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.