Increased regulation has coincided with tougher competition in the business environment, causing clients to face severe cost pressures. As a result, they want more legal advice, but want to pay less for it.
Under this fee pressure, legal firms started to use internet technology internally, creating intranets for communication, collaboration, access to information and training. This was followed by innovative applications to help manage high-volume repetitive transactions, such as conveyancing and licensing.
Although this made them more efficient internally, far-sighted firms saw an opportunity to add value to their clients by giving them direct access to these internal systems.
Technology was the second most subscribed category of innovation. It is ideally suited to the primary nature of the industry, which revolves around processing information to provide advice and build relationships with clients.
Submissions were ranked primarily on facilitating client needs. "Rather than looking at how they use the technology internally, law firms should focus on using it to enhance the client-service experience," advises Richard Susskind, a consultant in legal technology.
Technology offers a low-cost way of making information available to clients, whether through ad hoc search or structured training. Indeed, given the increasingly global nature of both firms and their clients, internet technology is becoming the only realistic way for them to work together.
ABN Amro, the Dutch bank, uses Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s Altis, a "stand-out" online application for guidance on cross-border documentary risk control. It provides consistency of delivery and a standardised approach to 600 legal staff in more than 60 countries.
"A major issue is sharing knowledge held by a relatively small group of experts," says David Kemp, the bank’s director of development and communications. "We are a major convert to web-casting, which works well in locations as far apart as Latin America and Kazakhstan."
Freshfields is now taking recording equipment to client premises. Within 30 minutes of the close of the presentations it is handing over copies to clients.
However, innovative use of technology is not just about increasing communication and reducing costs. It can be used to build closer client relationships, as well as to showcase the firm’s expertise in order to attract new clients. In particular, it allows applications to be easily customised for each client and content to be constantly updated at low cost.
"The key points which make it a market leader are customisation and online management," comments an Altis user. "It makes it easy to use for the non-legal mind."
Addleshaw Goddard’s Employment Channel was the top-rated innovation. It is a television channel that provides clients with a highly flexible, efficient and cost-effective tool to train staff in employment matters and keep them informed of the latest developments.
The TV channel harnesses existing legal knowledge to add value by streamlining processes and increasing efficiency, client service and value for money.
It has provided a key differentiator, raising the firm’s profile with clients and prospects, helping it to both retain current clients and win new ones. "It is hugely cost effective and leaves no excuse for line managers to be ‘out of the loop’ with the latest employment news," a client comments.
Indeed, the indications are that these applications can be inexpensive and can generate their own revenue streams to supplement existing billings.
Clifford Chance spent less than Pounds 20,000 developing its commended video-based e-learning tool. It cost Eversheds Pounds 30,000 to develop [email protected], its highly-commended workplace regulation application, which brought in nearly Pounds 100,000 to the business in its first few months.
Eversheds’ stand-out Competition Law Online Toolkit has brought in more than Pounds 1m of fees to the business in two years. It is also deepening client relationships. "We intend to consider adoption of other Eversheds human resources-related tools as they are developed," says Phil Bowden, human resources development director at Connaught, the facilities management group.
Similarly, a user of the Employment Channel says: "I can’t see how we would ever not want to use it, ever again."
Baker & McKenzie believes that, while others may fear that electronic services could cannibalise their existing practice, its highly-commended Private Banking Helpdesk is complementary. "Clients benefit by paying less for the legal information and training," it says. "They now turn to us for important and strategic legal advice, benefiting lawyers in our private banking practice. Lawyer numbers have more than trebled in the three years since its launch."
Dickinson Dees has a similar experience with Ownership, its commended Home Information Pack application. Marketing the website has led to a doubling of volumes in its mainstream conveyancing business.
It is not just choosing the right application that matters, but implementing it in a superior way that sets a firm out from the crowd. "The Private Banking Helpdesk is unique because it offers a consolidated view on international tax and legal issues," says a client. "It is incomparable to any other firms I have used."
An independent commentator says that Wragge’s commended Client-Centric Dashboard is in tune with best practice and is the most sophisticated of its kind. "Whilst some US law firms have similar concepts, Wragge is very much at the fore in the UK," says the commentator.
A user of the Online Toolkit appreciates the time Eversheds devoted to making sure that it is clear, concise and understandable for non-lawyers. "It is a better way of delivering training than the old-style seminars," they say. Clients say the real value of the Toolkit is the innovative use of assessment to enable their firm to monitor and check understanding of the users.
"Internet-based technology reduces the time spent on the work required and thus the costs," concludes Lovells, "as well as increasing efficiency and reactivity. These are all essential in the modern world."