The Sirianny of Distance

I was relating to a BigLaw colleague how I had recently spent a weekend at a CLE event in rural Australia where it was a 53 year tradition. Again I learnt a lot from my audience some of whom had probably attended each year.

A striking fact was that 85% of the 134 attendees were male. This was to be contrasted with a colleagues recent experience where her legal team and their client met with the other side. It was an all female event. She suggested that the reason there are so few female practising lawyers outside large cities was the lack of support, unlike at her national firm.

IT has many roles in facilitating more flexible working arrangements. Remote desktops and VOIP phones mean that the electronic working file, and your callers, can follow you wherever. The distribution of work which will get even easier with the growing use of project management and unbundling of legal services into discrete tasks. Tasks not needing to be performed in the office at any particular time could be assigned to those needing flexible arrangements.

Although my topic, such as at the CLE rural event was IT, I have found that unless I include the business of law, it risks getting treated as pseudo-entertainment: talking about toys can be more interesting (meaning less dry and challenging) than parallel CLE streams focussing on legal issues. However, by the time I’ve finished each talk, hopefully the attendees realise the two are increasingly co-dependent. The current revolution in legal biz, is fuelled by IT.

Nearly all attendees I spoke with seemed unaware of the extent of legal business changes over the last couple of years. Australia’s, and their own, tyranny of distance seemed to have insulated them from needing to know about Legal Process Outsourcing and off-shoring, the rise of client empowerment (which is not just a corporate thing), and the Law Factory etc.

While it is hailed as an enabler, Australia’s forthcoming Nation Broadband Network (NBN) was seen as a threat. For the really tech-shy lawyers, it meant they might have to actually consider using IT.

The NBN is a double-edged sword. It will bring sophisticated competition to the country, marketed via videos such as these on court appearances. Interestingly, one firm has confronted the video challenge from City firms directly with their own message. Local knowledge alone will struggle unless service levels are at least comparable. Instead of expending their resources defending their turf, maybe they should focus on a niche and extend their reach with their lower overheads and broad experience.

The tools are easily obtained, including video. They can be used to market specialised services via webinars and podcasts, and use skype to provide State, or Country-wide services, depending on the area of law. Such technologies could be the foundation for the rise of large virtual firms of low overhead lawyers. It is not hard, and is now very affordable.

But it does take some vision and requires a personal investment in learning at least the capabilities of the tools available. That is probably the hardest part, and it gives me an opportunity to roll out one of my favourite quotes which is at least 15 years old:

There will be two types of firms in the future. Those firms which look to their clients and try to identify their clients’ needs and respond to them, and those firms that do not. Corporations require law firms to provide services in a more cost effective way. Technology will assist forward thinking law firms in accomplishing that goal of customer satisfaction. Those firms that adapt technology, including, and especially a collaborative information sharing utility, should be more successful in the marketplace. Those firms that do not will find themselves with clients who are dissatisfied, who are paying more than they feel they are getting value for, and will find the ability to retain clients, more difficult.
(Donald Cohn, Corporate Counsel, Dupont)

It can be done, as I found out from my audience. They were not all tech-averse. One 69 year old had purchased an IPad for home. He quickly realised that this was a tool to help him be a better lawyer. It now travels with him everywhere including to court where it is handed around when presenting evidence.

I have a theory that this is the ultimate companion device for lawyers. Unlike a notebook, or desktop monitors, the screen is not a barrier to communication, but does the opposite. I could see that this story inspired colleagues, and is a one that has probably been replicated world-wide which is why some believe such tablets will soon dominate for knowledge workers.

Siri will take the iPad even further by shielding the user from having to know much about computers – a huge step beyond icons, mice and even touch into the world of artificial intelligence, but like so many Apple initiatives, you won’t realise the enormity of what has been achieved.

Many older legal practitioners are used to talking to dictation machines, and have been intimidated by keyboards. I suspect that with the touch interface, voice recognition plus Siri, we will see a wave of adoption sweep through their ranks when the iPad 3 is released in March 2012.

IT is not the biggest challenge facing rural lawyers, after all many are looking to slow down, which the New Normal is likely to expedite. The biggest challenge is succession – they end up having to give away their legal practice for virtually nothing because they can’t find someone to buy it.

It is not easy to lure young lawyers to the country. Most don’t want to leave the social life and the career-building work found mainly in the city, particularly while they are young. Fast internet can assist by allowing them to operate from anywhere. While learning the law from experienced rural practitioners, they in turn could contribute greatly to the future of the firm, by teaching their mentors about IT and Social Media. Deloittes call it reverse mentoring.

And while IT is one challenge, a greater one for older lawyers will be Social Media which has evolved to Social Business, and will just become the way we work.

Siri will eventually (l)earn her legal stripes by being asked a lot of legal questions. But you needn’t wait as, today you can ask your iPad complex legal questions and have them answered by a real lawyer, using Skype. You still need your annual weekend CLE events to keep up with each other. But in between, a fast internet will allow you sleep better and impress clients by asking some of your more specialised colleagues hard questions, regardless of their location.


  1. While it’s inevitable, we didn’t get Siri on the latest iPad.

    Speculation in the above article is that iPhones require simple fact finding and location tasks, while the iPad demands a much higher standard, i.e. it’s not quite ready.

    As I wrote in a Slaw post today (honestly not knowing your column topic was), having a successful relationship with users is extremely important to long term adoption.

    I’d like to think Apple is learning. :)

  2. Great post. You nail some of the issues we are dealing with as we address the recruitment and retention issues for the legal profession in rural, regional and remote (RRR) Australia.

    An ageing profession. Limited human resource and IT skill base or access to these resources, at least via the traditional model of having a live person on the team, in the same community. Lack of professional support networks. Paradigm of practice which may not encourage collegiality.

    We are part of an integrated working group (public and private lawyers) working to address these issues.

    The potential of the NBN (national broadband network) to help redress these resourcing issues is encouraging. But what we need are strong partnerships between the bush and the city professionals, where the shared interest is in creating stronger systems of justice delivery.

    Bring it on

    Warm regards