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JILT 1996 (2) - Paul Crowe

Dipping the Toe - A Solicitor's experience of setting up a working website

Paul Crowe, Partner
South Forrest
Solicitors, Inverness

I think it was Terry Wogan that finally did it. When he said that he could be contacted (if you really felt you had to) not only by phone or fax but on 'Terry dot Wogan at BBC dot co dot uk' I reckoned it was here to stay. I had read articles in the Computer Guardian often enough foretelling a future that was brighter, happier, than now and it was all due to the Internet, but they had been saying that forever, hadn't they? No, it was Terry Wogan who clinched it.

In an 8 partner firm in Inverness, I have been blessed with wise colleagues who will allow me just enough of a budget to keep me quiet for as long as it takes to learn some new technology without being committed to using it.

So it was with the Internet. I had the basic equipment anyway, we could afford the subcription and maybe a few phone calls but I could not make out a good commercial case for being there, never mind being the first, as far as we knew, in Scotland. Still it did no harm to learn.

I joined up to Demon. At least I paid the subscription for a few months. And I read the bumf. And after swallowing a lot of pride, summoned help to find out what SLIP and PPP were. And finally managed to run the installation disk. And we were in!

The lines from Inverness to Preston - one of the POPs that was relatively free - were hot for a couple of months before I was approached by a local software firm, Black Isle Systems Ltd. They have been clients and friends for many years and they had decided to become the first Net provider in the north of Scotland. Was I interested in signing on? Now Preston may have its devotees but Avoch (pronounced Och), home of Black Isle Systems, benefits from a lovely view over the Moray Firth, the pungent tang of freshly caught fish and a clear phone line over the 10 miles to Inverness. No contest.

I had looked at the pages put up by the few other legal firms I could find and there seemed to be an accepted format; the firm profile, the partners, the premises and the rest. Nobody has ever called me imaginative and our pages happily followed their layout. I did think that graphics of some description would make the pages more interesting and I had a photographer stand on the embankment below Inverness Castle to preserve our riverside offices for the millions. That was far less of a technical hurdle than getting the partners to smile for their mugshots.

One feature of our site, indeed one feature of Scottish solicitors generally, is our involvement in the sale of property. We offered the chance to be 'on the Internet' to our property-selling clients (at a small fee) and about half of them took it up. Photos and descriptions of their houses are displayed and Black Isle Systems developed a map-based browser. Now although we have a reasonable presence in the local property market, we are unlikely to have more than 50 properties on the market at one time so the browser is perhaps superfluous but the exercise could be useful. I have asked our suppliers to investigate the possibility of transferring text files, possibly by FTP, containing the detailed brochures of each property

So what have we achieved? Firstly the technical knowledge of what it means to be on the Internet is of value. Where I see that a new technology is going to be relevant to my business, either because it is going to make us more profitable or because, in the case of e-mail, our clients demand it, I have little sympathy with those in the legal profession who simply hope it will go away, or that somebody else will do the learning for them. I am quite prepared to take the time to learn and to take the advantages offered.

There have been some commercial advantages. Some clients use email. Communication to Black Isle Systems, which as can be imagined has become fairly regular, has improved. We have had enquiries about properties we have been advertising from places such as Los Angeles, South Africa and Wales. These may not result in sales but if these inquirers are genuinely interested in buying properties in Scotland, there is a good chance that they will be asking us for assistance.

The property side is where I see a distinct opportunity. Solicitors in many of the towns and cities in Scotland have banded together to create Property Centres which are often the first port of call for prospective purchasers. By doing so, they have retained the lion's share of the market and this, together with solicitors' independence from estate agency chains, has been of considerable benefit to house-buying clients. If they can do so on the Internet, by setting up sites which have several hundred properties displayed, they could again seize the initiative.

I have demonstrated our site to the members of the local Solicitors Property Centre and they have agreed that it is a question of When and not If. The number of flyers they have received from providers offering to set them up, and the proliferation of property-based sites on the Net, suggest that the When may be Soon.

Another practical use relates to our mortgage sourcing software. Our suppliers, Solicitors Office Systems of Perth, have recently set up a site and we can download an update of the latest mortgage schemes through the Internet rather quicker than through our traditional email source, Scroll.

I won't pretend that the exercise has made an earth-shattering difference to my business or indeed social life. You will catch me looking at the ski reports more often than the law reports. I haven't spent as much time as I should keeping the site looking fresh. But in a year when we became the first firm of solicitors in Scotland to gain the Investors in People award, it was nice to be one of, if not the first solicitors' firms in Scotland on the Internet.

And, since you ask, I now listen to Radio 3 in the mornings.

Paul Crowe, Partner, South Forrest, Solicitors, Inverness

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