Australia's biggest law firms are looking to improve their online collaboration systems. Photo: JIm Rice
The top law firms in Australia are undergoing a quiet technology revolution as they face mounting global competition and emerging digital disruption.
Technology leaders from five of the biggest law firms told IT Pro that online collaboration will be a top priority in 2014 and may determine who has a competitive edge.
While some overseas law firms are attempting to use big data tools to disrupt the industry the big firms in Australia don’t see an immediate threat from online legal services.
In fact, unlike other industries like banking where big data, mobility and online platforms are a key focus, it is in how the firms are using technology to enhance face-to-face collaboration that is helping to determine client satisfaction, and competitive differentiation.
While it’s still too early to say whether technology will significantly impact the firms’ bottom line and encourage them to change oft-criticised billing practices, the use of collaboration tools is changing the way lawyers and clients interact.
Ashurst Australian Head of Information Technology Dean McDonald, for example, said the company was working with Samsung to boost the effectiveness of its meeting spaces across the globe.
“We have their touch screen technology with AllShare,” McDonald said. “We are also an Android user and have highest use of Android of all law firms in Australia. They work really well with those devices. With this technology in the meeting rooms and technology spaces it really comes to the fore.”
The company also has a social collaboration project based on Microsoft’s Yammer underway.
“With the way we are working with our social media we are pushing it out to have global collaboration. We are very conscious of the fact these are hosted solutions so we don’t put client data on it. But they do help with collaboration across time and geographic boundaries.”
Herbert Smith Freehills has adopted similar meeting room collaboration tools.
“In all our new meeting rooms, we have very large touch-enabled screens,” Herbert Smith Freehills Head of IT Australia Gary Adler said. “There are about 60 or 70 of them. Instead of a doing a paper-based document review, our lawyers now have the opportunity to do this live on the monitor while someone at the table can take notes within the same online session using a wireless keyboard and mouse.”
The focus on in-person collaboration that is enhanced by technology – not replaced by it – is also providing an opportunity for new business models like app-based collaboration services for the firms. Minter Ellison’s new BoardTRAC iPad board portal released this year is one example. Developed in conjunction with an Australian software firm, the app aims to let boards meet and securely share and annotate documents.
Allens Director Information Technology Gerard Neiditsch noted that in the $20b Australian legal industry, which has 18500 businesses employing just under 100,000 people, there was a clear focus on the communication part of ICT – a clear difference to other industries where topics like big data are top of mind.
“This isn’t at the expense of the information side but is a result of the number of devices,” Neiditsch said.
But this collaboration trend isn’t limited to face-to-face meetings – it has also led to anywhere, anytime principles being critical according to Norton Rose Fulbright CIO Peter Westerveld.
“Legal is a pure knowledge working industry. There is a lot of need for access outside of the office,” Westerveld said. “Increasingly, being a global firm means that you need to be contactable and the normal hours are not necessarily the best time for a client to contact you. You also need cross-country collaboration.”