INTERNETSTATEGY:Getting first-user advantage
Charles Christian blames the lawyer's mindset forholding back the development of legal e-business
The vast majority of websites of UK commercial law firms still follow the well-worn paths of dull-but-worthy or gimmick-ridden-and-pointless. Common problems include broken hyperlinks, incomprehensible navigation and lack of interactivity. And, as some firms have reputedly spent more than £100,000 on the development of their sites, perhaps the saddest people are the partners who have funded them.Grant Thornton’s “Legal IT Interfirm Comparison Report”, published earlier this year, said: “…we are disappointed to see that the majority of websites have been poorly thought out and many are purely brochure sites”.Richard Susskind was equally scathing when he delivered a keynote speech at the recent LegalTech London conference. He warned that while law firm senior partners were making all the right noises about the internet, most were terrified by the concept of online legal services and few were making any serious commitment in terms of resources.It is nearly six years since the first legal websites went live in the UK and in that time the number of sites offering memorable online legal services can still be counted on one hand. Linklaters Blue Flag, FirstLAW auction site and Epoch’s Desktop Lawyer service, which has the potential to cut lawyers out of the equation, are among them. Even this year’s favourite innovation – the virtual dealroom, such as Allen & Overy’s Newchange service – only achieves over an extranet the same secure, collaborative, document-sharing environment that some Lotus Notes users have enjoyed for the best part of a decade.Much of the blame for the situation lies with the unholy trinity that dominates website development projects in many firms. Internet-enthusiast web designers, know nothing about marketing but can pack a website with a lot of technology clutter, despite this causing the homepage takes an age to download. Neither law firm marketing professionals nor managing partners know much about the internet.It is no surprise, then, that so many law firm websites are dire. But should we expect otherwise? Are most lawyers trapped in a mindset that prevents them from ‘thinking outside the box’? After all, the ethos of being a lawyer is that you know everything – or at least that is what you tell your clients, which in turn is why they are happy to pay the fees you charge. However, when it comes to the internet and e-business, this can mean lawyers are reluctant to consider, never mind take on board, constructive criticism from other people involved in the project. Fair enough if you are dealing with purely legal matters, but lawyers also think their expertise extends to marketing, technical and design issues.Similarly, because lawyers like to give the impression that they know everything, their egos will not let them admit to ignorance on those occasions when they are out of their depth and do not have a clue about what is happening. Perhaps if more lawyers were prepared to ask their technical advisers, IT suppliers and website designers a few penetrating questions such as “What are we trying to achieve with this site?” we might see an improvement in the quality of legal websites.But probably the biggest drawback of the lawyer’s mindset is the desire to get things right the first time – a desirable trait in legal work. If you are preparing pleadings in litigation or a contract in commercial negotiations, it is essential to have a watertight document from the start – that is what your clients are paying for. Unfortunately, lawyers approach websites and e-commerce in exactly the same way, striving for perfection from the outset and unwilling to go public until they are entirely happy.The downside of this approach is that projects overrun their budgets and timetables, and opportunities are lost as other firms steal the initiative and the limelight with their projects. In the internet world, ‘first-user advantage’ – Blue Flag, FirstLAW and Desktop Lawyer – can be critical to success.Jeff Bezos, founder of online bookshop Amazon.com and one of the pioneers of e-commerce, said in a recent interview that the only big mistake a business can make on the internet is to do nothing.We operate in a rapidly evolving market, where organisations have to reinvent themselves, and their business models, on almost a weekly basis. So rather than striving for perfection, it is better to launch a service or product as soon as possible – to gain first-user advantage and throw the competition into disarray – then worry about ironing out any wrinkles. As Bezos points out, the shape of any service or product can change dramatically over time as users start to generate feedback on its features and wishlists of improvements and enhancements.Perhaps this is the key: to develop a good website or legal e-business service lawyers need to stop thinking like lawyers and start thinking like internet entrepreneurs. And if that sounds far fetched, it is worth noting that Blake Dawson Waldron – Australia’s most successful exponent of online legal services (the legal technology group enjoys a profit ratio about six times greater than any other division) – recently relocated its e-business taskforce to new offices in Surry Hills, Sydney’s equivalent of Silicon Valley, in order to escape the constraints of law firm life.
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