Refurbishing the Bar

Written by David Tebbutt, Strategy magazine 01/91 item 01 - scanned

The solicitor's office, that inefficient woodpanelled anachronism, is in danger of extinction. A technology-led competitive spirit is beginning to pervade the profession. Once the domain of stuffy purveyors of hard-won knowledge, today's law firm is more likely to be populated by eager young men and women with a keen awareness of how computers can increase their effectiveness.

Successful lawyers are usually those with the best grasp of the documentary evidence submitted by each side, and traditional lawyers spend many hours during each case searching for the documentation to support each line of argument. But now a phenomenon already common in America has appeared in British courtrooms the computer assisted lawyer. Armed with a portable computer containing the evidence, the lawyer can now find the right information almost instantly. Such efficiency, and its corresponding cost reduction, suggests that, before long, no self-respecting lawyer will dare appear in court without a portable machine.

But using technology in the courtroom is only the tip of a large iceberg. Back at the office, much of the preparatory work is also done on computers, and now many cases never reach court because the computer aided lawyer can better appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent's case and push for an earlier settlement.

Masons, a law firm which specialises in the construction industry, uses computers in the courtroom, in its office, and runs a successful technology division specialising in agreements and disputes about the purchase and supply of computer systems.

Masons specialism in the construction industry is a fortunate precedent since the key issues in both construction and technology are similar. Phillip Capper, a Masons lawyer and an expert on both areas of the law, sees many parallels. Both industries make great use of sub contractors and sub-sub contractors, and both have to work with a high degree of uncertainty, frequently due to clients changing their minds. Both need procedures to deal with this. Capper says "Information technology is in danger of reinventing the wheel, but there's a great deal it can borrow from the construction industry." Masons can, for example, guide companies on every aspect of procuring an information system, from creating a tender document to resolving any disputes. Of course, if companies invest in Masons advice before signing up their suppliers, the chance of ending up in court is greatly diminished if not eliminated.

Bright individuals within Masons have also embarked on initiatives of their own which reflect very well on the company as a whole. Richard Susskind, a special advisor on Law and Information, teamed up with Capper to create the first published legal expert system in which the computer is able to advise on all aspects of the Latent Damage law - a law concerning building faults which may have been caused by defective workmanship but which don't cause problems until many years later.

Another masons lawyer, John Mawhood, has been working on an electronic mail system, designed to ease the flow of legal documents between companies to minimise the time and errors introduced by having to re-key information.

Masons is headed by senior partner John Bishop who has been a keen advocate of the introduction of computers into the company. Although enthusiastic, he is well aware of the dangers that technology brings. He tells his staff, "You must never forgo the lawyer hunch factor". His biggest fear is that his lawyers will become too dependent on computers, presuming that they are always right. He also dreads the arrival of the "document polisher" the lawyer who spends too much time making documents look pretty instead of getting on with the job. Such people would negate the value that the technology is supposed to bring.

But Bishop still wants to increase the company's use of computers. Presently, about one third of the company's lawyers have a machine. Bishop says, "In three years time, I would expect 95% of our lawyers to be working at a screen on a daily basis." Lawyers charge their clients according to the time they spend on the account. Computers can reduce this time and some, if not all, savings could be passed on to the client. The client also benefits by being able to resolve its legal problems more quickly.

Bishop says the firm's success with technology is due to its ability to attract talented individuals such as Susskind who have experience of both the law and computer systems. One of its attractions is the high-tech building in Clerkenwell, London. Once a factory making 25 suits, the building has been gutted and redesigned to make for easy communication between people in the company. There is a central atrium topped by a domed glass roof; glass-sided lifts glide silently up and down each end of the atrium. More San Francisco than London, but the building has a purpose. Until recently, Masons operated from Fleet Street buildings, which Bishop likened to rabbit warrens. They were fine when senior lawyers dispensed their wisdom behind heavy doors in walnut panelled offices, but now solicitors work much more as a team and being able to see each other is essential to team-building. The walnut panels have gone, and instead there are plain glass windows.

Bishop talks frequently of the "institutional memory", the shared wisdom and experience of the company, which is usually achieved through training and day to day encounters. Not surprisingly, Masons has a superbly equipped training suite and a canteen which opens at 8am. The design of the building, the communal breakfasts in the canteen, and the training room all encourage 'institutional memory' development and a team spirit.

Another crucial element is the computer system; the perfect vehicle for building and sharing institutional memories. The company uses a product called 'Guide' to enable it to build special, multilayered interconnected documents. The technical term for these computer-based documents is 'hypertext'. A hypertext document is just like any other documents contract, a book or even a typewritten page but if you meet a term you don't understand, instead of heading for the law book or dictionary, you simply press a button and the explanation appears on the screen.

Masons uses Guide in two ways. It has created a hypertext version of the Conditions of Contract for Works and Civil Engineering Construction in Guide format, where all the clauses come with a plain English explanation which the novice - or the client - can easily 'pop up' on the screen, but which the expert can ignore.

Guide is also helping people to grasp the relationships in a complex case. This is especially useful in construction industry disputes, where there can be many levels of contractor and subcontractor. Every one can submit documents about the case, which often refer to documents provided by other contractors. Guide can contain diagrams of the relationships, which enable witnesses to describe their own position much better. Their statements, other case documentation, and lawyers' notes can then be 'hung off the back' of the diagram.

But guide does more than provide two levels of information. It can link one document to another, or even one word in a document to a word in another, links the user can use instantly. Guide can also run other programs from within a document, and have graphics, audio and video sequences. Although its full potential has yet to be exploited, the program is already proving very useful for Masons.

Guide is a fairly advanced example of the company's computer use. At a more prosaic level, it uses word processors and spreadsheets. Presently, when lawyers and secretaries work on the same documents, they exchange them by handing a disk to each other, although the company is gradually being networked, which will enable one user to get a document directly from another machine. Lawyers usually annotate their secretary's work and then pass it back to the secretary for them to enter the corrections. The secretaries use IBM compatible personal computers connected to central Wang minicomputers which store much of the 'institutional knowledge' like standard form contracts and precedent documents.

The company's IBM-compatible personal computers are also made by Wang. IBM-compatibles were chosen because of the massive amount of relevant software available and because most companies that Masons works with also use IBM-compatible machines. Wang was chosen because it was a trusted supplier and its prices were reasonable.

Before the IBM machines, Masons used Apple Macintoshes, and some of the partners were reluctant to move to the new machines. However, they have now accepted the situation with good grace; the personal computers run a program called Microsoft Windows 3.0, which makes them much more Mac-like in terms of user friendliness. This is just as well because, as Bishop points out: "the vast proportion of lawyers are anti-technology. You have to give them the most user friendly environment." He adds, "You also need to be able to provide help quickly." For this reason, Masons has a continuously-staffed help line which will answer any question immediately or offer to fix the problem. Bishop believes that the lawyers would simply return to pen and paper if the response were less than instant.

In addition to the need for user friendliness and instant help, Bishop has discovered that PC training is best given one-to-one. Senior fee earners simply do not want to appear fools in front of their colleagues. Without question, Masons' success with computers is largely due to having the necessary expertise within the company. No external firm would be able to match Masons' needs with software packages or even discover ways in which standard packages could be used to bring new ways of working to the company.

Richard Susskind works with Martin Telfer, head of IT, on what he calls "client computer services". He says his sections role is "trying to think of new ways of packaging and presenting our expertise." As the man who helped create the first legal expert system, it is clear where Susskind is coming from. But he sees a number of other areas in which clients can benefit from computer technology. In litigation support, for example, most documents created before and during a case are managed by a program called Personal Librarian. This can store images and text, although presently Masons only uses text. Masons' lawyers acting for the Port of London Authority have already made history by referring to the court transcripts some 20,000 documents - on a Toshiba portable computer, and John Mawhood's LIX electronic mail system, enables clients and Masons to exchange word processor files even between different word processors.

Susskind was also engaged in introducing graphics in reports and presenting evidence in court. A chart to explain the movement of funds, for example, is far easier to understand than someone trying to describe the situation verbally. Susskind uses flow diagrams to explain the legal processes to clients in the construction industry. He was engaged in introducing Guide to give documents more meaning. He's now working on a document assembly system driven by asking the user a series of questions. Depending on the answers, different clauses are bolted together and the gaps filled in. Now, a job which needed a lawyer can be started by the client.

Susskind believes that such systems give the law firm an opportunity to be more pro-active in obtaining business. He says, "Normally a lawyer reacts to a customer's perceived problems. The trouble is that they may not see all of them or they may see them too late." One day Susskind would like to see much of the know-how encapsulated in expert systems but, at the moment, most of the advice is provided by the technology law service of the company. Lawyers help clients thrash out agreements with suppliers of hardware, software, systems, distribution services and so on. The company is intimately familiar with issues relating to copyright and other intellectual property rights like software licences, joint venture agreements and the Data Protection Act.

Rachel Burnett, a solicitor in another part of the technology law division, has a long background in computing, having worked as a systems analyst and consultant to a number of large organisations such as British Telecom, Sainsbury's and Midland Bank. She specialises in the making deals' side of the law, and helps companies to draw up contracts which will enable the parties to manage changes, and plan for consequential and indirect damage. It also enables the parties to resolve questions of ownership of the resulting programs. How, for example, would you define the ownership of a piece of software written for your company which incorporates already-written fragments of someone else's programs?

By using a company like Masons before a project begins, contracts may be drawn up which reflect the interests of both parties. The buyer of a computer system should take responsibility for this initiative because, as Burnett observes, "A lot of computer people don't realise that they will run into problems later.'' It has always been the nature of computer systems development that the timescale, the price or the specification will change during the life of the project. As systems become even more complex and the success of the business relies even more heavily on them, the attendant risks are even greater. The existence of a clear contract at the start of a computer project will save on legal fees should anything go wrong later.

Masons has made a firm commitment to technology based on a clear understanding of the benefits it brings to the company. It not only helps the lawyers to provide a better service to their clients, it also improves the internal workings of the firm. New areas of business have been opened in drafting contracts and handling disputes related to the implementation of new technology, and future opportunities are becoming evident through the encapsulation and sale of expert knowledge. These initiatives are all the more convincing because, as Susskind points out, "In a law firm, every piece of equipment you buy is effectively a cheque written out by one of the partners."