online to offline query services.

(Kemp & Co)

Information about seminars, practical guides to certain areas, CVs of lawyers in the firm.


(Berwin Leighton Paisner)

Provides a series of modules, each charged at £100, incorporating questionnaires, checklists and information on the topic concerned.


On-line domain name dispute resolution.

Also using firm’s Web site as portal for other information, including FT newsfeed.

Debt collection services online with full client access to the progress of cases and where the client can direct the future progress of the case.


(Simmons & Simmons)

Extensive collection of internal legal knowhow offered free to registered users.

Private areas for clients/paying subscibers.

(Osborne Clarke)

A site for computer games companies with lots of free information such as articles, ‘keynotes’ and financial information on games companies.

(Hammond Suddards Edge)

The UK’s first ‘instruction to completion’ online conveyancing service.


(Alien & Overy)

Offers automatic drafting of documents, a secure, web-based virtual deal room for individual transactions and a secure, web-based virtual case room for dispute resolution.

Next Law

(Clifford Chance)

Adive on data protection in 36 different jurisdictions.

Alerter for banks, investment houses, insurers.

Corss Border Financing Advice – multi-jurisdictional.

Trade Sanctions advice – multi-jurisdictional.

FruitNet deal room.



Guides, news, sample contracts, checklists and free consultation on e-business.

(Bird & Bird)

Firm’s web site, including some articles.

Figure 1

In the mid-1990s the situation changed quite suddenly and dramatically, particularly as the commercial sectors (ie lawyers’ clients) were grasping the new technology with both hands. IBM-compatible PCs appeared in law firms, sometimes even networked together, and the Internet became a hot topic to debate and discuss in legal communities and journals. However, only a few brave firms dipped their toes in the water, usually starting just with e-mail and rarely full Web access (except, perhaps, for a chosen few). At this time Wang was approaching Chapter 11 in the States and practices were experimenting with PC networks and PC-based word processing applications (WordStar, MultiMate, WordPerfect, etc.). Some of you might remember SCROLL, the SCL’s own stab at a text-based bulletin board. There were, however, still no legal Web sites and few Web sites with ‘reliable’ legal content, although commercial sites were beginning to proliferate.

It is since the late 1990s that use of the Internet has really taken off. PC networks have become standard, in even the smallest firm, and Internet access has been freely granted. Legal brochure sites have now become de rigeur and the breadth of legal content is astonishing. There has been a massive push to publish online national legislation and case law (see, by example). The Internet is now regarded as an essential business and research tool and it is hard to believe that its use and adoption is so recent. However, even now it is only partially used.

How are the different parts of the Internet used by law firms?

1. World Wide Web

This graphical part of the Internet is used extensively by law firms, but in a number of different ways:

  • Simple surfing Browsing the web for legal, business or personal information to assist in one’s work.

  • Basic Web site Creating a ‘brochure site’ intended to do no more than tell a visitor to the site about the firm and the services it offers.

  • Additional site facilities As a feature of the brochure site, offering some form of information service (firm news, legal updates, etc.).

  • Web-based business activities Sophisticated firms exploiting the Web may own a number of sites, each aimed at a particular industry sector and carrying legal information or services relevant to that sector. They may sell one or more products online and interact with clients and other visitors in some way. Visitor statistics will be kept and analysed and more commoditised work may be done via the Web.

2. E-mail

At the most simple, a law firm can have one e-mail address (, for example) which is checked frequently and incoming e-mails can then be routed to intended recipients who will, in turn, route outgoing correspondence through that same address. The next step up is to give a unique e-mail address to all staff, fee earning and support alike. The firm will not only correspond via e-mail but will also be using the facility as part of its service, maintaining databases of subscribers to various legal updating services, selectively sending information according to a subscriber’s preferences and interests.

3. Usenet

Very few firms, if any, use this part of the Internet for legal research/business purposes (although there may employees in a firm who do so, such as IT staff posting to technical news groups for technical assistance). This is an area monitored by law enforcement agencies because, at its worst, it can be subversive, anarchic and depraved. Law firms might, however, monitor Usenet as part of a risk management service on behalf of clients operating in sensitive areas.

4. IRC

Again, this is not a part of the Internet likely to be used by law firms. (However, IRC can form a useful part of Extranets, for instance in online deal rooms (see below), where a small closed community might want to discuss an aspect of a particular transaction.)

Does Internet technology encourage moreor less client loyalty?

Both, in the short term. The greater the technical inter-dependence between a law firm (whatever its size) and its clients, the more reluctant a client will be to sever that connection. However, as technical standards continue to improve, a technically sophisticated client can obtain similarly sophisticated links with a new firm relatively easily so that it can move without undue disruption or difficulty to enjoy a similar relationship with a new firm.

What are UK law firms doing on the Internet at present?

The international firms based in London have spent a lot of time – and money – developing Web-based services and a review of what they are doing now provides an indication of what may become commonplace before very long. See Figure 1.

A review of these sites indicates the range and sophistication of Web-based information and products being made available, often free, by law firms to their clients. The extent to which any firm makes money by offering Web-based products must be open to doubt, but the new and evolutionary nature of the market should be borne in mind in this context. In any event, the benefit cannot be measured only in fees generated. Web-based information services form part of the product large clients expect from their lawyers and are, therefore, an intangible added value benefit, customer service or marketing tool.

How has the Internet changed the way law firms work?

On an everyday basis law firms are now able to use Internet technology to improve the way their lawyers work, for example by:

  • drafting documents collaboratively, where all those involved can edit and discuss the document in real time without leaving their own desks

  • receiving training at their desks

  • working from home, or at clients’ offices, with full access to the plethora of services available on the firm’s network

  • accessing legal knowhow and a staggering amount of general and technical information from around the world at the touch of a few buttons

  • conducting meetings by video (for instance, partners meetings without flying in attendees from satellite offices).

The Internet has produced significant cost savings as lawyers can work more efficiently and productively. Changes to working practices have also altered the culture of the workplace as technology begins to allow greater worker flexibility. These savings and benefits should be passed on to the client, either in terms of lower fees, turning work around more quickly or offering clients more ‘bang for their bucks’ (such as free electronic updating services). A negative, however, has to be the distraction and disruption caused by unwanted or unnecessarye-mail communication

When it comes to law firms interacting with clients, the Internet offers tremendous opportunities to enhance the lawyer/client relationship. As well as benefiting from the Internet to facilitate flexible working (as above) with the client, the Internet can be used to create a secure environment in which the transfer of information can be seamless (such as in online deal rooms). Another tailored Internet service is that clients can have access to selected internal information concerning their matters, for example billing information, progress reports and time records.

In addition, Internet technology can help create an environment in which the firm with the more sophisticated set up can intimidate a firm without such technical sophistication. A subconscious superior/inferior relationship can develop between the opposing lawyers. For instance, the firm with better technology may be able to take the lead in amending documentation and operate as the focus for communication in the matter, with all the advantages that gives. This can create a perception that one firm is ‘better’ than another when, in fact, it may merely have more sophisticated Web technology, but that can create a mindset from which it is difficult to escape.

Recruitment, too, can be assisted by a firm’s use of Internet technology. Eye-catching recruitment material can be deployed online and applicants and potential applicants will routinely ‘screen’ firms via their Web sites before deciding whether to apply for a job or accept one that is offered. Younger lawyers may well be attracted to a firm by its grasp of new technology.

Finally, with the use of closed online communities, law firms can at long last create an environment in which to foster a valuable source of work and staff referral, as well as industry news and contacts: its alumnae.

What does all this mean?


The Internet is a ‘live’ medium: public or private sites that are not kept up to date are swiftly seen as being out of date. Electronic communication is immediate or, rather, it is perceived to be immediate (most e-mail systems, for instance, have a facility to allow a sender to delay the transmission of an e-mail for days, if wished). If a client knows his lawyer has received his e-mail (or sufficient time – 30 minutes? – has elapsed for the client to assume it has been received) then he will expect it to have been read and absorbed. In which event, he will expect a faster turnaround time. Which means that the basic work product has to be at the lawyer’s fingertips.

However, a caution: working faster does not mean working better. There is a conflict between speed and quality and lawyers need to ensure that the ability to communicate instantly does not mean that advice is given without due consideration. Furthermore, are we seeing the death knell for charging by the hour as lawyers move to charging for achieving discrete milestones in the life of a matter or for completing an entire project?


Law firms are coming under continuous pressure to open up their business information and legal knowhow to clients. This includes access to information about work in progress and time recording on that client’s matters, as well as draft documents and information about recent legal developments. Internet technology is allowing greater client scrutiny of information that was previously unavailable to them. However, lawyers should have nothing to fear from transparency.

Winning clients

Potential clients are increasingly including the quality of a firm’s web site and Internet services as a factor when considering where to place their instructions. Indeed, for some the Internet is their first port of call and they will not even think of using a firm that does not have a respectable presence on the Web.

Access to information

This has been called The Information Age: there is a wealth of legal material available free (or at little cost). Where does the lawyer now fit in to the equation? How can Firm A differentiate its services from those of Firm B? Lawyers have to understand their clients’ priorities and the pressures on them and respond accordingly. Assuming that similar firms have access to the same amount and quality of legal information, the differentiating factor will be the extent to which the lawyers in one firm understand their clients better than the lawyers in another firm. It has to be about how the service is provided, not just what the service is.

Man v Machine

This all leads to the question: how can law firms process their everyday work quickly, efficiently and cheaply and yet still provide a service that makes them stand out from their competitors (all of whom are now swimming together in a much smaller ocean as Internet technology reduces the size of the world)? One answer is for law firms to use Internet technology to do as much of the routine work as possible. An obvious example, available to the public in the UK, is the ability to carry out online searches of publicly filed information relating to companies and land ownership. Once the system is created it can operate with little human intervention beyond that required to ensure that the data is both accurate and up to date.

One must not, however, lose sight here of the continual need for lawyers to train and learn their profession. Law firms will have to develop suitable procedures that will allow young lawyers to understand and appreciate the mechanics and reasoning behind all of these tasks in order to use that knowledge to inform their future service provision.


Use of the Internet gives rise to a multitude of issues: too many to list or detail here. However, here are a few important points to keep in mind.

1. Security and confidentiality

These should always remain of paramount importance in law firms’ dealings on the Internet.

2. Over-reliance

Information found on the Internet may not be correct. There is a great temptation to believe something is true simply because it is held digitally. Do not be fooled: only rely on trusted sources.

3. Information overload

It is now possible to generate an enormous amount of information. Some of it is useful, much of it is not. In addition, much of it is circulated to too many people, many of whom then offer comments and corrections, hindering swift turnaround.

4. Paperless office

This is proving to be a myth. Lawyers create the paper-full office by finding what they want and then printing it. A big document cannot be reviewed electronically. And ‘risk management’ often demands that paper copies of documents are kept regardless of the logic of electronic filing systems.

5. Technology overload

Keep it simple. Sometimes one can lose sight of why one is doing something. Technology is but a tool, not an art form, so do not get too carried away with implementing technology for its own sake.

6. Network capacity is not infinite

Bear in mind that going digital means more than just having more computing power at lawyers’ fingertips. Handling (including sending/receiving by e-mail) PDF files, images databases and offline documents generally can have a significant impact on a firm’s network performance (including printer queues).

7. Loss of personal touch

This should not be forgotten. ‘Clicks to bricks’ or ‘clicks and mortals’ are not just trite phrases: deploying Internet technology for research and transactional processes is a critical part of today’s business world but it cannot (and should not) entirely replace personal contact. Use the technology to make your practice efficient and use people to keep your practice personable.

8. Overdoing it

There is a danger that a firm can devote so much energy rightly addressing security and compatibility issues (including virus checking) that it impedes to a material extent communication with its clients. For instance, where procedures and controls automatically prohibit connection to networks that are less secure. Strike the right balance.

9. Compatibility

When implementing Internet technology ensure that your systems are as open as possible so that they can ‘talk’ to a diverse range of other systems. Also, bear in mind the creation of industry standards, such as XML, so that you can benefit from them.

10. Structure

Something frequently not considered when implementing Internet technology is that, in order to interact digitally with clients and others, a firm must have in place an appropriate administrative structure which may not already exist. This means, for instance, a document management system to control who may have access to which documents, an accounting/time recording system that will permit only certain information to be transferred to a secure area for individual clients to interrogate, file naming conventions to allow Internet technology to process data with the minimum of human intervention and so on.

11. Passwords

Bear in mind that larger clients will probably be demanding some form of integration with all of their panel of law firms. Security is important, but you should also be striving to make access as simple as possible (ie with the minimum use of access IDs): sensible use of cookies and other intelligent agents should make clients’ access to your systems as easy as possible for them.

12. Cost

A positive note on costs. Deployment of Internet technology is becoming significantly less expensive than it used to be. Taking advantage of Internet technology involves comparatively little capital outlay. With a little imagination and forward planning law firms – both large and small – can enter the digital race with most of the tools that are already sitting on their networks. In other words, sensible use of Internet-based technology can enable small firms to compete with big firms – and offer the same level of service.

What next?

Finally some crystal-ball gazing. Just as virtually no-one predicted how quickly and how radically the Internet would affect business over the last five to seven years, no-one can know how the technology will develop or change the way we work over the next few years. What follows is therefore no more than a guess as to where technology may take law firms over the next few years – by the time we know which, if any, of the guesses turn out to be accurate, this article will be long forgotten by readers – albeit stored in electronic databases in perpetuity. With this is mind, here are a few suggestions as to how the Internet may affect the provision of legal services in the short to medium term.

  • more ‘hot desking’: (ie less office space required as staff can log on to their virtual office anywhere)

  • more computerisation of everyday, standard tasks

  • intelligent systems to take clients (and lawyers) through legal tasks

  • less work based on hourly charges, more per-project/milestone fees

  • more technical integration between lawyers, experts, clients and courts

  • online court hearings/applications

  • greater use of video technology

  • removal of paper-based libraries/knowhow resources

  • creation of technical standards which will allow for greater integration between users

  • more legal work based on Internet defamation/fraud/theft/misuse/etc

  • greater attempts (that will fail) to regulate the Internet (although it may be that some sort of ‘kite marking’ will be introduced to indicate sites that adhere to a voluntary ethical/business code)

  • less differentiation between services offered by competing firms, more focus on quality and style

  • smaller firms able to compete against, and beat, larger firms both on actual matters and in winning new work

  • practices working 24/7 as matters chase daylight around the world

  • shrinking of the globe and the removal of language barriers as systems translate on the fly

  • paradoxically, simulations will be developed to explain the legal reasoning behind essential steps in a transaction, originally done manually but which are now done automatically by a computer

  • less of a human face in legal work?

Jonathan Maas is Editor of elexica, the award-winning free online legal resource from Simmons & Simmons.