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Technology column: Fee-earner-centric computing: making life easier for lawyers

One of the current hot topics in legal technology is ‘matter-centric’ computing. This means creating the digital equivalent of the old paper file, where copies of all the documents relating to a particular case or matter were stored in one manilla folder so anyone could pick up the file and immediately have the whole matter at their fingertips.

9 March 2004

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This contrasts with today’s situation in IT where the same information will typically be spread across a whole range of management systems from CRM to e-mail. A further complication is that the various – and frequently competing – suppliers of these systems all have a vested interest in claiming that ‘their’ approach is the best. On top of this, there has recently been a growing focus on another aspect of this issue: transparency.

On one level, this relates to the growing demand by institutional and commercial clients to have direct access, via the internet, to progress reports and other aspects of client/matter information, rather than chasing or waiting for their lawyers to report to them.

However, there is also another geographic aspect to transparency, otherwise known as ‘global access’ or even ‘access heterogeneity’. This is the idea that a modern law-firm network needs to be sufficiently flexible, yet at the same time robust and secure, to be capable of supporting users (and not just in-house people but also clients and other business partners) who require access to information from ever changing locations via a proliferation of access devices and communications channels. This includes desktop PCs, laptops and PDAs, plus wireless and GPRS ‘smart’ phones.

The perfection of such an approach is undoubtedly the sort of ‘killer application’ many law firms are looking for – and if access to this matter-centric information is available through a portal near you on the computer or access device of your choice, then so much the better. Certainly it would make life a lot easier for lawyers to know they can still be in touch with their clients and files when they are out of the office.

However, before we ever achieve true ‘fee-earner-centric computing’ – in other words, IT systems that really help make life easier for lawyers (as distinct from just creating more gadgets and applications they have to learn to use and lug around) – those lawyers need to be willing to fulfil their side of the bargain.

For example, we have a situation at the moment on both sides of the Atlantic where lawyers are insistent that they need laptop computers – which on average still cost nearly double the price of a desktop computer – just so they can access their e-mail. Yet, a device the size of a mobile phone, like a Blackberry, lets you do that for under £100 – and they are also a lot cheaper to support from a systems-management point of view.

Then there is the perennial stumbling block of training. Lawyers want the latest gadgets but are not prepared to spend the time learning how to use them properly. And so we get that all too frequent phenomenon of some hysterical partner screaming abuse down the phone from his hotel room on the other side of the planet, at whoever happens to be manning the help desk in the middle of the night, because he cannot connect his laptop to the internet.

So yes, technology can help lawyers – but in return lawyers need to help themselves.

Charles Christian is editor of the Legal Technology Insider newsletter.

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