The evolution of legal services

I gave the keynote address at LegalTech LA on Tuesday, conveying to the delegates my vision of “Leading Your Clients in the Connected Economy,” in the delightful retro-kitsch setting of the Westin Bonaventure in downtown Los Angeles. The legal community—at least recently—has being fairly good on implementing information technologies, which is only natural given how information and knowledge-centric they are. However it is another substantial leap for them to extend these kinds of systems to their clients. Encouragingly, several of the leading software platforms being touted at the exhibition offer capabilities to create client extranets easily and simply. These are often just ways of making documents and billing visible to clients—which is an important step—but are well shy of allowing workflow to be integrated into the clients’ processes—which is where this is all going. Ready-to-roll customized client extranets are now available in a number of firms. The Chief Technology Officer of one of the leading West Coast law firms told me he asked at an internal conference of all their litigation attorneys how many had created extranets for clients, and was amazed to find out that 85% had done so. No arm twisting involved.

One of the key questions is to what degree clients will drive the shift to providing online legal services and transparency. At the moment these demands are coming primarily from the most sophisticated Fortune 100 companies, however the scope is gradually broadening. There is a widely held view in the global legal community that the UK law firms—and in some cases even Australian ones—are ahead of US firms in implementing knowledge management and online services. My perception is that this is not because clients in these regions are more demanding, but that the law firms are being more innovative, and arguably the benefits of this can already be seen. Law is one of the most conservative professions, not least because the partnership structure (especially as implemented in law firms as opposed to the slightly more corporatized large audit firms) is very difficult to shift. I believe that the next 5-10 years will bring substantial change in the legal industry, and what clients expect in terms of service delivery. Those firms that do not fundamentally shift how they work with their clients will find it increasingly tough going.

Creating the infrastructure for the trusted networks

I had lunch earlier this week with Stuart Henshall in San Francisco, and we had a delightful wide-ranging discussion on topics of common interest. We’ve known each other for a good few years through scenario planning, and have a similar vision for the future of personal online networks. Stuart focuses on—among many other very interesting issues including consumer rights—trust in building networks. His vision is of a world in which everyone has their profile online, and shares both their profile and their personal connections selectively with trusted contacts. Sixdegrees.com was the first major online player in this space. I intended to write about it in Living Networks, but it went the way of all things in January 2001. The current top players in this space are Ryze.com and ecademy. However effective trust systems are essential for these public online networks to work. In the first instance we need to be able to create layers around how much of the information about our personal contacts we want to share. Intermediating software can help, for example by identifying in a secure system the contacts we share. For example, Stuart and I estimated we would share 20-30 people in our email address books, but we don’t know who all of those people are. On the next level, if we can create software that enables people to draw on their personal contacts’ perception of others’ trustworthiness, this will enable us to more readily expand our own personal networks in useful ways. These kinds of systems can be implemented either in a global context, or inside or across organisations.

One of the key issues which comes up for me is how we are going to get there. Creating a highly functional system that enables us to see and expand our global personal networks is a fabulous vision, which I dearly hope will come to fruition, but it is likely to take a long time and there is a risk it will never happen. In the first instance, as I write in Living Networks, people need to build evolutionary business models, that can make money in creating the first steps of this vision, and easily morph into new models as the context moves on. The other key issue is standards. As in many domains, whoever “controls” this extraordinarly valuable space of personal connections can create—and extract—enormous value, and thus there will be plenty of competition to be the winner. If there are standard information definitions and interfaces between competing systems, this fragmentation can be avoided. Ultimately, if the vision is realized, it will most likely be driven by an open source initiative, which means there is usually less commercial value to be extracted. There’s a long way to go yet in creating a system that will allow everyone to see exactly how they are connected in the global networks. I’ll try keep you posted along the way.