Servicing the corporate client

By Nick Holmes on May 9, 2006
Comments Off on Servicing the corporate client
Filed under Articles, Legal practice

First published September 2005 in Whither the Legal Web?.
This abridged version published January 2006 in the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers.

For the largest law firms the provision of online legal services is an imperative but few, if any, of these services are sold to clients directly off the page. The focus is rather on delivering services tailored to client requirements, with the selling effected through the overall marketing of the firm’s services and brands.

The range and purpose of the typical online services portfolio is well summed up by Allen & Overy:

Online services provided by Allen & Overy are used to provide clients with an integrated legal service. Technology is used as a tool to support the full client relationship life cycle. Our online services can help clients to:

  • access key transaction documents and information
  • keep up to date on the latest legal developments
  • have continuous access to premium know-how
  • manage and reduce exposure to legal risk
  • leverage our international presence and expertise
  • manage their ongoing relationship with Allen & Overy

The client extranet

The over-arching service provided is the client extranet or portal – a secure area on the firm’s server where the client (and other parties) can access information and documentation according to their profile. The client’s login and stored profile and subscription information not only determine which services can be accessed but provide a unique view of all available and relevant resources.

The client extranet provides access to three types of resource:

  • matter-specific information and documentation (the online deal room)
  • client-specific information and documentation
  • subject-specific information and resources (premium advice and know-how).

Good examples of these services are provided by Linklaters, Freshfields, Eversheds, Simmons & Simmons and Berwin Leighton Paisner.

The online deal room and beyond

The online deal room has been enthusiastically adopted in the last few years as an alternative to sending documents back and forth between the various parties by email. Its advantages are:

  • Security. Email is not a secure way of sending documents between law firms or between law firms and their clients. With the online deal room, access is restricted and documents transmitted are encrypted so that, even if intercepted, they cannot be read.
  • Accessibility. Documents are stored in one central location, accessible from any internet browser, anywhere, any time.
  • Certainty. Users can be sure they always have access to the latest versions of documents and other information, avoiding the dangers inherent in relying on imperfect email filing and retrieval.

Different levels of access grant authoring and editing privileges to specific individuals according to their login. For example, lawyers on the other side of the transaction may be given the right to download and amend a document and to upload it back into a “suggested revision” folder, whereas specified lawyers from the host firm will be able also to publish the final draft.

Since access is over a standard internet connection, the facility is available not just from the office but also from home or on the road, and by all parties. So, for example, during a telephone conference all can access the deal room and be on top of the latest information.

The same technology can be extended to provide access to client-specific information including case tracking and billing information; to offer clients the facility to store their own documents, accessible and searchable in the same way; and to enable collaboration between client offices.

Premium advice and know-how

Not long after the legal world first acknowledged the potential of the internet, the first premium (for which read wallet-breaking) advice services were launched by Linklaters and Clifford Chance, garnering a lot of publicity.

In 1997 Linklaters launched Blue Flag (still probably the best-known such service) offering thousands of pages of coverage of compliance rules and regulations applying to the financial markets. Blue Flag now encompasses all the premium online legal services from Linklaters: a suite of products designed to assist in-house counsel, compliance departments and company secretaries by leveraging both technology and Linklaters’ in-depth knowledge.

In May 1998 Clifford Chance launched its NextLaw online service to help international businesses monitor key aspects of their data protection compliance.

Such “expert” systems, encapsulating considerable know-how, are costly to develop. The majority of advice services, whilst still compiled by specialists, are more straightforward information services, in the form of alerters, guides and other more detailed reference services.

Most of this information is authored internally by the firms themselves, but some services incorporate external resources. For example, Eversheds’ Knowledge Banks are online services providing subscribers with key law and news information feeds organised under subject areas. Under the brand name Eversheds.complete the solution was developed by LexisNexis UK for Eversheds and provides clients with the full text of all relevant cases, statutes, texts and materials from LexisNexis, combined with expert commentary from the firm’s specialist lawyers, plus feeds of breaking news from LexisNexis, Reed Business Information and the Financial Times.

Many firms have also developed e-learning tools which help reduce clients’ exposure to risk and regulatory issues. These take many forms, frequently including inter-activity and multi-media.

An extension of this type of product is the facility to generate appropriate documentation as well, as in the Berwin Leighton Paisner / Deloitte BeProfessional joint venture. This is an interactive web-based service designed to help small businesses with start-up compliance, HR, employment law and health and safety issue. It offers comprehensive, step-by-step solutions and generates the necessary documentation (eg contracts of employment, dismissal letters, risk assessment forms) and importantly provides an audit trail. See further the Document automation section below.

Free resources

Many firms also provide free resources. Where these are confined to articles, newsletters and alerters that would formerly have been distributed free to clients in hard copy, they probably represent no more than the client would expect. But there are some stand-out examples of free online services which provide substantial value but which are provided free as a means of satisfying existing clients (who will be paying their way through use of other services) and attracting new clients (who are drawn, and hopefully stick, to the honey pot).

A leading example is elexica, from Simmons & Simmons. It offers registered users an extensive range of high quality legal information, including legal updates, legal checklists, training modules (with CPD hours), a weekly EU Diary, regular current awareness emails in a variety of practice areas, from construction to tax, an extensive library of fully categorised web links and in-depth analysis of topical legal events such as the pre-budget report and annual budget.

Another is Pinsent Masons’, which has 5,000 pages of free legal news and guidance, mostly on IT and e-commerce issues. These issues can affect any organisation, and OUT-LAW is as much for those in a software start-up as it is for the compliance team at a bank. Its intent as a marketing site is clear: “If and when you need further advice, we hope you’ll choose Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM.”

Law-Now is CMS Cameron McKenna’s free online information service. Using email and the firm’s main website, Law-Now provides a personalised information service on key legal developments – you choose what information you wish to receive from a list of topic areas. In addition the Law-Now Toolkit provides easy-to-understand guides to important legislation, checklists, risk analysis tools, useful web links and more.

Document automation

Apart from the premium advice systems mentioned above, the main focus for the productisation of law firm expertise has been in the field of document automation. Legal contracts, particularly for specialist, high-value transactions, are the product of accumulated legal knowledge and expertise and technologies have developed over the past 15 years or so that enable this expertise to be encapsulated in “intelligent” documents. The technology can also be cost-effectively deployed to generate lower-value documents which need routinely to be produced, but which must comply with ever-changing regulations.

Two document automation systems have emerged as the leaders: HotDocs from LexisNexis, distributed in the UK by Capsoft UK, and DealBuilder from Business Integrity.

According to Charles Christian’s Legal Technology Insider Top 250 IT system chart, HotDocs is used by (at least) 16 of the top 40 law firms, followed by DealBuilder on 7.

Examples of the online applications offered include:

  • Linklaters (BlueFlag) uses DealBuilder for their Term Sheet Generator which helps bankers produce term sheets, with an embedded advisory capability and directing clients to the most relevant advice for structuring their deals.
  • Eversheds recently launched HR Contract Builder, developed with DealBuilder, which is designed for human resource professionals in large organisations and automates the process of drafting employment documents.
  • Allen & Overy’s newchange documents, developed with HotDocs, produce automatically tailored legal documents, assembled from thousands of possible clause combinations, by working through a set of interview questions.

The future of corporate client servicing

What success have these services had and how will they develop?

Matthew di Rienzo, previously involved with large projects at Clifford Chance, sees firms backing away from large-scale investments in e-services to clients, principally due to the fact that they have not seen a sufficient return from previous and current investments. He believes that the big legal publishers will start to provide the key technology platforms and the firms the legal knowledge: in other words, law firms will go back to concentrating on their core competencies and stop being technology providers.

Clients have not adopted the firm’s online services with the same enthusiasm as the firms themselves. Shaun Drummond reports in From e-brochure to electronic deal-room (Lawyers Weekly, Australia) that their researches show that corporate clients prefer to set up their own secure sites on which the various law firms they deal with can place their documents, avoiding the problem of trawling around several law firm extranets.

The desire for the client to command the portal prompted an interesting initiative in 2003 by nine major investment banking groups to agree IT standards for the electronic delivery of legal services, so their in-house legal departments would eventually only have access one system. The project has now been realised in the form of the Banking Legal Technology (BLT) portal, developed at the initiative of Deutsche Bank by DraftSpace. The nine investment banks (ABN Amro, Barclays Capital, CSFB, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and UBS) currently use this to access fully searchable legal updates that are uploaded and indexed by five law firms (Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Linklaters and Simmons and Simmons).

The big legal publishers are also responding. Simon Carter, writing for Legal IT in Seeing through the portal (April 2005), reports that both the Practical Law Company (PLC) and LexisNexis are launching improvements to their information services with a growing focus on providing in-house lawyers with valuable information as efficiently as possible. PLC’s new service will offer 7,000 subscribers and registered users access to indexed, searchable, publications provided by up to 10 law firms who will pay to contribute. PLC sees this as a marketing channel for law firms, offering them an efficient way to reach potential clients, rather than spending a lot of money creating valuable content that is then distributed often in a slightly erratic way.