Research predicts the worldwide earning market to grow from $500m(£344m) in 1998 to $11bn (£7.6bn) in 2003, spending in Europe on multimedia training and education to grow to $6.2bn (£4.3bn) by 2003, and the UK's spending to rise from $162m (£111m) in 1997 to $1.05bn (£724m) in 2002. This will be mirrored by a decline in traditional face-to- face training.

Forward-thinking law firms are already making decisive moves into e-learning, by building bespoke e-learning modules to reside on their network, and by electronic delivery of generic training.

There is an increasing interest in this area by managing partners who are attracted by the way e-learning can deliver cost efficiencies and better distribution of core knowledge, values and procedures throughout the firm.

The starting point of an e-learning programme is a portal embedded in the firm's intranet from which the fee earner or indeed client can access the firm's e-learning resources. This should be available, to use the jargon, 24 hours a day 365 days a year, remotely as well as in the office.

Learning modules should be delivered to desktops, and sometimes to learning centres if there are concerns over technical issues such as sound cards and cultural issues (for example, some fee earners still feel that doing training at their PC is perceived by partners as little different to playing solitaire).

The central e-learning resource should increasingly replace the firm's published training programme as the core means for developing staff. While face-to-face training should certainly not disappear, an increasing amount of material should be stripped out from the seminar room onto the network, often supplementing a face-to face seminar (such as are pre-reading or the existence of a permanent resource on the network which summarises key training messages from particular seminars).

Alongside the structured training programme, smaller chunks of searchable learning such as digital videos of partners explaining key agreements and guides on procedures should be networked through the firm's know-how system and be delivered just in time.

These chunks of learning should not be confused with the kind of material that firms currently place on their intranets, which is usually flat and two-dimensional.

The way learning modules are distributed to staff and monitored by the firm should be through a Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS can be built specifically or may be a tailored version of a standard product such as IBM's Learning Space.

An LMS tailored to the needs of law firms will arise from the existing experiments and find a ready market. An LMS can record learning profiles either for individuals, groups or practice areas.

Where the LMS really scores over the traditional training administration is the ability to set required proficiency levels at the individual or group level and the ability to track and monitor all this in incredible detail. When their progress in understanding a module is being tracked it will be much harder for fee earners to say they were not told about the firm's conflicts, money laundering or sexual harassment policies.

For those managing staff development, the LMS permits relevant content to be assigned to that individual (books, videos, face-to-face learning, CD-ROM courses, internet-based courses, virtual learning events) and to say when it needs to be done, if it was, and how well.

This service can also be provided on a commercial basis to clients through a learning extranet.

The firm's LMS can be linked to human resources (HR) databases. This facilitates administration, monitoring, measurement and reporting of fee earner performance, for immediate feedback to the staff member. It can also raise reports for the evaluation of training - time, cost and effectiveness - and other general management information.

Some innovative firms are looking at the way that some parts of induction could be delivered to new joiners before they come into the office via remote access to e-learning, and for the HR system to be linked in so that personnel information can be built up. The LMS should also 'speak' to knowledge and document management systems so that learning can be linked to networked documents. For example, if a fee earner calls up a precedent, the relevant learning module will come up with it and take the user through key elements.

If all of this reminds you of Orwell's Big Brother then you are not far off. But for those who have grappled with the crude tools of traditional training and its administration, the new techniques offer an immediate link between the firm's key business needs and individual competence.

A good deal of the 'fuzziness' that surrounds return on investment, in terms of both money and performance, from traditional training can be reduced.

There is also the opportunity to know that the absolutely key messages within the firm are being properly distributed and understood, and therefore much of the pain of traditional induction (not to mention partner time) can be lessened.

It offers a better way to link training to the business: this is what kitemarks such as 'Investors in People' have tried to achieve through traditional methods for many years. But in all the talk of delivery systems and business effectiveness, let us not forget the really exciting job of designing the con- tent of e-learning.

Far from undermining the traditional role of training design it adds so many new dimensions to it.

Written by David Jabbari - Bird & Bird Professor of Legal Education and Director of the College of Law's Professional Developments department. First published in Legal Week 22 February 2001.