by Allan Carton, director of Inpractice UK

It’s taken Microsoft longer than hoped to get some of their products to maturity and to find the right partners to help drive them fully into the legal sector, but Microsoft is now making a determined effort to corner this market from every angle … and it will be successful, even if it doesn’t always get it right.  Their stack of products, applications and services is ready to become the predominant technology in law firms in just about every respect, so it makes sense for them to invest in some landmark projects like Clifford Chance.  In any event, I suspect that introducing SharePoint is just one step on a move that will see them take more and more Microsoft products and services on board.

I wouldn’t bet against them becoming the dominant provider of technology to law firms of all sizes within 10 years – maybe a lot less.  The very high concentration of IT in law firms makes every deal with a law firm lucrative.  However, compared globally with other business sectors, the legal market is only big enough to produce the profits they need if Microsoft takes a big share of it. So that’s exactly what they will do, working with industry specialist partners. There are currently far too many suppliers of diverse products that often have to be painstakingly integrated together.  Those who remain in 10 years time are likely to be Microsoft partners.

Microsoft can deliver behind the scenes on infrastructure, software and services in the cloud, operating systems, SQL, reporting services, business intelligence, virtualisation, thin client, SAN technologies … and much more.

Microsoft already own the lawyers’ desktop – where lawyers already live in Outlook for emails and appointments, producing documents in Word. Microsoft CRM (with a 2011 version just out) will become the standard client relationship tool because it is part of Outlook and also now affordable for smaller businesses through the cloud.  SharePoint is catching on too and successful use of these two seamlessly integrated applications will make it easier for lawyers to use more Microsoft.  

Microsoft Foundation is now at the core of many of the more modern case management and workflow systems provided by suppliers of legal practice management systems.  Lexis Nexis – a big player in the legal market on a variety of fronts, including its current industry leading CRM solution InterAction – sees the writing on the wall.  It recently partnered with Microsoft to develop a legal enterprise wide business management (ERP) system built on the comprehensive Microsoft Dynamics AX (which includes Microsoft CRM), where it will work alongside Microsoft’s Business Solutions Partners on implementation.  If Lexis Nexis get it right through early adopter and effective development, this integrated solution should become the preferred choice of top end firms.  

If not just yet, Microsoft will soon have the complete infrastructure, back and front office applications and online tools that law firms now buy from far too many different suppliers.  It also has an increasingly effective network of specialist business partners capable of adapting the growing number of proven, tightly integrated and user-friendly MS applications that lawyers want; also capable of the cost-effective speed of development and deployment that leaner legal businesses now need.  

Sharepoint and CRM are two key applications as standalone components of the Dymamics AX ERP solution.  They give major law firms an easy point of access to components of the Dynamics AX ERP solution for law firms.  However, in addition to providing specific leading edge solutions in areas that should now be top of most lawyers’ priorities as the legal market goes through a transformation, they can also both be used to combine input and presentation of  information from the array of other legacy systems from other suppliers that are difficult to manage.  They will become obsolete when Microsoft positions itself at the core of the business, with solutions that can cater for all the key areas of operations.

When selecting new systems, law firms still have to make compromises between ‘best of breed’ or ‘integrated’ solutions.  Microsoft has the potential to deliver both.  It is persistent and can afford to invest in the development that others can’t.  To put that in perspective, the large investment in Clifford Chance enables Microsoft to develop its solution whilst still opening up its route to market; it would only do this if it is confident of its return from the sector. It looks like winners all round.