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New industry standard for online legal data

1 June 03

A new online legal information service has been developed by two lawyers from Orkney

by Roger Mackenzie

A new product designed to provide solicitors with a powerful marketing tool in the face of increasing external competition to provide legal information has been launched by two solicitors from Orkney.

What is believed to be the first authoritative and accessible source of ‘entry level’ Scots Law via legal firms’ websites, aims to give firms throughout Scotland the ability to provide clients with comprehensive legal information at the click of a mouse. Legal Data Solutions’ database is written in plain English, will be updated on an ongoing basis and is intended to enable all law firms to meet the ever-increasing demand for information online.

And in a unique collaboration, a group of Scotland’s law firms (12 at the time of writing) have indicated a commitment to be content providers, helping to ensure the information is of the highest quality. Legal Data Solutions (LDS) expects to end up with between 12 and 15 Content Providers for its initial database. Each firm is providing information in one (or more) of the areas for which it has an established reputation. Currently, those firms include Anderson Strathern, Burness, Balfour & Manson, Ledingham Chalmers, Lindsays, Maclay Murray & Spens, MacRoberts, Morton Fraser, Murray Beith Murray, Ross Harper, Shepherd & Wedderburn and Tods Murray.

The initial database is available now for licensing to law firms throughout the land at what the founders say is “an affordable price for law firms of all sizes”. The breadth of its information will be increased on an ongoing basis and it will also be updated continuously to reflect changes to the law.

The database is designed to be branded by firms as part of their own website offering, rather than by LDS itself. For those many smaller firms which have yet to create their own websites, LDS also offers a web package enabling them to get online almost immediately and thus enable their clients to take advantage of the information’s availability.

The founders stress that the database is a source of information, not advice, and that it is complementary to the services offered by law firms, not competitive with them.

“It isn’t legal information at the ‘Noddy’ level,” said Duncan Hill, co-founder and LDS’s chief operating officer, “but neither is it in any way of an academic standard.  The basic database comprises entry-level legal information. It’s all about time in many respects. Firms which offer the database, branded on their own websites will not only provide a very useful new service to their clients, they will also free up their own time as a result, enabling them to become more productive.”

“We aim to help the profession as a whole increase its competitiveness,” said Roy Flett, LDS’s other co-founder and chief executive officer. “We intend to create an industry standard. No single firm could have built this database on its own without a massive investment in time and money. That is where the collaboration with leading firms comes in ensuring the database is populated with information from expert sources. The IT system underpinning the database has been built from scratch.”

This new service may well also provide an effective response to the threatened entry into the market for the provision of legal information by the likes of Tesco and the RAC. “The fact is that the best people to provide legal information are lawyers,” said Flett. “It is our natural market and we intend helping ensure that it remains so.”

For Hill and Flett, the idea came about some three years ago during one of the regular partnership brainstorming sessions at Orkney law firm, Lows, as they deliberated on how to make their own website more useful to clients rather than suffer from the limitations of being mere brochureware, or from providing only a limited degree of useful information.

 It was from one of those sessions that their initial idea emerged. They worked on it and refined it during the next two years eventually taking it to the Archangels Informal Investment syndicate in Edinburgh seeking funding. Then they worked on it again until last July when the firm won its initial funding package totalling £650,000 and set up its head office in Livingston. Funding was provided by the Archangels Syndicate, W L Ventures and the West Lothian Venture Fund, debt funding by the Bank of Scotland and Scottish Enterprise and grant assistance by SEEL (Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh & Lothian) and Orkney Enterprise. The two primary tasks then were to build the database and recruit content providing firms before launching the product into the market at large.

“We were taking a unique idea into a very competitive arena and asking leading law firms to collaborate effectively in the provision of legal information,” said Flett. “It was quite a difficult concept to get across initially, this process whereby they all contributed into a shared system. We had to prove to these firms that we had a good concept. Individual contributors had to have a high degree of confidence in what we were doing.”

“The message,” said Hill, “is that this service is by lawyers, there are two lawyers driving it and the information contributors are all leading lawyers. That is absolutely central to it all.”

LDS’s own market research had identified three key points. The first was the growing demand for information online. The second was that if end users were going to make use of such a service, then the information offered had to come from trusted and recognised sources. The third was that the delivery system had to be of the highest technical standard.

“Our research also showed that generally there is a high level of satisfaction with the service people receive from their lawyers,” said Hill. “People tend to be happy with their own lawyers and enjoy good relationships with them. This was something we took into account in promoting the business concept. It’s why the information provided in the system comes from lawyers with recognised expertise in particular areas so that the users of that information can trust its accuracy.

“But in offering it to their clients, those firms which now license the product also have to be able to deliver the database as part of their own website offering. Clients will receive the information from their own law firm. That is crucial, though those firms in turn will of course know which firms provided the information, which also raises the prospect of much more referral work from smaller licensee firms in particular to those leading firms. But more importantly perhaps it enables smaller firms to become competitive in a manner they could never have dreamt of doing previously.”

The Law Society of Scotland does not endorse the product but it does support LDS’s efforts. Chief Executive, Douglas Mill, said: “Legal Data Solutions’ Database provides solicitors with their most invaluable tool – legal information. Developed by solicitors for solicitors, the product is deceptively simple and promises to help solicitors provide the best possible service for their markets.”

“The entire profession benefits by becoming more competitive in what it offers and the market at large benefits from having access to an excellent information source which was previously unavailable, and which is provided by recognised experts,” said Roy Flett. “It’s a product that we believe will help people at every level of use and participation.”