The lead story in today’s Legal IT Insider newsletter looks at the latest money making-wheeze devised by the Law Society of England & Wales and its apparent plan to appoint a monopoly legal software vendor to the English legal profession. Here is the story in full, along with a couple of updates…

English Law Society planning monopoly IT deal?

The Legal Software Suppliers Association (LSSA), whose members represent about 80% of the installed law firms market for IT systems in the UK, says it is gravely concerned about a new initiative by the Law Society of England & Wales to “engage in a tender process to choose a preferred supplier of the software to become an endorsed partner of the Law Society, with unrivalled exposure to the legal sector.”

What worries LSSA is the apparent secretive nature of these proposals, which have been leaked rather than openly publicised, with only a few of the 45 plus legal software vendors in the UK market contacted by the Law Society.

LSSA, which was an active supporter and sponsor of the Law Society’s earlier Software Solutions Guide (arguably the only useful legal IT initiative Chancery Lane has ever offered its members …Ed) says it is also intrigued by Law Society claims that the demand for the current Preferred Supplier proposals was “highlighted by research conducted last year.” LSSA add “We are not aware of any discussion with the industry on this issue which we would regard as essential for a properly informed research project.”

So how do you get to become a preferred supplier? The Insider has seen copies of the LSSA/Law Society email exchanges, in which the Law Society is less-than forthcoming, but vendors we have spoken to say the only criteria appears to be ‘whoever is prepared to pay the most money’. The figures being mentioned are an annual fee of £50,000 to £100,000 plus commission on sales.

LSSA believe awarding one vendor what in effect is a monopoly franchise is impracticable “as a one size fits all system is impossible given the wide disparity of firms and budgets and the ability to shop around is the best protection for Law Society members that they are getting a fair deal.”

LSSA also ask “Who will benefit from this proposal?” Adding “Whilst we have no interest in the Law Society’s commercial activities we would like to know why they (the Law Society) feel that intervention in a very competitive market is considered of benefit to their members, as it could reduce competition. It is however clear the motivation of the Law Society is to raise money for the Law Society.”

The latter contention is supported by the fact the initiative comes not from membership services but the Law Society’s Commercial Affairs department. In fact the initial contact for the project is Rakhshinda Nazir, New Partnership Development Manager, whose official job description states: To generate revenue by coordinating the design and development of new partnerships with third party Partners for the benefit of the Law Society’s members.

The Law Society declined LSSA’s request for a meeting to discuss the proposed scheme.

EDITORIAL COMMENT: Law Society in legal IT La La Land – again!

The English Law Society’s relationship with technology is a classic example of the old adage that the most important lesson of history is that nobody learns the lessons of history.

What we see with the Preferred Supplier initiative is a repeat of how the Society has dabbled in legal IT over the past 30 years. Sometimes it gets it right: such as the Software Solutions Guide. Sometimes it gets it spectacularly wrong: such as the High Street Starter Kit.

HSSK was an attempt by the Society to develop its own legal software system to sell to solicitors. It was finally scrapped in March 1997, one month after it was due to ship (it had been predicted that 500 firms would buy it in the first 12 months) when it became clear it would require at least another £770,000 and many more months work to bring to market. At the time, the Law Society Council said the Society should not be reinventing the wheel, developing products and services inhouse that were already commercially available in the outside world.

It’s worth noting Chancery Lane also regularly gets it wrong with its own internal IT projects. It was one of the last organisations on the planet to buy Wang, with Wang going into Chapter 11 before the Society had completed its rollout. It backed HP NewWave as a GUI, only to see the rest of the world go with the standard version of Microsoft Windows.

And it struggled for years (and in fact the SRA is still struggling) with its REGIS membership database which came in £7.5 million over budget and initially still didn’t work properly. The journalist Neil Rose of Legal Futures recalls attending a Law Society staff Christmas pantomime that featured a comedy character called Regis the Robot. Regis would stagger briefly round the stage before seizing up, only to restart when more money was thrown at it!

As for the latest initiative, it is interesting that a large section of the Law Society’s membership has been banned from paying referral fees (and seen their practice incomes damaged as a consequence) yet the Law Society itself is happy to solicit referral fees and commissions from a “preferred supplier.“
…Charles Christian

UPDATES…

One large legal IT vendor has told the Insider that if the Law Society were to appoint a monoplistic preferred supplier, they would definitely commence legal proceedings against the Society, possibly for judicial review or alternatively under UK and/or EU competition law.

Among previous Law Society triumphs, we forgot to mention the alliance with Microsoft and its Law Society-endorsed Office software bundle, which was quietly shelved by Microsoft in 1995 because of poor response and the Law Society + ICL SolicIT mail order catalogue of IT products and services, which enjoyed a few weeks of fame in 1998 before being quietly shelved because of poor response. Anong the many criticisms of the ICL deal was that the catalogue contained only two legal market-specific products – HotDocs and the American Amicus Attorney system – plus the fact many of the products listed were substantially more expensive than the prices quoted in comparable catalogues.

Perhaps it is merely a coincidence but this week LSSA was contacted by Hilary Wight, the senior communications manager at Chancery Lane, to say “I note that the LSSA website currently displays the Law Society logo. Unfortunately other organisations are only allowed to use our logo with express permission, which I understand isn’t the case in this instance. If I’m correct, please could you arrange for it to be removed, and let me know this will be done.”

LSSA secretary & chief executive Roger Hancock said he was “rather surprised” by Wight’s comments as the link had been on the LSSA website for 15 years and at one stage LSSA sponsored the Law Society’s Software Solutions Guide. Hancock adds “It was part of an agreement (at a time when you were willing to talk to us) to provide mutual links on our websites. I notice that such agreement is no longer honoured by you, but it was originally. I would regard the existence of that agreement as express permission. However if you don’t want us to have a link to your website in future so be it. If so please let us know that you wish to revoke the permission we already have and the reasons for your stated policy so that I may inform members why.”