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Clifford Chance gains an edge with specialist search engine

Ian Grant

Law firm Clifford Chance has implemented search engine software to enable staff at different locations to find information vital to its services to customers.

The legal firm is one of London's five "Magic Circle" law firms. According to The Lawyer's list of top UK law firms Clifford Chance is third in terms of revenue (£1.26bn) but only eighth in terms of profit per equity party (£737,000).

To help get ahead of the pack, Clifford Chance has implemented a specialised search engine from Recommind to speed up searches for elusive information on legal, experience and skills topics.

"We want to work for the best companies because they are doing the most exciting deals," says Sam Dimond, Clifford Chance's director of knowledge systems, and the man responsible for the new search system.

Like other law firms, Clifford Chance has a document management system that caters to its 3,000 fee-earning lawyers, who are supported by over 3,000 non-fee-earning business associates. Together they generate millions of e-mails, telephone calls, contracts and other documents a year.

But as the firm operates from 29 offices in 20 countries, often vital information cannot be found easily.

According to Dimond, document searches were always near the top of the staff's hate list. Internal surveys showed that even simple search could take 30 minutes to two hours.

Some 70% of searches used one or two words, which could return thousands of "hits", said Dimond. "That wasn't very useful because they usually couldn't drill down because the metadata that describes the document more fully was usually incomplete or missing," he says.

With clients paying by the hour, that should have been money for nothing, but Dimond says that it mostly made staff miserable. "No-one wants to come to work every day just to get frustrated," he said.

Besides, the growing change to value-based billing and fixed price contracts meant that time is now a key competitive issue for law firms with Clifford Chance's aspirations.

"A lot of the time spent on searches was not recoverable because people didn't book it," says Dimond. "Even if you estimated that 25% of the time couldn't be recovered, it amounts to millions of pounds a year."

But Dimond didn't rely on greater search efficiency to justify the project. Instead he based the financial case on what the firm would save by retiring other search facilities, including Google.

That alone would have paid for the new system, but in fact it was the improvement in staff happiness that swung the pilot from proof of concept to global tool.

Clifford Chance's Amsterdam office did the pilot, and 80% of users reported a much higher degree of satisfaction with the search facility. The Amsterdam project started in September 2009, and by November Clifford Chance was rolling out the Recommind system globally. In May, Germany will be the last country to go onto the new system.

Despite the speed, Dimond says the roll-out has been a staged process. First each country had to get the metadata, such as taxonomies, right for its documentation. That documentation covers the firm's speciality areas, namely, banking and finance, capital markets, corporate/mergers & acquisitions, litigation and dispute resolution, real estate, and tax, pensions and employment, as well as the corporate database that houses the information about who knows what, perhaps the most valuable assets Clifford Chance has, Dimond says.

An example of this was when the firm needed to know who in the firm had experience of the Kazakhstan oil and gas industry and what was the nature of that experience. This would have taken hours by phone and Clifford Chance might never have found an answer, but the new search system produced it in seconds, says Dimond.

Even so, Clifford Chance is not throwing out its legacy systems just yet. There's too much information that isn't susceptible to automated search, Dimond says. But the future is clear - if a lawyer wants a document, they had better file it so the system can find it.


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