Law: Computing is an open book: Lawyers are being encouraged to take bigger steps to a hi-tech future, says Roger Trapp

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FOR MANY lawyers struggling to grapple with the nuances of the latest addition to company law or the details of ever-expanding tax legislation, learning the ins and outs of a computer system is the last thing they need.

Competitive pressures, however, are forcing most of the large firms to expand their information technology capability. At the same time, a handful of companies are seeking to convince them that this is something that they should embrace rather than be dragged kicking and screaming towards.

A company called Compliance has just introduced the second version of its Books on Screen package alongside the latest tax data. A company law service is next and plans are afoot for products based on similarly self-contained areas of the law, such as European Union law and intellectual property.

But Compliance is not alone. Tolley's, the publisher known for its tax textbooks, last year launched Tax Link, a CD database covering all tax text and cases back to 1865. Meanwhile, the increasingly commercial Her Majesty's Stationary Office (HMSO) has formed a joint venture with the Australian-based Computer Law Services to offer similar products - HyperTax and HyperVAT - based on its material.

This development has raised eyebrows, since the HMSO - as well as being a publisher - is also the administrator of the Crown copyright and the body from which the likes of Compliance have to seek a licence for using statutes and other materials. The organisation is keen to point out that the copyright unit is separate from the electronic publishing division. A spokesman said HMSO was 'trying to disabuse' people of the idea that there was a conflict.

Compliance has been keen to stress the accessibility of its approach. It was formed in the wake of the 1986 Financial Services Act as a provider of a computerised text-retrieval service to enable self-regulating organisations, lawyers and others to keep abreast of changes in their rulebooks. The company set out to make the Books on Screen package look just like, well, a book on screen.

At the launch a year ago, the company was proud that experts criticised the system for being too simple to operate. It has since modified this stance by, for instance, making the latest version conform to the now almost obligatory Windows standards. But Richard Watney, the managing director, is adamant that he and his colleagues have 'tried very hard to stick to the simplicity idea'. So while the introduction of 'drop-down menus' is designed to make access easier, the company has retained the familiarity approach. Users still 'read' the book as they would normally and can literally mark key passages with the yellow stickers that are ubiquitous in law offices. They can also cross-refer to other related texts - only more easily and quickly. Mr Watney sees this as critical since it achieves one of the business objectives, of 'providing something that is better than a book'.

While many law firms are still wondering whether to opt for Books on Screen or one of the competitors, the City practice Simmons & Simmons is already some way down the track. Edward Troup, the firm's head of corporate tax, was - together with colleagues - involved in the development behind Books on Screen. He opted for it because of Compliance's commitment to meeting the firm's needs - and 24 lawyers in the firm's corporate and private tax group will be using the service. 'It's certain that the quickest way to get information is to pull it up on your PC.' An additional factor is that the system can be linked to

the firm's existing 'know-how' database.

Of course, the real spur will come when additional subjects are covered. It is no coincidence that all three players have started with tax, which is an identifiable subject. Much legal practice - for example, litigation - covers a variety of fields and is likely to be more problematic. But for the moment, the suppliers are concentrating on trying to offer a competitive advantage at an appropriate price.

The Compliance tax package was introduced at a cost of about pounds 1,000 for the first year, including weekly updates of case law. The monthly updated company law version will cost pounds 650 in the first year and pounds 500 in the next. The cost for subsequent users is about pounds 200 each, so, says Mr Watney, it is not a huge outlay, particularly for larger firms.

At Tolley's, which next year also introduces a company law service, the costs are comparable - pounds 475 for a monthly updated service and pounds 595 for one updated weekly. The annual fees also include the loan of a CD drive until, as Robin Webb, director of the electronic publishing division, says, they become standard parts of PCs.

HMSO charges pounds 400 for its tax CD-ROM and pounds 250 for the VAT version, or pounds 500 for the two. Annual subscriptions run at pounds 650 and pounds 450 respectively, or pounds 895 together. Network prices are available on application.