For law firms, tomorrow’s technology is here today

For a profession that’s known for its history and traditions, it’s easy to understand why the legal sector may be a bit sceptical when it comes to the latest technology and must-have gadgets, says Ian Wimbush, Chairman of the Legal Software Suppliers Association (LSSA).  But can the latest developments in IT really act as business enablers for modern law firms?

If you’re wondering whether gadgets like iPads and iPhones are business tools that can help law firms to increase their productivity – or just expensive “toys” – then you’re not alone.  However, an increasing amount of anecdotal evidence is making it clear that gadgets like these – along with other high-tech ways of working – really can help legal professionals to be much more efficient and productive.

Cloud computing, for example, is often in the headlines these days, as there are clearly many benefits associated with accessing a firm’s data and/or applications via the Internet – or ‘the cloud’.

For example, with the cloud computing model, the speed and cost of project implementation can be much lower than those involved with a traditional IT infrastructure. Scalability, too, is another plus, since additional users (and even entire offices) can be added to a cloud-based solution easily, without the need for additional hardware, local installation and set up.

Cloud computing also makes remote access easier, since the firm’s software and data are available from anywhere via a simple Internet connection, whether access is needed by multiple offices, from employees working at home, or the need for one-off remote access.

Even with these advantages, however, some firms remain sceptical about new technologies like cloud computing – until they begin to see how these solutions can improve their day-to-day working practices.

“Hosted solutions have their fair share of cynics, but it’s been proven time and time again that operating from the cloud really pays off, especially in disaster situations,” says John Donigan, Sales & Marketing Manager at LSSA member Quill Pinpoint.  “One of our hosted reference sites is an extreme example of how the cloud delivers return on investment.  During last summer’s riots in Croydon, their office and contents were destroyed.  Losing PCs and paper files would signify the end for most firms.  Not so for our client, whose data was safely stored off-site in our secure server bank far away from Croydon.”

“It’s absolutely essential to plan for emergencies like these, as it’s impossible to know when they’ll strike next or what form they will take,” John Donigan adds.  “Law firms can no longer avoid ‘what if’ scenarios, particularly with the SRA [The Solicitors Regulation Authority] demanding a more structured approach towards ensuring continuity of services.  So in terms of business continuity, this kind of technology really is the answer to all our prayers.”

Whilst the mechanics behind cloud computing may be hidden from those accessing the system, most people would love to get their hands on the latest shiny new gadget. However, the reasons for choosing to work with a smartphone or a tablet device now extend far beyond looks alone.

“Practitioners are now demanding to have mobile devices because they can help to increase their billing time; it’s that simple,” says Colin McArdle, Product Portfolio Manager at LexisNexis Enterprise Solutions, another LSSA member.  “If lawyers can check their email and voicemail – and even access important applications like their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system – via their phone or a mobile device, it means that they become more effective in their working day.  As a result, this kind of technology, coupled with offline time recording capabilities, brings more fee-earning time into the day, so that lawyers can record more time – and therefore bill more time – much more easily.”

Although some case management and practice management systems still lack flexibility in this regard, this move to a more mobile architecture is on the cards for systems like these too. Greater integration with mobile devices is clearly the way of the future, especially as Windows 8 is expected to focus on this area in particular.

“Of course, a lot of lawyers still prefer books and will always prefer the feel of paper to touchscreens, but things are changing,” Colin McArdle adds. “A new generation of legal professionals has grown up in a world where web-based research and on-line working are the norm. As a result, people are not only becoming increasingly comfortable with this kind of technology, but also realise that it can make them much more productive in their working day.”

Applications – or “apps” – provide another good example of how new technology is quickly becoming part of everyday life for modern law firms. Using a mobile device to run a timekeeping app, for example, clearly makes sense, since it allows lawyers to record any out-of-office activity in real time, as it happens.

For fee-earners, the benefit of this approach is clear: by logging their time as they work, a lot of previously unbilled and forgotten time can now be recorded. As a result, more chargeable work can be accounted for, which means that revenues will be increased accordingly.

With the Internet now such an important hub for daily business communications, technology solutions like these are clearly here to stay – whether that means a solicitor checking his/her email on an iPhone or a team of solicitors accessing, editing and saving files via the cloud.

With so much electronic information whizzing around, perhaps it’s not surprising to hear that security still remains a concern for a number of firms. However, Colin McArdle feels that many of the concerns that remain in this area are based on misinformation.

“There always has been and always will be the risk of human error, whether you using traditional tools to communicate or new ones,” he says.  “It’s just as easy to send a letter or e-mail to the wrong person from as it is to leave your laptop on a train – but at least the data on the laptop is likely to be encrypted or require a password to open.”

“Even though these concerns still exist within some law firms, the benefits of these new technologies far outweigh any potential drawbacks. As such, we’ll start to see something of a ‘domino effect’ in the months ahead in terms of how law firms are using technology on a day-to-day basis. As the larger, well-known firms begin (and continue) to use these new technologies and become more comfortable with them, other firms will feel more confident to do the same.  So it’s not a question of if this shift to new technologies will occur; it’s actually already happening, so the real question is how quick the rate of adoption will be.”