IT & the Lawyer

Strategies for law firms

Introduction
I am often amazed to hear how law firms profess to apply the latest technology to improve service efficiency and effectiveness only to discover that these initiatives have not benefited the firm as much as originally believed or that the implementation thereof has not resulted in the optimum leverage one can and should gain out of applied technology and technology platforms. South African law firms today simply seem to be applying a thin veneer of credibility to their practice set-up by banding around words and statements of technology software applications, intranet and interactive websites. Having technology and websites in place is a start, but this means nothing if an understanding and application of the technology is not in place to leverage value for the benefit of the firm as a whole, and more importantly, the client.

The real challenge facing all law firms who want to strategically position themselves as the service provider of choice is to employ technology and technology platforms in such a way and in such a manner so as to fundamentally change the way the firm organises itself both in operational and workflow management and in strategic management. The application of technology in this sense will, no doubt, improve efficiency and effectiveness, resulting in better service delivery and improved information and communication flows not only with clients but also with third party service providers. The technology drivers of today include the Internet, legal software and a host of web-based services. A firm's ability to re-organize itself by employing such technology and technology platforms will add value to its clients as well as distinguish itself from its competition.

Technology platforms
When one scouts the industry today and highlights several of the more established firms, one will notice a drive on their part to improve their organizational operations through the employment of among other utilities, standardised legal software, complex intranets, and client interfaced websites. Many of these initiatives have, together with complementing management strategies, given these firms a return on investment that they would not otherwise have received had they not implemented the technology drivers. Not only do these technology drivers result in improved efficiency, effectiveness and information flows, but they also contribute as a cost driver initiative. The improved financial benefits may not be immediately apparent, but they do contribute significantly to the bottom line over the firm's financial period.

What is apparent from our overseas colleagues is that the nature of technology drivers in any business today is advancing at such a rate that even the ones we, as South African lawyers, are only implementing now are fast becoming obsolete. In the U.S., law firms are moving away from technology applications built and installed on-site to web-based technology. The web based applications are fast becoming attractive. The most seductive consideration in that rather than buying or downloading your software and then installing it on your office machines, you can now log on to a web site and use an application that is hosted on that site's server. On your end, you see either a conventional browser or a custom made screen. You can then access the information you need, get the results required and print and save on your end - the real beauty of the application is the fact that the completing and information management process is accomplished on the server end of the connection.

This type of technology platform allows for improved efficiency and effectiveness, which can further be enhanced by way of you entering into a contractual relationship with the vendor and incorporating a service level agreement ("SLA"). The vendor is paid a fee for his applications and is assured of a continued income from you so long as he complies with the SLA and improves his web- based application on an on-going basis. From your side, unproductive time and resources are reduced and information is readily available at the click of a mouse. Costs are managed more effectively as one no longer has huge capital expenditure and costly maintenance agreements. Also, costs can be managed further if one considers employing a transactional based payment system rather than by way of a monthly fixed rate.

The reality of this type of web based technology is already here in South Africa, the best examples being Korbitec's GhostConvey and the company, deed and credit search functionality of Windeed. Other local software developers are currently busy with research and development to determine ways in which they can deliver improved applications to you over the web. A further example of this new approach to technology platforms utilised in law firms is the access of legal content over the Internet such as LexisNexis Butterworth's and Jutatstat's on-line law reports. Very soon the days of having to subscribe for print volumes of law reports will be a thing of the past.

Client relationship management ("CRM")
Our general legal practice is truly a commodity based service and as such the fight for market share and increased profits is determined fundamentally by price and service delivery. Leaving price to one side, service delivery is a combination of intellectual capital, efficiency and effectiveness. All firms have varying degrees of intellectual capital to enhance their reputation as the preferred attorneys for the job and while this is clearly a competitive advantage, law firms on the other side of the scale can still compete on an equal footing if they can enhance their service delivery through efficiency and effectiveness. Technology can play a pivotal role here.

Client relationships are changing in two fundamental respects: they are becoming more digital and electronic in nature; and they are becoming more self-service orientated. Technology is already in place to cater for the more attuned and savvy digital client through the use of e-mails and document exchange via the Internet. The real opportunity for law firms to improve their competitive advantage lies in the in the very nature of the "self-service" movement. People today live in a world of instant gratification and a thirst for immediate answers.

Law firms can meet their clients' expectations by employing technology or using technology platforms to provide them with information and services instantly. This could be achieved through the law firm's website where clients can log on to their personal portfolio and within such an environment have access to information such as the status of their matters, their account balances, manuals, and calendars. The best example of how this can be achieved is to look no further that search engines such as Google and Yahoo that create a personalised homepage for each member enabling them to see only the information they want to see. The member can log on as often as he likes and will get the information he has requested or is allowed to see at the click of a button

Employees
Richard Branson was once asked what drives his business and his reply was not clients or customer care that ranked at the top of his list but rather the employees in his business. He believes that when a business has well trained, informed and happy employees, productivity, efficiency and effectiveness is unparalleled. Law firms is South Africa need to move away from thinking of employees as a cost item on the income statement and rather view them as an asset on the balance sheet. Staff become assets when they are in a position to execute their workflow without hindrance. Technology can aid in this respect again. Web based information via useful programmes such as Windeed, GhostEnquiry and GhostConvey allow staff to move work along more quickly and efficiently. Access to on-line databases of precedents and access to each other via intranets (where companies have two or more branches) will also add to the ability of your staff to be more efficient and effective.

Conclusion
The costs of purchasing, accessing and employing technology and technology platforms in a law firm is obviously a concern that needs to be managed carefully, but the hidden benefits therein to improve efficiency, effectiveness and competitive advantage cannot be underestimated. The legal industry has ever decreasing workflows, an over-traded competitive market and more difficult and informed clients. This means that all lawyers and law firms have to begin thinking out of the box; they have to start spending equal amounts of time in strategically managing the business to ensure its survival and thereby, hopefully, improving its position as the service provider of choice.

Technology and technology platforms are one of several initiatives that law firms need to employ to improve their positions. Today, South Africa is blessed with many technology driven service providers and vendors that are in a position to help law firms leverage the benefits discussed herein. The key to success in this regard is for law firms to understand the value proposition the technology presents then and apply it to their business.


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This information may be used on condition that the author is cited and recognised as the author thereof.

About the author:
Sean Bosse is a practising attorney in Cape Town who, in 2001 left practice to complete an international MBA focussing on strategic management and marketing. Sean was employed for a few years as a strategic business manager in the IT corporate sector before returning to practice and assisting his firm with several strategic initiatives to improve strategic and operational management. He is passionate about strategic and marketing management, especially in the law firm setting and often describes his interests as a passion for the Business of Law. Feel free to contact him at [email protected]

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