Law: Cultivating an electronic tree of knowledge: Everything the practice needs to know is on Wendy London's computer system. She describes her project to Sharon Wallach

BERT, the file storage manager, is the odd man out at Cameron Markby Hewitt - he is the only member of the firm's 600 staff who refuses to have a terminal on his desk. Bert aside, the City firm is 100 per cent on-line.

In CMH's offices near Tower of London, Wendy London, director of information technology, oversees the firm's computer system and IT programme. She describes herself variously as the firm's oldest trainee and the most highly paid articled clerk in the City. She has in fact just signed her deed of articles, but she is also a qualified US lawyer.

Her IT credentials include active involvement in International Bar Association committees. She is also a council member of the Society for Computers and Law and managing editor of its magazine.

She was responsible for designing the integrated system that is available to all staff at the firm's four sites - CMH has a satellite office in the Lloyd's building, an office in Brussels and one in Bristol, opened in response to a move there by one of the firm's major clients, Lloyds Bank.

CMH's technology group offers consultancy as well as legal advice to clients, targeting legal issues that are dependent on technical matters. 'We capitalise on our technology as a way of marketing to existing and potential clients, and of improving our speed, accuracy and quality of service,' says Chris Larlham, the firm's managing partner.

Even in the primitive days of IT, Ms London says, CMH was a leader. 'It was one of the first City firms to use word processing and the first or second to bring mini- computers into the country,' she says.

The initiative has its roots in 1985, when Richard Goodman, now the firm's IT partner, wrote a paper stressing the importance of recycling information. Ms London says: 'A law firm is a very document-oriented business - we get through 10 to 15 million A4 sheets a year. Lawyers are information brokers, so rather than constantly re-create information, we need to recycle it.'

She was appointed in May 1987 to take the IT function forward, heading one of four non-lawyer administrative departments at the firm (the others are marketing, personnel and finance).

She was fortunate, she says, to come to a greenfield site. 'My one demand, which was granted,

was that I would not work for a committee.'

She undertook a broadbrush look at the firm, examining its business requirements and overall business planning, and drafted a 'user requirement study'.

The firm operates two core systems. 'I'm not interested in separate satellite systems,' Ms London says. 'They run the risk of data getting out of step, duplication and building up costs.'

The first system is known as Freia, a database that acts as a repository for documents. 'It allows us to retrieve documents, send information bulletins, and find externally sourced documents,' Ms London says. 'Development of the system is continuing. A lawyer need not leave his or her desk to find a library book. It's a unique approach, in that all the information is in one place.'

However, it did not help with 'people data'. CMH's second core system, says Ms London, pushes current technology to the limit. CCC - standing for contacts, clients, conflicts - is used

to ensure that no conflicts arise

in new cases for the firm, to discover who is connected with what matter, to track down any internally held information about an existing or new client, to link various individuals together to build a profile of those involved in any given matter.

'All parts of the database can be related to each other and can show all connections. Reduced to a graphical form, it would show a family tree,' Ms London says. 'It's an extremely powerful

system.'

She acknowledges that in common with all systems, its success relies on the consistent, regular and accurate feeding-in of data. The answer lies in 'massive IT training and indoctrination sessions', part of Ms London's function at the firm.

Electronic mail is also part of the system. 'It's fun, but it's also a real working tool,' she says. One common criticism of E-mail is that it can make people lazy about maintaining face-to-face contacts with colleagues - it is quicker to key in a message than to walk along the corridor to talk to someone. On the contrary, says Ms London, it has introduced an informality into the firm that has helped to change its culture.

The firm is about to embark on a third core system, which will redesign its accounting procedures and integrate them with the existing networks.

'It's a very sophisticated system, especially for a law firm,' Ms London says. 'It's a good marketing tool because we act for many clients involved in information technology. We are capable of, for instance, building systems for clients in anticipation of litigation, or for insurance claims-handling matters.'

Anyone - except presumably Bert - can get into any of the systems. 'There is complete transparency at all levels - it's all about giving us a competitive edge.'

(Photograph omitted)

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