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   Nov/Dec 2001


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TECHNOLOGY IN PRACTICE

FEATURE BY ERIC H. STEELEAND THOMAS SCHARBACH

Planning Your Technology Future: Top Trends to Focus on Now

Technology seems to take a bigger bite out of the budget every year. Consider these trends—and the true cost to those who don’t keep pace with change.

Legal technology has developed rapidly over the past decade—and the pace of change keeps accelerating. So how can you keep your tech budget from exploding every two or three years into perpetuity?

Study the trends—and how they’re affecting the practice of law. This will help you understand how to invest for success in the long-term. Otherwise, you may need to replace systems at a remarkable rate. Worse, you could fall far behind the competition and endanger your firm’s future. Here’s what we see happening currently and in the coming years, and what you should be doing about it now.

Changes in Legal Technology

There are six key trends in the technology used by law firms and law departments today.

Interconnectivity. The business world is rapidly adopting a technology model premised on "everybody is connected to everybody" and "everything is connected to everything." Almost all business computers in the United States are networked. And a high percentage of business computers are connected to the Internet and corporate intranets, permitting fast and efficient intra-enterprise and inter-enterprise communications.

Similarly, information is now becoming "device independent," particularly in communications technology. Systems to deliver e-mail, digital data, fax and voice communications now integrate and overlap. Soon, the delivery system for each medium will be capable of converting and delivering information from each of the others.

• Applications integration. Applications software is increasingly integrated, with standard user interfaces and the ability to pass information between applications. Office suites have been integrated for years. Today, both front-office systems (calendars, contact managers and so on) and back-office systems (document management, case management, financial management and so on) are moving toward integration with office suites.

Although the integration is by no means perfect, and probably never will be, the trend is for specialized back-office applications to become accessible through office suites and other front-office applications.

• Format integration. Integration between dissimilar applications (a word processor and an accounting system, for example) is enabled by standardization around a relatively small number of common data formats. This includes office suite formats; Web-based formats such as HTML and XML; industry-standard data exchange conventions such as OLE, ODBC and ODMA; and standard database query formats such as SQL. Standard data formats mean that a wide variety of applications can share information, driving and leveraging the trend toward applications integration, as well as simplifying the problem of delivering information to clients in formats the clients use.

• Web-enabled systems. Applications are becoming more Web-centric, as Web-based technology becomes the lingua franca of global communications. A good example came in Microsoft Word 2000, which adopted HTML as a native document format, allowing Word documents to be read by any Web browser, and to be edited online using Internet Explorer. Microsoft is the tip of the iceberg. Almost all applications vendors have or will adopt Web-based document formats as native in the next few years. Document management, case management, financial management and other legal software vendors are developing the capability to use browsers as a front-end.

• Everything online. Proliferation of information on the Internet combined with powerful search engines makes it feasible to undertake a unified search of multiple information sources, yielding accurate and integrated search results on just about any topic. Lawyers are finding that a mix of CD-ROM, commercial online legal research services and Internet research is the key to getting rapid, current and accurate information. In addition, the information is delivered in "reusable" form that can be saved to disk and later incorporated into legal documents.

• Electronic information. A business need to share and reuse information cost-efficiently is accelerating the electronic exchange and storage of information. The ability to convert data among electronic formats, to scan and to use OCR technology is blurring functional differences between document management and records management systems. And the ability to store, recall and reuse electronic information is leading to another model of information management: the "data warehouse" or "data mart."

In simplest terms, a data mart is an orderly and accessible repository of information that is used as a basis for making better decisions. Law departments are using data marts to manage legal exposure, increase productivity and reduce legal costs. As law firms adopt similar technology, they will be able to better integrate information internally and with law department clients to enhance the quality and timeliness of their legal services.

The Shifting Paradigm

Such ongoing changes in technology are increasingly enabling lawyers to meet the changing demands of the legal marketplace in new and different ways. In essence, a paradigm shift in law practice is underway. Here are some of its key facets.

• Anywhere, anytime, all the time. Lawyers will continue to extend their ability to deliver legal services anywhere, anytime and all the time using communications and collaboration technology. Lawyers will be "in the office" at home and on the road, keeping track of e-mail and voice mail and able to tap into firm information systems using Web-based technology. Intranets and extranets are providing the tools needed to work with clients and other lawyers on cases and matters on a global basis.

• One-stop information shops. The information that lawyers need is now coming from a wide variety of sources—the Internet, Lexis and Westlaw, document management systems, case and matter management systems, financial management systems and the like. Increasingly, firms will develop "one-stop information shops" based on Web technology, linking information sources to a single portal or point of delivery. Law firms and client law departments will develop links between shops, enabling lawyers in firms to access client information as needed, and lawyers in legal departments to access status information from law firms.

• Online collaboration. The need to work anywhere, anytime will inevitably lead to rapid adoption of Web-based workgroup collaboration and knowledge-base technology—technology that enables lawyers in many locations to work together effectively using e-mail, discussion boards, project management software, net meetings, chalk boards, shared calendars and document repositories. The end result is the ability to marshal the collective knowledge and experience of the working team and make that knowledge readily accessible to all the team members.

• Virtual firms. Using communications and collaboration technologies, lawyers from a number of different firms are forming "virtual firms" to handle particular cases and matters, just as lawyers from different offices of large law firms do. Such virtual firms present a challenge for information technology management. To function efficiently, the working teams composing virtual firms need temporary communications and collaboration tools, as well as a secure information delivery system, integrated from among the resources of several law firms.

• Tailored legal product. Firms are already delivering electronic legal product tailored to meet client needs, particularly back-office information such as bills and expense reports. Front-office information will increasingly be similarly customized to meet the individual client’s needs. Examples include converting legal documents into automated documents for client use or database records for inclusion in the client’s data mart. The goal is to find the form best-suited to the client’s systems for storing and working with information.

In addition, more firms will use "push" technology to get information about legal developments to clients efficiently. This method will supersede client newsletters, Web pages and similar periodic publishing technologies with a constant stream of targeted, relevant information.

• Virtual legal services. In response to client demands for standard answers to common questions, law firms will develop and deliver more virtual legal services—virtual seminars, tutorials and walk-me-through-the-problem materials for use by clients, especially middle management. The information will be stored on law firm extranets accessible to clients in most cases, permitting the law firm to keep the information up-to-date.

What You Should Be Doing Now

Here are some priorities that should be considered when selecting and implementing legal technology.

• Focus on intranets and extranets. Concentrate on technology for one-stop information shops and delivery of tailored legal product. Intranets and extranets enable information portals and can enhance lawyers’ counseling value to clients. In addition, extranets can be a tool for managing cases and transactions, delivering the collaboration methods needed by internal and external virtual law firms, and fostering partnering arrangements between client law departments and outside counsel.

• Require standard data formats. Select front- and back-office applications that support the emerging standard data formats. Standard formats are a key enabling technology for applications integration and for delivering tailored information to clients.

• Require Web compatibility. Select applications that are Web-enabled—that is, able to integrate with intranets, extranets and browsers. Web-based technology is rapidly becoming the standard media for information delivery. Applications that are not Web-enabled will need to be upgraded or replaced within a short period of time.

• Assemble a knowledge base. Plan a firm knowledge base, a mix of precedents, documents and billing information that will enable knowledge reuse and cost analysis. This might take a number of forms, such as a mix of document management, records management, financial management and data mart systems. The key, however, is to think about the issue now and prepare for eventual implementation. At a minimum, start to store all material work product information in electronic form (digital data or images) as a way of developing the information needed to populate the knowledge base.

• Embrace expert systems. Finally, work toward implementing expert systems—systems that capture lawyer knowledge and apply that knowledge to preparation of work product. Although full-blown expert systems are not likely to be cost-effective in the near term, strategically implementing automated drafting systems is a good place to start. The principles underlying development of good automated drafting templates are the principles that will be used in expert systems.

Keep to the Fore

If you integrate these trends into your plans, you can stay in control of your future. Make your technology investments and business plans reflect these trends and where they’re taking the profession. You can keep one step ahead of the game and remain successful.

Eric H. Steele (esteele@ssa-lawtech.com) is a principal consultant of Steele Scharbach Associates L.L.C., a Chicago legal technology consulting firm that assists law departments and law firms with strategic technology planning and implementation. He formerly practiced law at Aaron, Aaron, Schimberg & Hess and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

Thomas Scharbach (tscharbach@ssa-lawtech.com) is a principal consultant of Steele Scharbach Associates L.L.C. He was formerly Director of Information Systems Services for Kirkland & Ellis and a partner in its real estate practice area.

LINKS
Trend Watch
Head to the following URLs for more information on trends in law practice and technology:

www.abanet.org/lpm
www.elawyering.com
www.ssa-lawtech.com
www.idc.com
www.peertopeer.org/papers.html
www.law.com/professionals
www.gartner.com
www.techweb.com
www.techguide.com
www.cnet.com
www.zdnet.com