Legal firms are facing up to an explosion in the number of electronic documents related to case work in the past 10 years.
A decade ago, few lawyers were using e-mail for business communications, but today almost all case information and documents are exchanged electronically, said Dai Davis, partner at legal firm Brooke North.
Finding information from many different collections and sources, both internally and externally, has become increasingly difficult and one of the biggest challenges facing lawyers in the information age.
This is particularly true of international law firms that typically have thousands of lawyers needing to search and access tens of millions of documents spread over multiple storage systems within the organisation.
Law firm Linklaters already has 25 million documents in its data stores, and expects to produce another 1.8 million the coming year.
Faced with the challenge of searching and accessing these documents, Linklaters has joined many of its peers among the growing ranks of global organisations implementing enterprise search platforms.
These platforms are commonly marketed as e-discovery tools and document or content management systems.
They enable large, information intensive organisations such as international law firms to search, manage and retrieve information stored in internal and external data repositories.
Research firm Gartner says these systems cut the cost, time and risks associated with gathering information.
Such systems automatically index and categorise data and provide a single search interface that works across multiple systems, databases and knowledge repositories such as library catalogues and online legal resources to provide lawyers with the most relevant answers to searches in a matter of minutes.
Enterprise search suppliers report that legal firms make up the biggest number of customers, followed by corporate legal departments, pharmaceutical companies, large corporates and the media industry.
Large international firms make up the bulk of the legal customers because of the volume of documents typically handled by these organisations said Simon Price, UK sales director at enterprise search and categorisation software supplier Recommind.
Price said because law firms are extremely document orientated, the uptake of enterprise search systems has been rapid since first introduced in 2006.
The most obvious business benefit to legal firms are cost savings by improving productivity.
"Making all documents instantly available has greatly increased productivity and freed up physical storage spaces," said Dave Bennet, associate director at Linklaters.
Return on investment
Firms that have recently implemented search systems said that saving just one or two minutes a day per lawyer enables a return on investment within three to four months.
International law firm Norton Rose expects to save £500,000 a year by cutting the time spent searching for documents by a third.
Law firms now routinely scan paper documents, spurring the growth of document stores. But with the aid of enterprise search systems, law firms are finding business benefits by providing staff global access to information, in contrast with the past, when only local teams would have had access to certain collections of data.
Other less obvious business benefits include the ability to bid for new business and attract top-flight legal graduates.
Simmons and Simmons, for example, is using a legal-industry-specific add-on to locate experts in particular legal areas throughout the firms international offices to assemble specialised teams.
Field Fisher Waterhouse reports improved ability to attract graduates with the deployment of its enterprise search system.
"Now that the 'Google generation' is entering the workplace, having a good information management system is helping attract and support recent entrants to the profession," said the firm's knowledge management director, Jane Bradbury.
Enterprise search suppliers predict adoption rates will continue to climb in 2008, with demand already filtering down to smaller companies as well as the top 100 law firms.
Gartner supports this view, but also predicts a proliferation of suppliers. Tom Eid, research vice-president at Gartner, said, "As we move into a high growth market, expect new supplier entrants and non-traditional competitors to participate through technology partnerships and acquisitions."