The legal profession has a reputation as something of an IT backwater, where tradition lords over innovation. Law firms now appear to be leading the way, both in their use of advanced technology, and in terms of the stringent regulatory requirements they impose on IT contracts.
A quick scan of recent deals proves the point. Earlier this month, international law firm Eversheds signed a five-year, £27m deal with Computacenter, in part to consolidate its European datacentres. About the same time, another global player, Clifford Chance, announced an offshoring programme in India that included a £10m investment in IT.
Research from Kew Associates, in association with Computer Weekly, also showed that investment in IT from business services, which includes legal firms, was increasing by 7.8% a year according to figures from the first quarter of this year. This would make the sector the most rapidly growing non-governmental investor in IT.
Malcolm Simms, IT director at Eversheds, said the legal sector was maturing in its approach to IT. The tipping point for Eversheds came when Simms won buy-in from the board for the five-year outsourcing deal with Computacenter.
"By outsourcing with Computacenter, we get a new investment in datacentres across two sites, which is a major step forward for the back end, and a change from the distributed computing we were doing. You could say it was a bit of a catch-up, but now we will have datacentres that are up there with the best," he said.
It is not just savings and improved service in infrastructure and support that Eversheds seeks in its deal with Computacenter. Although it transferred 79 IT staff to the service partner, Eversheds is also retaining an in-house IT team to improve the law firm's competitiveness.
The firm has been piloting a new case-management system based on Microsoft Outlook, integrated with Microsoft Sharepoint servers. With a company-wide roll-out due later this year, Simms predicted that the new system would be eyed enviously by other law firms.
The trend towards commoditisation of legal services is driving innovation in IT, Simms said. "I joined a group of equity partners recently and they were talking about the commoditisation of the legal profession. You have got to get the best lawyers doing the best law. In years to come, every type of law will become a type of commodity.
"Firms that can capture that first are going to be the most successful. IT is going to be a big part of people being able to do that."
Changing working practice within law firms to get the most out of new application investment is a challenge, Simms said. "New lawyers want more IT, whereas the older generation of lawyers cannot live without paper. However, at the executive level, they are seeing the value of IT investment."
This pattern is nothing new. Tiffani Bova, research director at analyst firm Gartner, said US law firms that pioneered document-management systems a decade ago met some difficulties with end-users.
"There was a huge resistance to change and an enormous amount of suspicion that technology could do anything better than pen and paper and a secretary. There was also a lot of caution around confidentiality," she said.
Richard Edwards, senior research analyst at the Butler Group, said UK-based law firms had been behind their US counterparts in IT investment, but were now catching up.
UK-based Clifford Chance, the largest law firm in the world, is now using a 45,000-square-foot shared service centre in Delhi, run by IT servics provider Integreon.
The law firm said it was the biggest offshoring project in the sector and would create about £9m in savings.
Amanda Burton, director of global business services at Clifford Chance, said, "In the nearly two years we have worked with Integreon, we have also been impressed by their high level of physical and data security."
Edwards said that law firms would bring new international standards to commonplace IT strategies such as offshoring, because of stringent regulatory requirements. More law firms were seeking certification for information security standards, such as ISO 27000 (formerly BS7799), because they saw it as an advantage in winning clients.
In their use of technology too, law firms could begin to lead innovation with the transition from search to discovery technology, Edwards said. "Search" users sort more information on a subject they are already aware of, while "discovery" users are given information they were not aware of but should be.
Because discovery is enshrined in litigation, the legal profession had a pressing need for the technology to speed up this process, Edwards said.
Far from having an antiquated approach to technology investment, law firms are now well placedto take advantage of new technologies and are leading business in using IT to improve information governance.