Report on E-business
Law firms find sites that feature
resource centres can hold payoff
Friday, May 25, 2001
Survey shows that smaller firms tend to be
more innovative in creating Web presence,
with easy-to-use, interactive formats
Special to The Globe and Mail
If you're a lawyer hoping to do business with GO Transit, Ontario's government-owned transit system, prepare your Web site for some careful legal scrutiny. It's not that GO bases its decisions only on how helpful and current your on-line information is, but it sure doesn't hurt.
A couple of years ago, GO put out a tender for firms to bid on some of its legal work. Among the applicants was Osler Hoskin & Harcourt, a large Toronto-based firm with an international practice predominantly in corporate law such as mergers and acquisitions, litigation and tax matters.
As part of its pitch, Osler promoted its Web site as a resource centre for clients.
"It was very good and we were impressed. We scored them higher for value-added services than the other firms," says Jack Roks, GO's in-house counsel.
Osler won the contract and, in fact, handles much of GO's legal business.
Although more and more law firms are going on-line, relatively few have been able to distinguish themselves, says Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, who specializes in the Internet.
Prof. Geist, who freely provides information on Internet law on his own site, recently studied 200 law-firm Web sites for Industry Canada. Too many put up "brochureware," he says, instead of creating easy-to-use, interactive formats.
Although there isn't an exact number of all the Canadian Web law sites, Prof. Geist found that virtually all of the large firms have a Web presence, and so do many smaller and mid-sized companies.
In fact, sites run by smaller organizations such as Caron and Partners of Calgary are often the most innovative because they're not encumbered by bureaucracy or the fusty traditions of some larger firms, Prof. Geist says.
"It's the smaller firms that are actually engaged in e-commerce," he says. "You see real-estate lawyers completing house closings on-line from the office and immigration lawyers making financial transactions over the Web."
Caron's clients can pay bills by credit card, for instance, through the site's secure server, Prof. Geist says.
On-line since 1994, Osler was one of the first Canadian law firms to realize the competitive advantage of freeing information and keeping it relevant.
Since then, the site has grown to 15,000 pages, with multiple legal and business links.
Last week, Osler launched a redesign, powered by a new database system, to make searching and communicating faster and easier for both clients and recruits, another important target group in the fiercely competitive legal fraternity.
In the next year, Osler plans to provide clients with draft copies of their deals so they can collaborate and make changes throughout the process, as well as a directory of e-mail addresses of the lawyers they're dealing with. Also in the works are closed extranets with individual client companies to provide more one-to-one contact.
Although Osler managing partner Terry Burgoyne says it's hard to quantify exactly how much business is generated directly by the firm's site, it averages about 2,400 hits a week from unique users, many from the United States, a large part of the firm's client base.
"It's an integral part of our firm branding. Osler.com appears on our stationery, our business cards, in all our promotional material," Mr. Burgoyne says.
What clients look for on the site is proof of expertise. They want to see detailed information on deals, with specific examples. They also want to read the lawyers' biographies and articles they've written. Quick analysis of government budgets and regulations and court rulings are also popular features.
What counts most with Mr. Roks is current information.
"I've dealt with firms where they don't seem to update their Web site very often and that worries me. How current is the information if stuff on it still has a 1999 date? If they're doing that on their Web site, which is their face to the world, what else are they falling behind on?"
A well-designed Web site with plenty of timely content and case studies helps attract and retain clients. But, at the same time, the Internet presents a challenge for law firms. They're compelled to offer for free what they used to be able to charge for.
"There's a real fear factor at work," says Abe Feinstein, president of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada in Ottawa.
Mr. Roks, for instance, logs on to the Osler site several times a week, looking for news and analysis of any developments, such as new regulations or possible guidelines concerning fuel emissions that could affect his business.
When a specific area of law comes up that he isn't an expert in, he'll check the Web site to see how Osler has handled similar cases. When information is posted that's in an area of interest to GO, Mr. Roks receives an e-mail telling him to check it out on the site.
Being able to do this kind of research without paying for it saves GO several thousand dollars a year, he says. Plus, it keeps the whole organization more up to speed.
"It makes me more knowledgeable and helps the company appear more proactive. It's a more efficient way of spreading news around, because I can easily distribute the information I get internally over our network," Mr. Roks says.
Although law firms will lose some of their traditional "gatekeeper" billings as companies and individuals do more research themselves, they can save on printing and distribution costs of print materials. Large firms spend $10,000 to $30,000 a year producing quickly outdated brochures, according to Osler.
Although many law firms may lag in their own on-line contribution, lawyers make good use of case studies and regulations posted on government, court and law society Web sites. Last year, for instance, the Federation of Law Societies launched a virtual law library. As of January, there were two million hits.
When on-line transactions become more secure, lawyers will eventually embrace e-commerce, too, not least because of increased efficiency, Mr. Feinstein says.
Several actions are under way to speed that along. Juricert, an incorporated company established by the Law Society of British Columbia, is trying to get other provincial law societies to agree to a national digital-signature system for lawyers. This would electronically ensure that the lawyers involved in on-line transactions are bona fide and the information is secure. The banks, too, are working on a way to make electronic money transfers among lawyers feasible, Mr. Feinstein says.
Though many law firms have been slow off the mark, there are signs that they're now trying to get up to speed. There was a good showing, for instance, at a recent seminar on Internet strategies held by the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association, which represents in-house counsel.
To Alec Svoboda, association chair and senior counsel for Toronto-based Sun Life Financial Services of Canada Inc., "making use of all that the Internet offers has gone from being a frill in the legal profession to being an extremely useful tool.
"Very soon, lawyers will realize that it's an absolute necessity."