IT & the Lawyer

Online strategies for smaller law firms

The bottom line for any online strategy is that it must "be able to deliver practical tips either in the form of generating fee income or at least making a positive contribution to the commercial development of the practice." To this end he emphasises the concept of the "joined-up legal practice", where the firm's online strategy is an extension of its overall business and practice development strategy. It should unify all the inputs that a firm has, such as technology, marketing and fee-earning lawyers.

In his overview of the number of law firms in England, he finds surprisingly few - 3000 out of 10 000 firms - have websites, of whom less than 600 offer anything more than the basic brochure site. He then details the challenges and commercial threats facing the modern law firm with the most virulent threat being the changes in the traditional client relationship. Clients are more demanding, client loyalty is on the wane and competition from non-law practices is eating into traditional sources of income.

Client facing technology has made traditional services look slow, dowdy and inefficient. Threatened by such competition and by challenges to their traditional role as the primary source of legal advice and assistance, Christian believes that solicitors have to differentiate themselves from the competition in order to give themselves a competitive edge. Whatever strategy they choose, it has to perforce involve some form of online strategy as a way of improving delivery and service.

He then details the nature, advantages and drawbacks of the following three types of web sites.

Marketing websites
This is your most basic brochure website as well as a logical starting point. Such a site has information about the firm and a couple of links. A caveat in having such a site is not to give too much information away. Also, keep a tab on how many leads are in fact being converted into new work. Later on questionnaires, articles, e-mail newsletters, documents, templates and quotation or fees calculators can be added.

Virtual legal practices
If it is possible to use new Internet-type technologies to reinvent the legal process and deliver new types of legal service in new ways, this is it. Virtual legal practices include everything from virtual law firms - lawyers with no formal offices - through to online legal services earning fees while you sleep and without the intervention of any lawyers. This is the clicks-and-portals option.

Such practices allow products to be commoditised, so that services can be delivered straight to the client off the web without dealing with an attorney - create once, sell many times. Drawbacks to this approach include the degree to which one can commoditize a product, technology and infrastructure issues and high costs for little return. The Desktop Lawyer service lost £7 million of its investors' money before it went into liquidation.

Web enabled legal practices
The essence of the web-enabled legal practice is to use new technologies to deliver traditional legal services, but in new ways. It covers everything from electronic mail to virtual deal rooms, but the underlying objective is the same: to provide an added value service - that little something extra that makes your firm stand out from the crowd in a way that genuinely benefits both the client and the fee earner.

Here the technology complements rather than seeks to replace or devalue the lawyer's personal role in the legal services scenario. This is the clicks-and-mortals option. Examples of such an implementation aim at giving the client what they want such as WIP reports, financial data and access to documents. This can be done through SMSs, e-mail and secure extranet/portals. This will probably be the way to go, in that it represents the best combination of the old and the new.

Once again drawbacks include the costs and problems of implementing the necessary technology and infrastructure.

The white paper includes 20 online strategy tips and trips. These neatly crystallise some commonsensical points that can so often be ignored in the rush to get connected. Tips include:

  • Start now - even if it is with a pilot project.
  • Consult with colleagues.
  • Set realistic objectives.
  • Monitor results.
  • Have clear objectives - what is the purpose of your site and your target market?
  • Focus on the client, not the senior partner's ego.
Legal, marketing, security, confidentiality and design matters are also touched on in this white paper.

White paper on legaltechnology

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