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Newcastle firm Dickinson Dees has recently launched a range of internet-based services for its clients in the construction industry. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the firm has plans for a much broader e-commerce drive, based on a firm-wide strategy to streamline its business processes.The core platform for the firm’s e-commerce drive is a heavily modified case management system based on a software product called Vectus, from London Bridge Systems. To oversee the project Dickinson Dees created the position of IT director and appointed Simon Earnshaw to the post three months ago.A team of four developers work full-time on the case management project and have heavily customised the software for use within the different practice areas of the firm. The system was first rolled out to the re-mortgaging business, which is understood to process about 8,000 cases per year. The conveyancing and repossessions practices also handle a very large volume of cases and began using the system in February.The whole property department now uses the National Land Information Service (NLIS), which will become a key component in the firm’s online services. One of the partners is a member of a Land Registry working party looking at e-conveyancing and electronic discharge. The firm may also be running pilot schemes for e-discharge technology and an environmental search system in the autumn.Head of property Ian Ward says Dickinson Dees is gearing up for full e-conveyancing – the ultimate aim of projects such as the NLIS. “The speed of consumer purchases has changed dramatically over the past few years,” he says. “People do telephone banking and shop online at Tesco in the middle of the night. We have extended this concept to houses, which are increasingly being treated as just another commodity to be bought and sold like any other product.”Even though NLIS can currently do little more than support online requests for property searches, it still provides a substantial time-saving for law firms. Using NLIS, it takes a secretary or paralegal about five minutes to identify the correct search and send a request. This compares favourably with the 20 minutes typically taken to write letters to the local authority for each individual matter.For NLIS to broaden its scope and become a full e-conveyancing system, two key issues have to be addressed. While some local authorities can respond automatically to requests for searches, others still do not have the IT infrastructure in place for automation and continue to process requests manually. Secondly, it is widely held that electronic signatures must be legally acceptable in the UK before e-conveyancing can take off. Even then, house sales will usually take weeks rather than hours because of the problems inherent in chain transactions.Dickinson Dees began its focus on high volume work about seven years ago when some large clients asked for a fast track re-mortgaging service. Corporate clients of the re-mortgaging practice can log onto the firm’s extranet to use a range of web-based reporting tools to check the status of their matters. Fee earners are encouraged to enter comments on current matters in the case management system. These are then automatically published on an extranet. The reporting tools will soon be available to large conveyancing clients, along with a facility that lets them see a list of completions that occurred in the past week and those expected to occur in the next week. These time scales are flexible and can be set by the client. “Our system is unique… it is also transparent as the exact stage of the transaction is clearly indicated and delays are minimised as each task in the process is fully automated,” Ward says. “We have designed this specifically to incorporate features which will be useful to house builders who will be able to see at a glance projected completion dates and receipts of deposits and purchase monies. There has been extremely enthusiastic feedback from the builders to whom we have demonstrated the system so far.”Dickinson Dees is also developing a software application for a large construction client, enabling it to streamline building plot sales over weekends. The company’s building sites normally have negotiator’s offices in portakabins, with access to the internet. When a negotiator makes a sale, they log onto Dickinson Dees’ extranet and fill out a form with the buyer’s details. The data is then sucked into the firm’s case management system and awaits only the site supervisor’s go-ahead on Monday morning before being processed by the law firm.“No other firm in the region, and few nationally, can offer this service,” Ward says. “Buyers will be able to reserve houses at site offices with the reservations being downloaded via the internet straight to our computer system which will then automatically produce all of the conveyancing documents required for the transaction.” He says the main advantage is that the builders will be able to track the exact progress of each house sale whenever they want, without calling the law firm.Another part of the firm’s strategy involves selling legal services directly to consumers. Its websites include Peaceofmind.com – selling wills and other standard forms to private clients over the web – and Bizdocs.com, which sells simple documents such as letters of claim and employment contracts to the corporate market. A third site provides standard shorthold tenancy agreements and other legal documents to landlords. As with any e-commerce site, payment is conducted online, by credit card.Although it is unlikely that such websites are a massive source of income for the firm, they may represent a substantial cost saving because the firm’s lawyers no longer have to manually perform these tasks, which are generally seen throughout the industry as menial and unprofitable.

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