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Firms enter the final frontier

Firms enter the final frontier

Law firms may not have pioneered online communications, but they are certainly making up for lost time. The online future is all about client collaboration, in an environment that is…

Law firms may not have pioneered online communications, but they are certainly making up for lost time. The online future is all about client collaboration, in an environment that is interactive, password-protected and multilingual, writes Laura MacIntyre.

While law firms were slower than most to join the online stampede, their presence is now well established. The standard static, text-dominated firm websites have gradually given way to more adaptive offerings, with client updates, detailed staff information and recruitment hubs now accessible at the click of a button.

Professional services have very particular requirements for their websites. Law firms are focused on attracting, retaining and providing advice for their clients. While marketing and public relations are important components of the website mix, building and enhancing a personal connection with the client is one of the most critical aspects of a law firm's online presence.

Allens Arthur Robinson web and extranets manager David Bradbury joined the firm two years ago, and previously worked in a similar role at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP for seven years. He says the aim of the game is to demonstrate expertise to clients online.

"Other businesses are using e-commerce online; that's not what we're about," he says. "I think [professional services] online is about demonstrating competence and trust. People coming to the website want to be impressed that they are dealing with people that can solve their problems."

Every business approaches online communications differently; it's still early enough that there is no universally agreed strategy for meeting this objective. It is not hard to compare firms' offerings on their public homepages, but dig deeper and it soon becomes apparent that the behind-the-scenes offerings to clients -- customised functionalities, extranets, wikis and client alerts -- are where the successful firms of the future will excel.

Getting the right resource mix

Managing and allocating appropriate staff and technology resources is the key to how effectively firms can communicate, and increasingly interact, with the transient online audience. Dedicated resources may not be cost-effective for many small to mid-tier firms, so the initial planning phases of the website are crucial for putting in place the right systems and technology to streamline and automate website maintenance.

Currently, not all of the larger firms have dedicated website resources. DLA Phillips Fox relaunched its website in late 2007, and the marketing and communications team update the content on an "as-needs basis". A spokesperson for the firm said the time spent updating the site per week roughly equates to one person working full time.

In contrast, Allens Arthur Robinson has a dedicated team of four web professionals for its website and extranet (the intranet has it own dedicated staff resources based out of Brisbane). Allens has held the top position on the Netwise Top 10 Law Firm Websites rankings for the past five years.

David Bradbury says managing a website requires a flexible team dynamic at Allens.

"There are four of us in total in the online team and that covers everything from technical to development. [For] myself as manager ... it all sorts of shifts, some days you might find yourself doing content, others technical."

Mallesons Stephen Jaques also relies on "all-rounders" in their technical support team to provide web support, according to Gerard Neiditsch, executive director, business integration and technology.

"We have a group of IT generalists, and part of their work in that team is on the website. ... It's really become an extension of our [support] systems to the client."

Custom-fit CMS

Fenton Communications group account manager for sustainability and infrastructure David Micallef says a dynamic and effective website is in reach even for small law firms.

"A lot of larger firms will have people dedicated to the website, but there's nothing precluding smaller firms from being able to do similar things," he says.

"We work with a lot of firms in establishing websites, and often recommend getting a content management system (CMS) for the website that allows the firm to update and edit their own content."

Content management systems have come a long way from the days of raw HTML coding and clunky user interfaces. Micallef says there's no need for a dedicated staff member to maintain content with the right CMS system, and most routine updates can be handled by an administrative assistant or a member of the marketing team.

Customised CMS solutions are generally preferable to off-the-shelf products, allowing greater control of your brand online, Micallef suggests.

"You can get both on the market. We usually do customised. Our design team work with an external partner who develops customised CMS systems so you can actually develop the system around the look and feel that you want to portray with your brand," he says.

Of course, automation can only go so far, and with the trend towards more personalised content, and the push for an active presence on social networking applications, the business case for assigning staff to maintain your firm's website is growing stronger by the day.

Adding that personal touch, digitally

The vast majority of Australian law firms now have an online presence and a functional website, even if their initial progress was slightly lethargic. The question is: what will be the third stage in their online development?

"Law firms were a little late to join the party but they've have been making up for lost time," says Bradbury.

"It's a very competitive market now, and I think most of our peer law firms, we know what we need to do now. ... We are trying to deliver content in the way clients might want it."

Fenton consultant Micallef says that providing a stream of constantly updated information, including news feeds, can drive traffic and add value for clients.

"The next step after having that basic website is really looking at how you are communicating with your stakeholders, and using the website as a key part of that," he explains.

"A lot of times clients, after they start working with you, don't have that much reason to go to your website. But by doing something like a regular update where you aren't just promoting what the firm is doing but giving them a little bit of extra value, ... some thought leadership about what's happening in the industry at the moment, can often help drive traffic to the website and improve that client relationship."

Neiditsch says his attendance at the annual International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) conference confirmed his view that Australian law firms are "very well advanced" in their website development on an international scale.

Neiditsch says Mallesons, like most firms, has passed the first hurdle of providing content rich websites, and the next challenge is to strive to distinguish the offerings of individual firms and tailor websites to the client's needs.

"In the last year we've been focusing very hard on having a more meaningful interaction with our clients," he says.

"Websites that contain information about projects, in a rich online environment, and allow us to get rich feedback and [to get] clients to interact with us in ways that we have not seen before."

Client collaboration goes online

Client-focused, external websites are a natural progression for law firms, offering a secure but entirely customisable environment for their online client communications. While intranets are now a familiar part of daily work life, including the usual elephant's graveyard of HR information and administration forms, extranets are a relatively new development, taking law firms into the client sphere.

Says Bradbury: "An extranet is like a private website between us and our clients, so we visit a client, we set up a private website with user names, passwords, high levels of security, and within that area we can share with the client documents about a particular transaction."

Allens has developed a virtual deals room, where clients can securely transfer documents. Mallesons offers clients wikis, where clients and lawyers collaboratively update legal content, creating a virtual library of up-to-date and client-focused information.

These extranets, or shared workspaces, are just a starting point, yet to realise the full potential of online client communications. While Mallesons extranet service, Mallesons Connect, is still in the pilot stage, Neiditsch says the roll-out across half a dozen client sites has been a positive learning experience.

"It's a very interesting experience to put [Mallesons Connect] in, because it's not a one-way traffic kind of thing. Different clients are set up very differently internally. For each client we learn a little bit, and we also take new features on board."

So what else does the future hold for online client collaboration?

At Allens, Bradbury says the online future is interactive, password-protected and multilingual.

"As we are very strong in Asia, we are becoming increasingly multilingual, [with] the use of Chinese and Korean and other languages on the website, so that's a big concentration for this year," he says.

"We also offer online compliance guides, where clients can essentially take a test to see if they know enough about a particular piece of legislation. And we are looking to use the website for training of staff and clients as well, recording video seminars and allowing access to those perhaps through a password-protected area of our site."

More passwords to remember, but despite the strain on the short-term memory, these will be unlocking more content than ever before. All eyes will be fixed on the internet as developments in the next few years will see more and more services delivered to clients online, revolutionising the way legal advice is communicated.

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