A year ago, there were only 50 law firms on the Internet. Today, there are nearly 500 worldwide. And perhaps the most surprising thing about their Web sites is that none of them (yet) charge by the half-hour.
The first in the UK was Mayfair, London firm Jeffrey Green Russell, a medium size firm specialising in banking, finance and property. Its site went live in September 1994.
So does this spell the end for the stuffy, port-swilling Rumpole image? Senior partner Clive Whitfield-Jones certainly thinks so - he believes lawyers who don't go online probably won't be in business much longer.
"Lawyers' incomes are being squeezed by clients wanting a higher quality product at a lower price," he says. "To survive, firms will have to contain costs, slim down their infrastructure and radically re-engineer the traditional service production and delivery process. Lawyers who lack computer literacy or connectivity will find themselves cut off from the resources, ideas and contacts which are available on the Internet."
Whitfield-Jones believes his company's Web site will act as a sort of shop window: "I take the view that the Web will become the first port of call for people requiring more information, for example potential clients and recruits."
As a direct result of going online, JGR has already picked up a number of new clients, including Demon Internet and Net Expressions, the Web site designer. But, cautions Whitfield-Jones: "The Internet won't turn total strangers into your next client. While it is possible to generate business, it's there to communicate with your existing audience most of all."
The JGR site has been developed to take advantage of the interactive functionality of the Internet. The firm wanted to move away from a static, brochure-type design. "Your legal practice will succeed or fail on the Internet through its ability to provide constantly changing, value-added content, not slick graphics," adds Whitfield-Jones.
The site has no GIFs of be-wigged barristers, pink string, sealing wax or anything vaguely legalistic. When you go in you see a sober series of multiple windows, each containing specific hypertext elements. So, for example, if you want basic contact information for the company itself, you just click on the logo and up it comes. If you want to sue someone, you go into the litigation area. If, on the other hand, you'd like to find out everything there is to know about Jeffrey Green Russell, with a view to retaining the firm, you can fire up a slideshow presentation of the company - what it's about, its clients and so forth.
Another feature of the site is the so-called Interactive InfoCenter.
Here, among other things, you can subscribe to digital newsletters. JGR currently provides two - an Internet Service Group newsletter which deals with how the Internet is affecting the practice of law, and a Town and Country Planning newsletter. There are also plans afoot to host interactive forums and legal seminars on the site.
Since Jeffrey Green Russell went live, it has been joined by a number of other solicitors and legal firms. It looks as if, thanks to the Internet, the legal business is about to experience one of its most significant transformations since the quill pen gave way to the ballpoint. Whitfield-Jones agrees: "This new communications medium, and the tools being developed for it, will change forever the way we do business, just as the fax and copier did."
Jeffrey Green Russell
Designed by Herndon Web Services
Target audience Existing clients and possible new business
Competition Arbeid, Golstein & Oshry, and an increasing number of others
Setup Two Sun SPARC servers at Herndon Web Services' premises.
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