It is now nearly 20 years ago since my book Legal Practice in the Digital Age was first published. The book’s central theme was that despite all the money law firms were spending on technology in those days, most of this money (money which might otherwise be going to partners) was being spent on the wrong stuff.

What law firms were spending their money on back then were mainly inward-facing, back office administrative systems, such accounts, practice management, wordprocessing and document management systems. Whereas what they should have been spending their money on were outward-looking, client-facing systems … in other words systems that could help deliver a better legal service experience to their clients.

What I suggested in my book was that law firms needed to focus on finding a “killer app” that would transform the legal business, the way that the bank ATM/hole-in-the-wall machine transformed High Street banking. And, as far as High Street firms were concerned, this didn’t involve big budget rocket science. At the time, most firms would have exceeded their clients’ wildest expectations by just offering email as an alternative to snail-mail and playing telephone-tag as communications medium!

Fast forward to 2015 and what am I hearing from inhouse legal teams, local government lawyers and corporate counsel? That law firms are still not providing adequate technology to provide a better legal service experience to their clients… and that law firms are still pleading poverty because they are investing so much money in back office administration systems.

The general view can best be summed up as: when it comes to providing technologies that make life easier for clients, law firms are still not being proactive and generally only react when a client (and here we are talking about major commercial clients carrying a lot of financial clout) pushes them hard enough. (Or as one inhouse lawyer recently told me “I waited seven years for a major law firm to offer two pieces of, what I thought, were pretty basic functionality. When I retired, they still hadn’t provided it!”)

For example, there was a major tech show for lawyers this summer where the talking point of the event was the future of document management systems. Similarly, for many firms, a huge slice of their IT budgets over the coming months will be devoted to rolling out a new version of Microsoft Office and the Word WP application.

The fact is the majority of clients couldn’t care less how law firms create and archive their documents – if they were generated by chimpanzees taking time out from recreating the works of Shakespeare, they wouldn’t mind providing they contributed towards an outcome the client was hoping for, as well as an outcome that was on budget and on schedule.

To go back to my original example of ATM systems, High Street/retail banking has now moved on to a point where we now also expect an online banking facility to be part of the services that accompany our accounts. So, just imagine how impressed you’d be if your bank told you, “Sorry, we don’t offer online banking but the statements we post to you are printed on a lovely cream paper stock and we have an excellent filing system so we will never lose your correspondence.”

Yet, this is precisely the same message that far too many law firms are still sending out to their clients. “Yes, we know times are changing but we’re going to keep on doing things the same old way we’ve always done.”

This is no longer a viable business strategy – stick-in-the-mud law firms may be unwilling to change but the demands of both existing and prospective clients have. Furthermore, we are starting to see a new generation of ABS firms (not just startups but also established firms that are reinventing themselves) appearing in the market, who are taking the approach of designing their legal services with an integral tech-led delivery model.

It is an over-used term but this is called “disruption” and as they say in the tech startup world: those being disrupted are usually the last ones to know and the first ones to go.

Charles Christian is a legal IT commentator and speaker with over 30 years knowledge of the industry. He is publisher and editor of the Legal IT Insider global legal tech industry newsletter. Twitter @ChristianUncut.

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