Australia: Technology in law firms: Q&A with Shane Barber

Last Updated: 24 September 2012

Shane Barber says that whilst embracing technology unquestionably enhances the efficiency and cost effectiveness of your firm, there is still no question that law remains a relational experience and that clients will inevitably choose a lawyer they like and trust over all other considerations.


In-house legal are teams are increasingly both time and budget poor. Iin our experience they are increasingly looking to utilize the technology solutions offered by their external law firms to more efficiently and cost effectively serve their internal clients.

By way of example, as in-house counsel with a major telecommunications carrier in the mid 1990s, I recall that we undertook the very expensive and cumbersome exercise of providing all our commercial staff with consumer law training. It required us to prepare physical booklets, run seminars, record videos, prepare training worksheets and to take physical roll calls. We now undertake all of those functions for many in-house legal teams using a client log-in feature on our website for a fraction of the cost and insignificantly less time than it took not that long ago. On many occasions, although not all, training in this way also can be sufficient to respond to a regulator's requirements. That same client log-in feature can be used as an online data room with all of the security features that that requires, or as a place for collaborative document work.

As cloud service providers sharpen their consumer offerings to compete in a busy market, in-house legal teams should feel increasingly secure in working with their law firms and others in real time in the cloud. I certainly recall the significant day-to- day stresses that in-house lawyers faced in servicing their clients. I recall the early morning queues at your desk when internal clients would effectively 'camp out' so that they got your undivided attention as soon as you arrived at work. Technology means that the 'risk' of a matter is now even more efficiently transferred to in-house counsel with ever tightening deadlines. As external lawyers, we should not underestimate simple things that we can do using our technology that will assist in-house counsel in what is a very stressful role. Simple things may be preparing to mark ups to documents with the author set to 'Legal" and preparing emails which can be easily cut and pasted and then forwarded on by the in-house legal team to their internal client.


As a smaller specialist firm of 35 lawyers, our software and other technology use has greatly enhanced our efficiency and cost effectiveness. The implementation of our iManage document management system for instance has seen a significant progression toward a paperless office and greater document accessibility across the firm. It has also seen greater efficiency in the use of our knowledge management system. The days of wandering from office to office to look for physical precedents or to consolidate filling are long gone.

Simple things such as the introduction of digital dictation and a sophisticated IP telephony system have greatly enhanced our response times and clients service respectively. Investing in an online research tools at the desk now takes up a significant part of a law firm's budget, but the comprehensiveness and timeliness of the output that results means that not doing so is not an option. We are not afraid to use the many powerful tools in standard software offerings to undertake functions like client relationship management. Increasingly sophisticated standard offerings mean that it is not always necessary to implement bespoke systems which may not interface well with the other systems used in the office.

Our lawyers are increasingly mobile, working offsite at client's offices and increasingly at home. As a profession, we are all aware that we will see more and more of this into the future. We have implemented a highly effective virtual private network arrangement for our lawyers so that laptops and other devices can be used almost anywhere with seamless and secure access to our internal systems. A danger of a multiplicity of systems though is that they may not be as user-friendly as they could be for both new staff and those of us who studied law in the 70s and 80s, which was very much a pen and paper time. To this end, we have created a bespoke intranet as a central launch location for much of our technology and systems.


I got my first job at a global law firm in 1989. One of the key attractions of that firm to an eager graduate was that all lawyers had access to a computer on their desk. Up to that time, that was unheard of. The computers were in fact green screen 'Wangs' and their utility was pretty limited but at that time we were at the forefront of the promised technology revolution. I also recall that a young lawyer's first job was to hand mark-up changes to documents using a red pen with the document then dispatched by way of another recent innovation, the fax machine. Within seven or eight years all of that technology and those methods of practice were redundant.

As an in-house lawyer in the 1990s, we grappled with the idea of whether it was safe for lawyers to ever use email to provide legal advice or to send documents. I recall that our original answer was no, and this was from lawyers inside a leading telecommunications company!

If we compare the way we practice today to the way we practiced in the 1990s it is almost unrecognisable. The result is that the time from origination of a legal task to a comprehensive, accurate and usable outcome for the clients is a fraction of what it was when I started practicing 24 years ago.

We move on from here to the increasing reality of a paperless office and tablet technology replacing pen and paper once and for all, particularly given that tighter system integration between the tablet device and the desktop is tantalising close. Voice recognition software increasingly makes both in-house and outsourced typing and document preparation redundant and client online collaboration facilities will be more widely used so that multiple authors can manipulate the one securely located document.

As lawyers increasingly opt to use their own devices for both leisure and work, security of information will remain paramount. For lawyers, there is nothing new in this of course. Law firm business models based on undertaking highly commoditiseable work need an urgent rethink. The internet has delivered a handy self-help tool in this regard.

Other than for LinkedIn, which many of our partners and lawyers use extensively to connect with their clients peers, the jury is out for as in relation to the extent to which social media will enhance our client interface. Many of the objectives social media are not necessarily consistent with a lawyer's professional obligations. Many of my colleagues in larger firms attest to its benefits in the recruitment process but in our case many of our lawyers join us three of four years into their legal careers. We certainly remain open to enhancing our use of social media if it adds real value to our clients and builds the bond between us.

We are already seeing an ever increasing array of online options available to us to build our brands and dazzle our clients and each other with the depth of our insight. True IPTV using the NBN will no doubt add even more cost effective options.

At the end of the day, however, practising the law remains relational experience. As has always been the case, clients will choose to work with individual lawyers that they trust and like and who are responsive, commercial and accurate. These are very human traits will continue to be of significant importance to clients as technological innovation from external law firms, like technical excellence, is presumed as a given.


Faster, ubiquitous broadband will be a significant enabler for Australian business. In the practice of law, it will certainly greatly enhance the ability for our lawyers to use many of the innovations we have already introduced in our firm to operate remotely via virtual private networks, with full and secure access to all of our systems.

The key benefits will no doubt be the removal of many of the data volume constraints which impede business communications today. Gone will be the days when a client asks whether a law firm has video conferencing facilities for instance. That will now be able to all in a cost effective way. Travel times and cost can be expected to decrease.

The NBN though is really just an enabling technology. The killer application probably doesn't yet exist, but when it does we will all wonder how we ever lived without it.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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