Features - Law Firm Collaboration Via ExtranetsBy Mila F. Bartos, Published on April 1, 2002
Mila F. Bartos is a partner of Finkelstein Thompson & Loughran in Washington, D.C. The firm specializes in large, complex class action litigation and is responsible for the extranet system handling millions of documents and numerous law firms in the Microsoft antitrust litigation.
In major litigation, the plaintiff’s law firm must organize and analyze a large quantity of documents produced by the defense. The litigation team’s task is to coordinate discovery and prepare for depositions and trial. In the past, this meant going through boxes of paper documents, analyzing all the material and sorting the contents in some relevant manner. Technology available in the 90s allowed a law firm to use desktop and network PC applications to attempt to complete this task. Remote access technology allowed a law firm to connect to a remote server and run all applications from a single point. However, this usually entailed calling (via modem) and manipulating several computers to manage and disseminate document information to attorneys all over the country. Today, the Internet offers a better way for law firms to represent a client in a large complex case via a web-hosted litigation support and case management system that allows law firms to share, send and store documents among members of a litigation team.
These Internet repository services, such as LextraNet.com, build extranets that provide a platform for attorneys to electronically manage and maintain all the information they need for a case. An extranet works in cases with multiple parties, for cases with multiple jurisdictions or cases involving several regional offices of one law firm. Even in a simple matter, extranets allow authorized users to log in and access files, look at schedules and send email or documents to other members of the firm.
Document management via the Internet can be the answer for a law firm needing to streamline and organize a large-scale discovery response, while providing secure access to case files. Lawyers and staff can view, upload, edit or share documents from anywhere, anytime. It also eliminates the paper mountain of motions, briefs and other court papers. The only requirement for a party involved in the litigation to access the electronic case files is having Internet access with a web-browser.
Using an extranet and inputting files on a secure Internet site provides 24-7 accessibility, so whether an attorney is at the office or on the road, he or she can have access to thousands of files. The most obvious feature of this Internet repository service is the ability to store huge amounts of documents. However, the extranet technology also allows for subjective coding of those documents with attorney impressions and notes, as well as objective coding with factual data. Since attorneys can code documents online, it eliminates the need and cost of spending days or weeks for attorneys to travel to remote locations and manually sort through case materials. Instead, lawyers can work on the case documents right from their own offices and still collaborate with attorneys in other offices or even other law firms.
The functionality of extranets allows for multiple, simultaneous users and provides those users with quick image retrieval. Numerous cases can be uploaded on the system, which can be searched by field or full-text. Nearly all of the information on the extranet is word searchable. This is particularly true if the law firm and the extranet provider plan document strategy prior to receiving the first document in a case. It’s important to know what the firm will want to do with a document and how it plans to use it, for example, whether a document will be saved in PDF or TIFF format or whether an email will be saved in its native format to preserve metadata. In the latter, a paper image will lose some of the underlying details such as if someone was blind copied on an email.
An additional benefit of extranets is the ability to quickly get an overview of the upcoming week’s schedule, allowing the user to make any necessary calendar changes and notify relevant parties to the matter. This solves the problems associated with having multiple attorneys with different schedules or in remote locations being able to get the information they need. Internet repository services such as LextraNet.com provide additional useful calendaring functions that allow law firm staff to schedule or update depositions right on the website immediately. In a large plaintiff antitrust lawsuit, for example, there can be over 100 users for a single case. So the extranet is an easy way to notify all law firms involved in a case of pending and completed depositions. Once the depositions are completed, the service can be used to upload the transcripts of the testimony so co-counsel can review and prepare for upcoming proceedings.
Extranets also allow expert witnesses’ testimony to be instantly posted, enabling attorneys and other interested parties to immediately review, digest and comment on it. Prior to extranet technology, that testimony would have had to be printed and sent via overnight courier, or possibly emailed, to several different offices before it could be looked at and then reviewed. Using an extranet, the litigation team has instant access to the transcript and they can work on the same, virtual document simultaneously.
Likewise, the extranet can also be used to upload case memos, expert annotations and other documents. In preparation for depositions, matter folders can be created that include relevant documents and highlighted issues. In addition to creating these subset folders of documents, users can write simple or complex reports based on the new material. A simple click within the extranet can send email notification to others working on the case.
While extranets provide this collaborative environment, they do not compromise security. An Internet repository provider can create firewalls, detect and block viruses and offer access rights management capabilities, which allow the law firm to regulate who has access to the case folders. The law firm works with the extranet service to determine who can access specific documents, such as transcripts or deposition summaries, and likewise establish the separate authorized users who can write or view comments to the transcripts. This allows a witness to read a transcript without seeing any of the attorney comments, while co-counsel can read any attorney notes and add comments of his or her own.
Finally, there are cost saving benefits in working with web-based repository services. In the simplest form, the extranet eliminates the duplicate printing costs with providing case materials to all parties working on a case. Cost savings are more apparent in multi-firm cases, since documents are processed jointly and stored on one extranet. So a case that involved 75 law firms would divide it equally, meaning that each would only pay 1/75 of the total cost.
Overall, web-based legal extranets offer law firms with an efficient way to work together and organize, access and deliver case information. Crucial material like evidentiary documents can easily be shared with all members of the legal team while providing partial access to outside parties as necessary. This collaborative work environment provides cost and time savings to all parties involved, and helps manage complex litigation.