Predictions 2005: Killer app

January 1, 2005

There has been much talk in the industry about the next killer legal application. But whether there are signs that it will appear in 2005 and what it will be exactly, well that’s the question. Laurence’s annual request for predictions has started me thinking how I could work out what this application would be. What is the market saying it needs or what could it need that it doesn’t know it needs? I let my thoughts run wild and came up with this wild proposition.

Let’s start by looking at the telephone on your desk – it’s simple to use, always there and when it doesn’t work, which is rare, it’s more often than not the fault of the supplier (or the man digging up the road outside the office). You may have had expert installation of a modern and complex switchboard system but you certainly haven’t had to employ a load of switchboard and telephone engineers, kitted them out with the most powerful (read expensive) telephone kit and given them very expensive air-conditioned office space to live in. The bulk of the amazingly complex technology brought in to play when I use my phone to call our office in Sydney is held and operated by the telecommunication companies. Using the telephone as an analogy for complex legal applications could be seen as over simplifying it but I’ll stick with it because, as with good comedy, it sometimes takes the ridiculous to point out the blindingly obvious!

Today’s phones and switchboards are packed with an awful lot of features, many of which we don’t need or use but equally many of them are crucial to the way we do business – away from desk messages, call forwarding, direct dial, group pick up, call conferencing, speed dialling etc. I’ve never needed to employ a specialist to install any of these features or to explain to me in an unusual form of English that my phone is not quite compatible with something else ..and will need to be upgraded at great cost …but will then mean we can’t do half of the other things I currently take for granted …until something equally obscure is patched… which is on a list.. but is waiting for …

So tomorrow’s killer legal app. will be reliable and simple to use but what will it do? The telephone’s prime purpose is to allow people to talk to each other remotely from any other telephone. By having a unique number we can all contact each other as individuals and the other functions that come with today’s phones enhance (some argue detract from) that functionality. Could the function of the killer legal application be as clearly defined?

For me it must satisfy three criteria:

· Allow information to be recorded

· Allow information to be retrieved

· Automate processes.

The first two have been basic functions of technology since its introduction many decades ago but the third is a more recent innovation and still embryonic in many legal practice areas.

For me the killer app. will be “clever” enough to join up these three criteria so that information becomes intelligent. By that I mean the information supplied knows about itself: where it originates from, how old it is, how accurate it is, where it has been used and by whom and for what and perhaps more scarily what it should do with itself.

Now before you accuse me of having been at the Christmas spirit already let me try to illustrate what I mean.

All information held in a computer database is contextual. At its simplest level it has a date and time, an originator and a type (e-mail, letter, spreadsheet, account balance, hours recorded etc). Workflow systems can add more comprehensive contextual information (take the example of a letter: how many revisions and by whom, how long it took to produce, how much did it cost to produce, how much it was billed for). The more powerful workflow systems already allow information to instigate actions – these vary from simple database triggers which send alerts when WIP reaches prescribed levels to the complex case initiation processes triggered by an on-line inception from a client.

Let’s consider another example. WIP on a matter reaches a predefined value which triggers the system to produce a draft bill. This draft bill “knows” that it has to obtain the relevant authorities and also “knows” what to do to escalate itself should it get held up in the system. It is “intelligent” enough to work its way through the system until the cash has been collected and the figures included in the ledgers, reports, remuneration schemes, management reporting and even the marketing analysis.

At the moment law firms and their IT departments all over the world are spending time and money using a variety of tools and methodologies to mimic intelligent data. The proliferation of packages and databases popularised by the best of breed culture has spawned all manner of “solutions” to address individual aspects which, because of their nature, will never quite deliver.

The killer app. will replace it all with powerful simplicity, law firms can return to just needing legal skills, IT departments can disappear and IT will have matured.

All this in 2005 – I think not.

One day – inevitably (but possibly not with the wholehearted support of our IT departments!).

Stuart Holden is Managing Director of Axxia Systems: