Technology is a vital component of any modern legal practice. Raghavendra Verma investigates the IT solutions that are available and considers how they are best deployed in Indian law firms
Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister of India who paved the way for the country’s rise to prominence in the field of IT, said: “We need to befriend science and technology to jump to higher notches.”
The extent to which India’s legal profession has befriended technology varies considerably. While some lawyers can be expected to respond in a flash to requests sent by email, others are noticeably slower, possibly because their firms still use a single email account that is shared between all their professionals. Similarly, while some firms have employed cutting edge technology to manage everything from their information systems to their client billing, others rely on manual processes that have changed little over the last 50 years.
The varying levels of sophistication in the use of technology by Indian law firms raises important questions about a profession that is striving to meet international standards. “Technology is soon going to become a key differentiator among law firms,” says Nikhil Chandra, the CEO of Rainmaker, a law firm consultancy. “Law firms are going to be forced to focus their energies on deploying technology correctly to ensure more efficient service levels as well as to create robust internal systems, including knowledge-management systems.”
In a country that prides itself on being at the forefront of the global IT revolution, it is hardly surprising that a wide array of IT products is available to commercial law firms. Products on offer cover everything from e-discovery, document review, case management, data security and mobile dictation, to time-monitoring, human resources management and client billing.
Despite this, Pavan Duggal, a cyber-law specialist and Supreme Court lawyer, says that “law firms are not using technology to the level that you would expect”.
Lalit Bhasin, the president of the Society of Indian Law Firms, lays part of the blame for this on India’s education system. He says that technological education is completely ignored in most law schools, the only exceptions being the national law schools and a few private institutions. “In this environment of globalization, we cannot afford to have lawyers, law teachers or corporate counsel who are not aware of the use of technology,” he says.
The situation may be improving. Sean Stephens, the sales manager for Asia-Pacific at Big Hand, a company that offers software programmes for digital dictation, says that in the past Indian lawyers had not needed to adopt these solutions, probably due to the low cost of hiring stenographers. However, with the increasing mobility of senior lawyers, Stephens says demand is increasing.
Speaking from his base in Sydney, Stephens says he considers the use of technology in India to be more advanced than in the US. “It is an interesting phenomenon,” he says. “The US market is very conservative, but there are strong parallels between the Australian and Indian markets [with respect to the willingness of lawyers to adopt new technology].”
As more lawyers become familiar with the benefits of modern technology – and in some cases, overcome their fears of it – the take-up rate will undoubtedly quicken. In this regard, education is crucial. Several attempts have been made to increase lawyers’ understanding of IT and drag the country’s legal profession into the 21st century.
One such initiative was a recent conference in Delhi called Legal Technologies India, 2011. Organized by Cerebral Business Research in association with the Society of Indian Law Firms, the event included discussions on a wide range of issues concerning the implementation of legal technologies, as well as demonstrations of a number of software solutions. More than 100 delegates attended.
Jayant Saran, an associate director at KPMG, says that the presence of a large number of lawyers at the conference indicates that law firms are now recognizing the tremendous benefits that the adoption of modern technologies can bring to their practices.
Technology at work
For tech-savvy lawyers, legal technology provides a valuable opportunity to increase efficiency and profitability. Much of the software they use is for communications and to search for judgments. The latter includes products such as Manupatra, SSC Online and LexisNexis, which compile past court judgments in a digital database along with tools to conduct comprehensive and quick searches.
Saloni Bhalla, the head of sales at Think Legal Resources, an online provider of information on judgments and government notifications, says that “smooth processes and a superior approach have provided a windfall for all”. She believes that as a result of products such as hers, “the volume of paper in law firms has decreased and the flow of information has become tremendously fast”.
Document management systems, which simplify the workflow within law firms, are also in common use. A partner can use the software to assign a project to a subordinate, who drafts the necessary document and enters it into the system. This sends an immediate alert to the next person in the chain, who is prompted to make any necessary additions or changes to the document, a new version of which is automatically created. When the final document is reviewed by a senior lawyer, he or she can see all of the changes that were made at every level.
In addition, a document management system can automatically record the time that each contributor spends working on each project, thereby simplifying the process of client billing.
One of the country’s most tech-savvy law firms is Amarchand Mangaldas. It employs the Elite-3 practice management system, a document management system called iManage, a client relationship management system and various other smaller software solutions. Valerie Bowles, the firm’s chief operating officer, says that Elite-3 enables clients to monitor progress by accessing some of the data in a firm’s practice management system. “Such systems offer considerable management and reporting efficiencies, which are particularly beneficial to law firms with more than 100 lawyers,” she says.
Like Amarchand, Luthra & Luthra uses iManage to organize its documents, case files and emails. The system has an advanced search function and enables the automatic classification of documents. It allows law firms to capture content, regardless of file type, in a unified electronic format, providing easy access to all types of documents on a single platform, making them easier to find, share, and reuse.
Technology has also proved valuable for project management and monitoring. Pangea3, a Mumbai-based legal process outsourcing company, uses a system called Change Point, which was developed by Compuware. It helps to maintain unified management control and has applications in project development and portfolio management. “It is an expensive solution but it fits in well with our business environment,” says Manoj Nair, the company’s head of business process automation.
Three key functions
Nitin Mehta, a partner at Mehta Associates, an Ahmedabad-based law firm that uses technology extensively, says that in general, the software used by law firms fulfils one of three purposes: client interface, intra-firm administration and court-related tasks.
Client interface software is used to simplify functions such as marketing, contact management and proposal handling. Intra-firm administration systems, meanwhile, are deployed in areas such as client billing, time-keeping, productivity monitoring, conflict management and filing. According to Mehta, an important component of intra-firm administration is resource allocation and knowledge management, which can be digitalized with great benefit to the firm.
Court-related tasks that can be undertaken electronically include interaction between the court, the litigant and the lawyer. Sending information to concerned parties about a judge being absent or the postponement of a case are examples of such tasks.
When it comes to selecting the IT products to purchase and implement, many law firm managers – particularly the less tech-savvy ones – falter. Choosing popular brands might sound like an easy strategy, but it may not be the most prudent.
“Software recommendation is very client-centric and platform-agnostic,” says Arihant Patni, the CEO of Bodhi Global, a Pune-based legal process outsourcer.
Stephens at Big Hand argues that to get the best out of technology, it is vital to not only have the right tools in place, but also to ensure they are used effectively. As such, in-house manpower is needed to continuously feed information into the system.
Bowles at Amarchand says: “There is a conceptual difficulty among lawyers; they think the systems are just plug-and-play.”
Saran at KPMG recalls a case where an Indian law firm invested in a document management system but never used it. “The firm did not apply enough rigour to its own folks to use it,” he says. “Very often people get so caught up in their day-to-day work that the task of putting stuff on the system slips through the cracks.”
Stephens is more optimistic. He says that once Indian law firms decide to adopt a particular technology, they generally implement it quickly. Speaking from his recent experience of selling digital dictation software to Indian lawyers, he says: “In one week I got 40 firms interested in our products and we have three firms already signed up for immediate trials.”
To buy or to build?
Some law firms have avoided the difficult choices between rival IT products by commissioning their own proprietary software. Bowles cautions against this approach, arguing that “it’s very expensive to make software with the same functionalities that are available in the leading systems”. But several law firms have gone down this route regardless of the cost.
Altacit Global, a Chennai-based intellectual property firm, is currently considering a customer relationship management product that will be tailor-made for it by a Bangalore-based company called Impel. Under a mutual agreement, Impel will be allowed to sell the software to other customers. Sudhir Ravindran, Altacit’s CEO, says that selling the product to other professionals, like auditors, who have a similar process flow to that of lawyers, will allow them to offset some of the cost of developing the software.
Customized software is sometimes the only solution for in-house legal departments as there are few ready-made choices for them. “We cannot have something off the shelf as it has to be designed for the [particular] operation,” says Rajinder Sharma, the group general counsel at JSW, one of India’s largest private steelmakers. “In the soft drink manufacturing process, the regulatory approvals and environmental clearances are totally different from the steel and mining industry,” he says. To cope with these differences, Sharma has installed bespoke software in JSW’s legal department. He did the same thing during his earlier positions with Coca-Cola and Bharti.
Cost is an important factor in the choice of technology. Saran says that the deployment of a platform of various technologies at a law firm could cost between ₹7.5 and ₹20 million (US$165,000 to US$440,000) depending on the level of functionality, sophistication, reporting and storage space.
Patni at Bodhi Global notes that Indian law firms are typically conservative when it comes to spending money. As a result, investing heavily in the purchase and implementation of software solutions is a decision that needs to be clearly thought through by the partners and adequately budgeted for.
Firms may opt for cheap solutions, many of which are offered by Indian vendors. But as Ravindran cautions, the lack of frequent updates and the higher costs of customization that are often associated with cheaper products may render any initial cost saving a false economy.
“Once we got a quote with an annual licensing fee of ₹500,000 and a customization cost of ₹900,000,” he says. Nevertheless, he does not discount the importance of inexpensive software if it is used correctly.
Bowles would second this. She believes that some of the smaller software packages available in India present a good alternative to a full practice management system, especially for smaller law firms. “They are not the Rolls-Royce, but have some very good functions”.
Addressing security threats
Yet another technology-related expense that law firms have to factor in is the cost of protecting their digital data. At the simplest level, this could involve the encryption of laptops to make sure that if one is lost, the information it contains cannot be recovered. But at the other end of the scale, “thousands of US dollars can be spent on security measures for servers and disaster recovery systems,” says Saran.
Bodhi Global maintains a separate disaster recovery office where it backs up its information for any eventuality. Files are backed up in real time and once a week data stored on magnetic media is physically moved to a secure location.
Technology has also created an alternative to that basic pillar of security, the human signature. Duggal observes that some Indian lawyers have already started using digital signatures to authenticate electronic records.
Mind v machine
While technology is increasingly embraced by the legal fraternity, warnings against its improper use persist.
“Shortcuts are being applied and the proper application of the mind is lacking,” says Bhasin, referring to “cut-and-paste jobs” done by some lawyers while preparing their legal opinions. His sentiments are echoed by Mehta, who says that the basic skills of a lawyer tend to be only partially developed when too much reliance is placed on technology.
Perhaps for this reason, Sharma at JSW says that when he needs a law firm for litigation, arbitration, dispute resolution or regulatory matters, he prefers to deal with a firm that uses conventional methods. However, for documentation, corporate matters and tax work, a high-tech law firm is preferable.
Sharma believes that most clients are not interested in the technology their law firms employ. As a client himself, he cares more about the quality of the service he receives than the technological processes that underpin it. An exception to this may be communications, a key area of technology in which law firms must ensure they are fully compatible with their clients.
After all, it is the clients who call the shots: “They expect a reply from lawyers as soon as they hit the send button on their BlackBerrys,” says Duggal in exasperation. “And if there is no response in 10-15 minutes, they call up.”
Platforms and providers
Law firms can take advantage of many technology solutions. These are some of the most common
- Relativity from kCura offers a web-based electronic discovery solution for the review and management of documents and data.
- DocuMetriX from MuniMetriX Systems is a document management system for standardizing business processes and routing documents.
- Summation from AccessData enables digital investigations and manages, organizes and analyses the litigation process.
- iManage from Autonomy is a type of e-discovery software that manages documents, case files and emails and facilitates closer links between the company, the legal department and outside counsel.
- SharePoint is a document review platform from Microsoft that allows the setup of websites to share information, manage documents and
- Documentum from EMC provides enterprise content management solutions allowing users to create, manage, deliver and archive their information.
- Hubbard One from Reuters provides client management solutions and allows firms to centrally store, manage, access and use their internal database.
- Elite 3E, also from Reuters, automates practice operations. In addition, it provides conflict search capabilities and case and calendar management functions.
- EPIQ Systems provides a discovery management platform to efficiently handle large volumes of complex data.
- LexisNexis offers solutions for discovery and filing services for litigation, productivity and workflow management along with client development and research.