While putting together the Sinch Online Legal Services Conference (SOLSC) for March 2013, it was obvious that the potential speakers had grown dramatically over the last year or so. However, legal IT consultant Ron Friedmann commented in June 2012 that there has been less than expected online legal service activity since the previous update of his list of online legal services. He said:
About one-half of the firms that offered online services in 2006 no longer do. About an equal number of firms, however, have since created online services.
A reason we have different views of activity may be that one tends to hear about interesting new projects rather than those that fade away. More importantly, Ron’s list is only of Big Law online legal services. For it seems that the real action has been by alternative legal service providers and small firms who are the main contributors to our Conference.
Hopefully Stephanie Kimbro’s forthcoming book on online legal services will help clarify the situation when it becomes available also in March 2013.
My November 2012 Slaw column “IT Partners” noted the fact that non-traditional approaches to providing legal services are gaining momentum. It concluded that the future of law lies not with the generalist lawyers and their PMS suppliers but it will be the specialist, whose IT platforms can “talk” to other professionals, and in particular, their clients.
Small firms have the most to gain from such tools. For such firms, many of the barriers to providing online legal services have dropped dramatically.
Like the cost of apps, the cost of developing a site is a mere fraction of what is was. Website building and management services such as squarespace.com provide just about all you need to be operational, fast, and cope should you become an overnight success. It is much more convenient than tying together WordPress plug-ins. Like smartphone apps, convenience wins again.
I advocate Practice Management Systems (PMS) over a plethora of apps. Too many simple apps combine to add complexity you can do without, and they don’t scale or easily systematise. Similiarly, a fully integrated “Website Management System” (WMS) such as squarespace.com is recommended over coding from scratch, or even one based on WordPress, especially for those with very limited resources and time.
My preference is to use fewer apps more deeply, rather than many apps superficially. In the same way you can extend a PMS with apps such as Evernote or Dropbox/Sugarsync/Box, you can extend your web-presence with the same tools by being armed with a deeper app knowledge. Such apps can be used to fill in deficiencies in your PMS, or extend it, and at the same time “integrate” it with your web services thereby linking the two systems.
To take advantage of the IT pricing revolution by using off-the-shelf solutions to get started, you do need to compromise, at least initially. But that’s fine as you want to rapidly deploy, and “fail” quickly. Speed of implementation of ideas and refinement, are now critical as you work out what will be a winner. Apart from cost and speed, there is the convenience and control in being able to “design” and run a website while also working as a busy lawyer.
For a complete “off-the-shelf” solution to be built, you need components that can talk to each other. So look for an API (Application Programming Interface) in your PMS, WMS and your special apps. An API allows a program to communicate with other programs. It means that you can put data in, and take it out thereby having it share data with other systems.
Dealing with an API can require the assistance of a real programmer, but it would be a good investment. Alternatively, if you are not alone in seeking the additional functionality, someone else might have already done the coding, and made it into an app they license through the “App Store” for the PMS, WMS or even another app or service such as Evernote or Box.net. Another option is zapier “to sync the web services you and your team are already using on a daily basis”.
The aim is not to re-invent the wheel, even if it means some compromises, particularly while your system is new. But more importantly, it is to maintain flexibility so that you are not locked in to obsolescent systems. This was highlighted in the 15 min ABC Radio broadcast called The Interoperability Challenge. It includes an interview with an author of “Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems”.
The issues raised in the book are not just for your law firm systems, but also need to be addressed by all lawyers in this age when clients are increasingly more global in both their personal and business dealings. Hence, there is a chapter called Legal Interop. The fact that in the past it would have been called Conflicts of Law, possibly reflects clients’ desire to be told how to make things work, rather than being constantly confronted with a legal STOP sign.
Having your client-facing online services talk to your PMS is really bringing you closer to your clients. Our experience has been that such systems prove so convenient for clients, that no one can lure them away. That is good as there are all sorts of “strangers” planning to try and do so.