Computers: Simplicity on the screen: A text retrieval service for lawyers prides itself on its user-friendliness

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The Independent Online
IF SUCCESS in business is all about spotting an opportunity and building on it, a small company called Compliance must be a winner.

As its name suggests, the organisation has its roots in the law: it was formed five years ago, when the 1986 Financial Services Act - requiring that banks, investment houses and the like improve investor protection by abiding by stricter rules - came into force.

It is still in the business of providing a computerised text-retrieval service to enable practising members of SROs, lawyers and others to keep abreast of changes in the new self-regulating organisations' rulebooks.

But through the recession it has expanded to offer on-screen versions of related texts, such as the 1985 and 1989 Companies Acts, the rules and regulations of the London Stock Exchange and the Admission of Securities to Listing, or the Yellow Book.

At the heart of its existence is a determination to ensure that its clients are not put off by the jargon and complexity surrounding many computer systems. Indeed, the managing director, Richard Watney, stresses that he and his fellow founders have an aversion to technology for its own sake.

The technical director, Ivan Darby, was recruited precisely because he not only had the necessary expertise, but was also 'able to communicate with human beings'.

His approach has led the company to go against the grain in information technology development, by concentrating on what the customer wants rather than what the experts can deliver. This is largely the result of a recognition that many of their would-be customers are reluctant computer-users rather than willing 'technocrats'.

It was the practical experience gained by the legal director, Charles Manzoni, when working as an assistant to one of the first compliance officers in the City while studying for the Bar, that sowed the seed of the idea of computerising reference material and so creating the company. His continuing practice at the Bar keeps him up to date with the attitudes and concerns of his fellow professionals.

On top of this, the company has done extensive testing of its latest product with representatives of the leading law and accountancy firms. Books on Screen - which the company is proud to note has been criticised by a handful of technical experts for being too simple to operate - is due to be launched in September with a computerised version of Butterworth's Tax Handbook.

Books on Screen's chief selling point is its familiarity. Although it is a computerised text, it is designed to look - and be used - like a book. This is because the directors know from their own experience and from research that busy people unfamiliar with technology stick with old ways of doing things.

Books on Screen tries to get over this hurdle by producing products instantly recognisable as screen versions of familiar books which can be 'read' like the traditional volumes.

On top of all this is the attraction of much faster and more comprehensive cross-referring made possible by the latest technological developments. 'The software takes the reader straight to the right reference,' Mr Manzoni said. 'This is one of the real benefits because, as a lawyer, I know that's one of the slowest parts of research.'

Compliance says the pounds 1,000 annual cost for the basic text plus weekly updates of case law is comparable with that for existing research materials. By saving time here, lawyers could devote more effort to being creative and better serving their clients, he added.

The service - which promises the publication of other legal reference materials in the following months - is the result of a joint venture agreement signed six months ago with Butterworth's, the leading legal and accountancy publishing company which already operates an on-line US and British case law database called Lexis.

Thanks to the finance provided by Butterworth's parent, Reed Elsevier, the company, started in 1988 with a barely- affordable bank loan, has been able to make the investment that it hopes will see it transformed from a tiny newcomer to a significant international player.

The pounds 500,000 netted by selling shares to Butterworth's 'might not seem like a lot of money to a big corporate, but to us it's a terrific amount of money,' Mr Watney said. Although Compliance has so far only spent savings acquired through four years of profitable trading rather than tucking into the Butterworth's money, the allegiance has produced noticeable changes.

The company has more than quadrupled in size, to 22 employees, necessitating a move from the premises above a newsagent's in West Byfleet, Surrey, to a nearby modern suite. In the next 12 months, turnover is expected to jump from the present pounds 450,000 to about pounds 1m.

But although the promise of international licensing agreements for the Books on Screen concept adds to the rosy picture, the directors are determined to keep their feet on the ground. 'From the business point of view, we've got to remain pessimistic,' Mr Manzoni said. 'It comes from having been in the recession. We've always been fighting to get money in the bank.'

(Photograph omitted)

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