I’m always interested in learning more about how technology can help make marketing at a law firm easier and/or more effective. A month or so ago I had the chance to talk briefly to Brian Simons of Harris Internet Services about their foray into legal alumni services. I was intrigued, but had some additional, specific questions. He suggested I speak to Carmen Delessio, their Chief Technology Officer. He and I played e-tag for a week or so but finally sat down, virtually, for an interview in which he shared some fascinating info about ways in which Harris’ products, originally developed for college and university alumni tracking, are being adapted to the law firm scene.
A bit of background first. Carmen has more than 15 years of IT development experience, most recently prior to Harris as a Senior Architect for Modem Media Poppe Tyson (NASDAQ: MMPT) a major Web development firm. At Modem, he worked on accounts such as Citibank, IBM and ATT as well as dot.coms like Chipcenter.com. He also worked at Prodigy in online interactive development, Internet projects, communities and communication systems. He has published an article on Graphics and Java Programming for Dr. Dobbs Journal and is a graduate of Manhattanville College. Carmen spoke with me from his office in Purchase, NY.
Andy: OK. Universities and colleges have alumni. Law firms have alumni. I see the basic connection. Take me through how this gets hooked up and how it makes sense for a law firm.
Carmen:: Right to the point. I like that. Good. Well, the first thing for any firm to realize, is that what we’re not selling software. We’re an ASP.
Andy: An Application Service Provider.
Carmen:: Right. Our product “sits behind” your web site, on our own network, at our facilities. That way our clients can pick and choose what parts of our products they want. They can change options at any time. And when we have upgrades, it’s a non-event for them. It just happens. There’s no disk swapping or down time.
Andy: You just log in one morning and, zap! New stuff is up and running.
Carmen:: Exactly. But as far as anyone using the site is concerned, the layer of functionality provided by Harris is formatted to look exactly like the rest of the firm’s site. “Seamless integration” is the marketing buzzword I believe.
Andy: Yeah. We love that seamless junk. So there’s very little IT management on the firm side, it sounds
like. And upgrades are easy. Which is great. But what does the software do? Walk me through the application.
Carmen:: Sure. At law firms, we don’t really talk about “alumni,” although people who used to work at the firm would be one class of users. In a nutshell, the Harris model provides a peer-to-peer, permission based, external, self-correcting contact database.
Andy: Which leaves me more confused than I was 10 seconds ago.
Carmen:: (laughs) Don’t worry. I’ll give you an example or two, and it’ll all make sense.
Andy: Hit me.
Carmen:: OK. Most firms have some kind of database of contact information, right?
Andy: Sure. InterAction, Elite… some use just the functionality provided with Outlook. But most will be doing something along those lines.
Carmen:: Right. Well, the Harris system provides an external, secure layer to your web site that lets qualified or newly invited members of your contact database enter and update their own information as time goes on. So let’s say you have just started working with a new client. You provide them with a username and password to get onto the Harris-system…
Andy: Oh! Hang on. So the interactive layer we’re talking about is private?
Carmen:: Yeah. Oh, OK. I’m sorry. I’m used to demonstrating this with a live version of the application. Yeah. This isn’t something that anybody can just click onto from an open page on your site. You have to know it’s there and have a username and password. It’s by firm invitation only. This is a place where people who have a relationship with the firm can come to update their data.
Andy: In the legal realm, they are collectively referred to as “clients and friends of the firm.”
Carmen:: Great. That’s who we’re talking about. So as soon as you, a new client, are given a username and password, you can get into this private area and enter in all your contact information, as well as any other data that the firm would like to have populated and that you wish to enter. We can customize whatever fields would be helpful to your practice, obviously.
Andy: That’s killer. Because firm contact databases are forever getting out of date. People change offices, phone numbers, fax, email. Whatever. Or the secretary changes, or they add a new team member. And if they work with three different attorneys, there’s usually three instances of them in the firm database, and only one – if any – will get changed. If the client themselves can change the info, that would be very helpful.
Carmen:: Agreed. And that’s a major selling point for us. It also provides a nice front door for other information you might want to “push” to that client. You know, “click here for our latest newsletter.”
Andy: Sure. Stickiness. Got it. That’s cool. Now, you mentioned that firm alumni were “one type” of user. You just spoke of clients. Who else do you think would be a good match for this system.
Carmen:: Really, anyone the firm wants to maintain any kind of contact with. Firm alumni are, of course, a good example. Firms like to keep in touch, in many cases, with lawyers who leave and go elsewhere. You can keep their contact information on the site, and they can come back and update it when they want to. And then they can use the system to view their peers information and stay up-to-date as well.
Andy: Whoops. You lost me again. Visitors to the site can use it to view other user data?
Carmen:: It all depends on how the firm wants to set up permissions. For example, you might want to as vendors to input contact information on the site, but give them no ability to see any other data at all. That’s a very “top-down” relationship, right?
Andy: Right. My vendors don’t need to talk to each other, or to anyone else in the firm. Just me.
Carmen:: But it would be handy if they could update their contact data when it changed.
Carmen:: So let them do that, but nothing else. You define their permission as “Vendor,” and give them no viewing privileges. Let’s say that the “Firm Alumni” definition at a particular firm, though, has the ability to change their own information, but also can view data for other firm alumni, and current firm attorneys and staff.
Andy: That would make sense. You want firm alumni to stay in touch with your people.
Carmen:: Exactly. But if your firm didn’t want them talking to other alumni, you could restrict that if necessary. We call this “role based functionality.” Your system administrators need to be able to see and do everything. Maybe partners have the next level of access. Outside users? It depends.
Andy: The control is left up to the firm.
Carmen:: As it should be. There’s a balance issue.
Andy: I can see that. If you restrict access, you have more security, but you decrease the usefulness of the tool from a social networking standpoint. And you want people to use the site, or else they won’t keep their information up-to-date, at which point the whole exercise becomes useless.
Carmen:: That’s it precisely. Another good example is recruitment. Ask your law school students to use this system to put in their information when they apply. If they are accepted, you’ve already got their data and can dump it into your various firm systems… HR, facilities, etc. If they aren’t, tell them you want to stay in contact for future networking purposes, and ask them to keep their data current.
Andy: Nice. Lawyers understand that relationships are incredibly important. The firm you get dinged by today may end up being the one your company hires in a few years. Or the one that hires you as a lateral.
Carmen:: Right. And by enabling all your contacts to update their information themselves, from your website, you remove the burden from your lawyers. It saves their time, keeps the data much more accurate, provides a reason for interested people to visit your website and helps maintain lines of communication with any number of types of contacts.
Andy: And I assume, since this is database driven, that it can do all the usual stuff; search, sort, export, etc?
Carmen:: Sure. You can dump the information to your other programs, search for users, right. We can build that functionality right into the interface, or you can use the functions that exist in your other applications.
Andy: Cool. Now, tell me about security. This is personal data here, so I assume firms are pretty concerned about that.
Carmen:: Don’t I know it. We take data security very seriously. As I said before, our system lives on our own servers, not those of the firm or the firm’s web provider. We take care of all the physical and software security, all the firewalls, all the backups and intrusion detection systems.
Andy: Sounds pretty tight.
Carmen:: In most cases the security we provide for the layers of functionality Harris adds to our clients’ sites is quite a bit tougher than what they have for their main site. Which is as it should be, since we’re protecting private information, not just the public-facing “brochure-type” material that makes up the majority of the content on most firm sites. In fact Harris employs a full time Corporate Security Administrator to monitor security issues and industry trends. He also schedules periodic penetration tests performed by outside firms who attempt to violate our security.
Andy: Cool! You hire people to try to hack your own system!
Carmen:: Exactly. I could go into a lot more technical data and jargon, but I’m not sure your readers would…
Andy: Dude. This is for LLRX. Full-on geek-speak is cool. Go for it.
Carmen:: Well… OK… You asked for it. The Corporate Security Administrator also performs routine auditing and scanning of our subnets, facilitating necessary defenses to new security exploits. Intrusion detection scripts are monitored and updated to address new exploits. Built into the applications are “circuit-breakers” that provide notification of or prohibit suspicious behavior. The number of profiles viewed in a given time period can be restricted. Notification will be provided to the client if these restrictions are met. Typically, the client will contact the user to determine if the use is legitimate. For example, they might be searching for job contacts or preparing for a reunion.
Carmen:: We also have redundant systems are in place, providing rollover capabilities at the application server, web server, and database server levels. Furthermore, the Keynote monitoring service utilized by Harris is configured to page appropriate key staff when particular events occur or specific thresholds are reached. In addition, there are separate processes in place to routinely ping critical machines to ensure that they are online and responding and verify database uptime and adequate response.
Andy: Party on, Carmen.
Carmen:: Harris has also defined a dedicated cold site for complete recovery of its main data center. Cold site refers to Harris’ ability to recreate its data center in case of a disaster – such as a fire or hurricane. Disaster recovery plans in place to recreate our Virginia data center in our New York data center if necessary. Harris uses the vendor SunGuard to assure that all machines can physically be replaced within 24 hours in the event of disaster. In addition, Harris replicates its servers so as to eliminate a single point of failure in the event of a crisis. An example of a crisis would be failure of the Database server due to a faulty CPU. Harris can automatically resume operations on a replicated backup database server. A disaster is defined as a long-term outage, and a crisis as a short-term outage. Both would cause disruption to the production environment, the only substantial difference being duration of the outage. Connectivity to the Internet is achieved by using a DS3 3-6 meg burstable pipe. Redundant providers are used to assure backup connectivity. Connectivity disruptions are detected and automatic fail over is in place.
Andy: What’s amazing to me is that you did that in one breath.
Carmen:: Actually, I have that all pre-recorded on an MP3 player.
Andy: (laughs) My whole end of this interview was streamed from an iPod.
Carmen:: Excellent. Maybe someday we won’t have to go to work at all.
Andy: That would be nice. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to fill us in on Harris’ contact management ASP solution. In a nutshell, it sounds like a great way to provide firms with a way to manage their far-flung streams of contacts and personal networks. I love that it provides a way for the users themselves to update their own data, as well as a good reason to keep bringing people back to the website. Last question. How can people get in touch with Harris if they want more information?
Carmen:: They’re better off contacting Brian Simons at [email protected]. I’m just the tech guy.
Andy: Super. Well, for a tech guy you did a great job of explaining the value proposition in marketing terms. Thanks again for your time and for all the info.
Carmen:: My pleasure.