Gilbert + Tobin: How Law Firms Keep a Competitive Edge with Advanced Technology

Law has always been a fiercely competitive field, but recent entry of global law firms into our local market is ratcheting up the pressure. Technology is one particular front on which the battle for market share is intensifying.

The image of the legal profession, with its wig, gowns and formalities, belies the reality – a behind-the-scenes rush to adopt modern technologies. Russell Wright, Chief Information Officer and Chief Knowledge Officer at law firm Gilbert + Tobin, says, “We may appear to be somewhat slower adopting new technology. We are governed to some degree by the technology of the courts. But internally, law firms are more advanced than many think we are.”

Gilbert + Tobin is one firm at the forefront of the technology change. With 550 staff, including partners and lawyers, in its offices in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, the firm offers an array of commercial services to corporate and government clients.

Wright, together with his 20-strong technology team and innovation officer, Simon Gilchrist, is responsible for assessing new technologies and implementing the best of them.

Just recently, the firm started using its own internal data – records of time spent online, on the phone and in appointments – to provide their clients with up-to-the-minute records. “We use a product called Time Builder,” says Wright. “It builds a record of your day and is linked to our CRM (customer relationship management) system.” Clients can stay up to date with the time billed to their legal matters. Corporate and government clients often have several matters running at once, making the new system especially valuable. “It leads to a more accurate time recording that we report through to clients,” says Gilchrist. “In a small number of cases, we report daily, or even in real time.”

Mobile technology is another fast-moving front. Gilbert + Tobin is using tablets and smartphones to manage the vast amounts of documents that accompany most legal matters. Gilbert + Tobin has responded to the rise of BYOD (bring your own device) in the workplace with both security measures – the firm can wipe the data from a lost mobile device – and services for its staff and clients. “A large percentage of our clients now work on personal mobile devices – tablets and smartphones,” says Gilchrist. “We send work to them on these devices and they have to be able to work with it on those devices. The matters we work on are massive. You can’t have that volume of material with you.”

Gilbert + Tobin lawyers also have access via tablets and smartphones to all the documents they need as they travel the country from the High Court in Canberra to hearings in Brisbane. As well as providing them with more material that could be physically transported, they can depend on the documents being up to date and accurate.

Gilbert + Tobin also publishes specialist “business apps”. “We have an educated client base, often lawyers in our clients’ in-house legal teams,” explains Gilchrist. “We thought, let’s focus on tools that add value to our clients and the very particular problems they have. For example, we have developed an app that provides very detailed regulatory information about telecommunication. It is a very narrow band of clients that find it valuable, but they find it very valuable.” Gilbert + Tobin’s apps are publicly available. It released another for companies that are planning to list on the Australian Securities Exchange, and another to attract recruits. “It all helps to build the brand,” says Gilchrist. Lawyers of all age groups have been quick to accept new technologies, and they are coming to Wright with suggestions. “Everyone is very smart-device savvy,” he says.

Women make up 37 per cent of the partners at G+T – more than any major law firm, says Gilchrist. He does not attribute that achievement solely to its technological innovation, but he says it does help to offer work flexibility to everyone in the firm – a factor that women often name as a top priority in their choice of workplace.

And the future?

“There are parts of our business that have a leaning towards the cloud,” says Wright. “Collaboration, engaging directly with clients on work processes, we are working on implementing a very, very secure Gilbert + Tobin cloud service.”

The former barriers to using technology in law firms – security, reliability, acceptance and cost – have largely been broken down by the remarkable uptake of personal smart devices. Lawyers are embracing technology innovation and clients are demanding it. For law firms such as Gilbert + Tobin, advanced technology is a great way to become more efficient and stand out from the crowd.

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