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Embracing Digital Services: When will the Legal Technology vendors catch up?

Some controversy now as Finbarr Joy, the CIO of Liverpool-based law firm Goldsmith Williams asks when will legal IT vendors catch up…

As the cycle of business change accelerates and the convergence of Mobile, Social and Cloud creates new business models, it is clear that organisations in all sectors have never been so dependent on technology. In a very real sense, the development of technical strategy is increasingly synonymous with commercial strategy – developing the capabilities for the organisation to compete in a fast-changing, multi-channel world.

For most organisations (certainly at any scale) this reveals a dependency on key vendors – the providers of the business systems and platforms that underpin the company’s operations. I believe our sector is very poorly served in this respect. In the same way that the Legal Services Board saw the need to improve competition and innovation by ushering in Alternative Business Structures, there is a need for much improved innovation amongst the vendors supporting this community as new business practices evolve.

Benchmarks – and a disclaimer
The context for this opinion piece relates to my experiences at the recent (excellent!) Lawtech Futures 2012 conference where I asked a question on standards and deployment flexibility of a ‘vendor roundtable’  – the question was largely avoided while they discussed cloud logistics instead – this is an attempt to re-state the issue in broader terms than the question schedule allowed.

I should say at the outset, that just like many legal services providers, we rely on Commercial off the Shelf (COTS) practice and case management technology for the support of the bulk of our business operations.  I am happy to state on record that our vendor happens to provide what I regard as best-in- class service and support. But looking beyond my own immediate horizons, and at the ‘industry’ offerings from all the major PMS/CMS providers, it is clear that the market is rooted in a technical environment that was ‘frozen’ many years past. I believe this profoundly affects the dependent firm’s ability to integrate, extend, and move with agility as the legal services marketplace evolves.

This is in direct contrast to the opportunities being afforded to other sectors where the major vendors seem to have taken a more open systems approach over the last 5-to-10 years.  If we view the ‘layers’ of technology that the leading vendors present as layers of capability it is possible to draft a comparative assessment:


Capabilities for a changing world
A glance at the headlines on this site over any given month reveals a snapshot of the challenges now coming in waves at our sector:  Outcomes Focused Regulation, ABS/New breeds of competitor,  pressure on fees/need for greater efficiencies, availability of new classes of mobile device/demand for information anywhere etcetera. Above all, there is clearly a need to support the accelerating pace of change – which demands flexibility and agility across at least three dimensions of architecture:

PLATFORM:
Should be an open environment supporting best of breed infrastructure, and flexibility in deployment.  The notion of standards is key to all change (being able to exercise choice on being confronted with a new challenge), and if this built in at the platform level it means you can integrate with business partners that have made different technology choices and you can take advantage of new hardware and software improvements as they evolve.

Interestingly, enterprise package vendors in other sectors – such as IBM and Oracle – are increasingly building on top of Open Source Platforms – this triggers a virtuous cycle of improved product quality (there are more open source developers/testers than any one vendor can muster) together with reduced price point through the commoditisation effect of open source propagation (pay for the support, not the license).

STANDARD DATA AND DEVELOPMENT ENVIRONMENT: INTEGRATION & EXTENSION
Just about every vendor will proudly testify to having ‘standard’ data access through such as SQL, together with the ability to request/respond through XML. But in this age of advanced web services and REST APIs is this enough? Why haven’t the vendors in this sector got together to agree common data structures to facilitate the inter-firm transactions and workflows that are the reality of full-cycle legal services provision?

Similarly, given that there is always a need to extend and customise according to the law firm’s unique requirements, there seem to be only limited options for doing so: proprietary development languages or – at best – pure Microsoft environments. This seems to ignore the past 15 years’ rapid evolution in business systems development using web technologies – applying environments such as PHP or Ruby to dramatically reduce development timescales (and costs of overheads for that matter).

MODULAR DEPLOYMENT – ON PREMISE/CLOUD AS DESIRED
With all the unnecessary hype relating to cloud it is easy for the essential – but actually mundane – aspects of cloud provisioning to be lost in the noise. If we take salesforce.com as a reference example, cloud can bring the benefits of modular feature deployment (not all or nothing), and usage driven costing (rather than up-front infrastructure investment). There are some budding examples of vendor + hosting company partnerships beginning to emerge in this sector but there is nothing offering the convenience, transparent pricing, ‘pick and choose’ deployment selection (nor development and integration capability!) of the best of cloud offerings in other sectors.

The demands from our customer base are changing rapidly – which means the demands on our business are also changing rapidly. When we offer our customers new online services especially, we must recognise that their expectations are set by highly accessible, easily configurable services they can use every day from anywhere (Facebook, Amazon, banking, or even *.gov.uk!). Such services are usually ‘powered’ by a new class of open systems – built for speed and flexibility. The characteristics of such systems are now widely propagated through other industries in the form of open source components and industry standards – we need our vendor community to shape up and embrace these adaptations to sustain the next stage of legal technology evolution.

11 replies on “Embracing Digital Services: When will the Legal Technology vendors catch up?”

The tech vision makes sense. The question is how to get there in a system of free enterprise. Should law firms form collectives (subject to any legal constraints) to have more sway with tech vendors? My concern is that law firms not end up in the same position as general counsels, saying that their suppliers should do certain things but not voting effectively with their dollars.

Fascinating article raising some valid points. I look forward to some cogent rebuttal from vendors, or will there be a sulky silence? Very interesting that the Co-op went with a specialist legal IT vendor, I had my money on them developing their own software following the principles outlined in this piece, I wonder if it is more difficult than it seems to use more industry standard software, or is that the FUD defence from the suppliers.

Ron, Andrew – appreciate the comments; RE the apparent state of vendor inactivity on these fronts, I think two related factors are at play:
1) Lack of competition – there isn’t the ‘where did they come from?’ disruptive effect of a new ‘breed’ of vendor that other sectors have seen(yet?) .. but also,
2) this may be due to the high barrier of entry – these products have very broad/ deep business process workflows embedded that could take man-years to re-create (so the current vendors have the equivalent of the Microsoft NT ‘re-write’ mountain to climb – for those of you old enough to remember that!)..

Great article Finbarr. It’s great to see some non vendors engage in the debate. I think your comments are true and insightful.

I first entered the legal market (coming from Finance and Telecom’s IT markets) 5 years ago and was surprised by the lack of innovation, and even modern technology, in Legal IT. Working for one of the largest vendors at the time I recognised that high barriers to entry, due to deep domain expetise being required, led to lack of competition which resulted in existing vendors not having to invest and keep up with the tech curve.

So, just over 2 years ago I started Peppermint Technology (www.pepperminttechnology.co.uk) After several million pound investment, with a team of the best 30 legal and Microsoft experts in market, we have partnered with Microsoft and delivered the first next generation Legal Services Platform. Our Platform recognises that the future is not just about Apps but a blend of Applications (PCMS,Legal Accounts Doc Mngt etc, Content, Collaboration and Transactions. It’s based on open industry standards (Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 Platform), extensible API’s and all available on the Cloud so services can be accessed by anyone,anywhere,anytime.

Last week we announced the Peppermint App Shop where our partners, or individuals, can build apps that sit on the Peppermint App Shop thus encouraging innovation and community development. These can be marketed and sold via the Peppermint App Shop. Law firms can start to share investment and innovation.

I hope Peppermint offers a light at the end of a dark tunnel. I can see early signs that our arrival is causing a stir and others will have to respond. You only need to look at our first live client on Platform (Riverview Law – new market entrant backed by DLA) to see the UK Legal market is re-inventing itself. It’s about time other vendors did the same!

I must be the only one who thinks there are too many technology vendors specialising in Legal IT albeit recent rationalisation has started to bring it to a more manageable level. I’m surprised to find myself defending these vendors but I think for such a comparatively small sector there is some pretty decent stuff out there and good innovation.

The whole area of development toolkits to build bespoke busines processes is really underserved in other sectors and massively overserved in Legal IT. I have worked for some large media providers and have friends in Construction/Architecture. These industries have nothing like the workflow design tools that some of the better Legal Tech Providers have but still have very defined processes. These other sectors have tools but generally with bigger budgets employ large teams of developers that legal could never afford. This restricted budget has led to innovation, focring suppliers to build systems that allow less technical stafff to build complex solutions. In some way they have been ahead of their time.

It’s quite a unique legal sector trait that some of the best case management systems have been built by non-IT staff who have transferred to IT and built solutions on the toolkits provided by their vendors. I’m not sure that happens elsewhere. I’m actually surprised more of them have not taken their toolkits out to other sectors.

Yes there needs to be more open standards , I must have built the same debt recovery processes about 30 times over my career (probably none of them worked!). I’m not sure that is a vendor issue as much as the law firm culture thinking their processes are unique.

I shouldn’t namedrop as they are just the systems I have worked within the past but Pilgrim (or is it Elite? – it’s Elite LawSoft now ..Ed) have a fantastic workflow designer and screenbuilder tool that takes months off building complex processes. Visualfiles (or is it Lexisnexis Streamline) still sets the standard for flexibility. Peppermint (or is it Wrigleys Spearmint) look to have built an incredible new platform from the ground up and given the sector a kick.

It’s all good , cheer up. It’s sunny!

Let’s not forget markets are responsive to demand – if law firms lack the vision and capability to take advantage of extensible toolsets and methods why should vendors supply them?

Having said that, I think we are definitely seeing the beginning of a sea change with the emergence of Peppermint and a strategic realignment from the big vendors alongside Microsoft technology stacks and the TCS vision. Why not open source? Axxia’s sortee along that route might offer some instructive lessons. Open source technology is a risky and unnecessary route for the current market. Law firms hold Microsoft licences, not Sun, and whilst I expect a few would take a punt on market leading technology from a non-Microsoft source, few will choose more outlandish options.

Finbar is right that the confluence of mobility, social and big data will necessarily driv change in the end, and extensible enterprise systems for legal are coming, but I suspect open source platforms are a bridge too far at present.

“Let’s not forget markets are responsive to demand – if law firms lack the vision and capability to take advantage of extensible toolsets and methods why should vendors supply them?”

This is a great point! In my experience it has been a lack of both knowledge and vision on the part of the law firm (and or it’s IT) that has stymied growth in terms of both client offering and process refinement through IT.

I think the so called consumerisation of IT has a lot to do with the emergence of platforms such as the MS Dynamics one because (legal) IT consumers are using these technologies outside of work and are coming to expect the same level of service in work.

Other than the Peppermint platform (and to a lesser extent CRM4Legal before it) I am yet to see anything that is more than (to borrow a phrase from an earlier post) a pig in lipstick.

For example, one vendor offers a relatively (Office 2007) current looking web client whilst not taking advantage of something as fundamental as auto-incrementing/generating record ID’s in the database.

It’s a situation akin to the Windows XP problem Microsoft faced, there are so many companies running the previous, outdated generation of software that it makes anything more than longterm, minor incremental changes nearly impossible.

I don’t know, maybe these vendors just need to grow a pair and do something bold – to hell with the legacy apps and users.

To be fair to a lot of these vendors probably wish they could write a completely new platform and didn’t have existing client bases to support. Keeping a package current while still allowing their clients an upgrade path is probably their biggest challenge.

This is the main reason most have built on a Microsoft foundation but kept their toolkits somewhat bespoke.

Some excellent observations and counterpoints – thx folks ;
Arlene – good to see a vendor taking up the baton (nice pitch btw 😉 ) – and it’s refreshing to note the ‘blend’ approach – I look forward to seeing how this may lead to choice of document standard, device access and customisation platform ?
Paul – I am cheered thanks- but the future’s so bright I’m wearing shades: there is more than a hint of ‘inward-looking’ complacency in the current vendor roadmaps that will constrain our options in meeting market challenges .. Although I do accept that the process ‘slickness’ of these toolkits is better than some ‘leaders’ in other sectors (but I don’t buy the trade-off, and since we’re paying, I don’t think its unreasonable to ask for both flexibility/openness and good process tooling!)..
Luigi – I’m not suggesting that law firms should start adopting open source, but I would have expected some of the vendors to have started using OSS components ‘under the hood’ to improve their capabilities and reduce costs – this has happened in other sectors without people having to adopt Sun or switch off MS Office (wouldn’t it be good to have a choice though?).
Given where the end-user market is going I find it puzzling that the vendors aren’t exploring communty / OSS options purely on competitive grounds (workday.com is a good example – established a platform ‘overnght’ through exploitation of ‘community’ technologies). At the ‘fuures’ event Eric Hunter of Bradford & Barthel gave an excellent overview of how they are exploring Google+ / Apps as a portal for their business – but have inevitably run into the ‘Office docs only’ wall for CMS integration..
Returning to the main theme, I just think we need to see better leadership from vendors that understand that it’s not about a set of ‘static’ processes on the desktop anymore – but is about re-configuring for market demand and enabling seamless access through ‘whatever’ device is the end-user’s preference – increasingly this is mobile / net – based.

Interesting point and one that we have been developing for a while and are due to release in early/mid April – a full vendor independent area where all parties involved in a transaction can communicate and collaborate.

Anyone interested? email webinars@dpssoftware.co.uk

We have 2 choices:

1. Buy into Apple stock then ask the CEO why the coy you now own stock in hasn’t got an offering in the legal vertical? As a stockholder they HAVE to answer you! The European team meet you, get the idea and in 5 years time you will have a killer Apple based legal application!
2. Buy Peppermint Technology. It’s fresh its new, it works now and you know it makes sense!

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