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Features - Ground Zero: Will You Survive the Internet Explosion? One Firm's Story

By John Hokkanen, Published on April 19, 1999

John Hokkanen, Chief Knowledge Counsel, heads the Knowledge Services Department at Alston & Bird in Atlanta, Georgia, and has acted as chief architect of the firm’s intranet and extranet applications. You may obtain a copy of his informational CD-ROM "Law Offices and the Internet" (which has a full copy of Pure Oxygen) by using the on-line form at http://www.hokkanen.com/cdorder.

(Archived May 17, 1999)


John Hokkanen

When an organization adopts a new technology, the implications may not be understood or appreciated for a few years. Atlanta's Alston & Bird learned this firsthand. The firm committed resources very early to Internet technologies, including intranets and extranets. It was an ongoing education.

This article analyzes the firm's experience in two parts. The first half discusses the path the firm took, beginning with its first database-driven intranet application in 1995, and how these systems have proved themselves numerous times with lawyers who are not technology-oriented. The second half reflects on the experience and discusses the larger significance of this technology investment particularly the opportunities that can be pursued now that a sound foundation is in place.

Database Driven

"WE ONLY HAD AN INKLING OF WHERE WE WERE GOING."

A&B's initial foray into intranets did not begin with publishing firm policies or creating links to valuable Internet resources. Instead, the firm sought to solve an everyday problem. Its lawyers needed to create a work product retrieval system-one that was user-friendly-and to focus their technology investment on understanding the processes involved rather than on expensive software licensing.

Result: a Web-enabled, full-text database containing a half million documents. The system was easily usable with its point-and-click browser interface. It even had online, computer-based videos and documents for training.

The successful creation of this important legal practice system was fortuitous for the firm. By 1996, it had laid to rest a number of important issues:

  • Internet-based systems could be robust and were ready for prime time;
  • Internet middleware packages (e.g., Cold Fusion) could help an organization tap into major back-end capabilities;
  • The systems were easy to deploy because there was nothing to do on the PC but equip it with a browser;
  • Intranets could be an inexpensive dream come true for a cost-conscious enterprise;
  • The focus of the intranet systems should be the development of legal practice systems for lawyers.

In short, success with a hard system had paved the way for additional substantive work.

Alston & Bird has transformed its practice with a database-driven Web authoring application focused on collaboration within the legal environment. From intranets to client-centered extranets, it’s about serving clients in the 21st century.

How Did We Get Here?

THE INTERNET PUBLISHING DILEMMA.

In 1996, the firm had put into place a robust set of static Web pages for its intranet. However, it had become clear that too much time and energy was required to maintain these pages. In addition, updates were being forwarded to the technology people, who understood how to craft HTML. This was a problem for several reasons. First, the technology people's time is valuable, and coding HTML is not the best use of a Web applications developer. Second, an information bottleneck had been created. Third, there was no effective way to assess the varying needs of different practice groups; the work was done on a first-come, first-served basis.

By the close of 1996, it had become clear the intranet publishing dilemma must be solved, and quickly. It was not going to be cost-effective to train people in the use of FrontPage or other HTML editing tools. Not only were those tools at the time cryptic; it was simply ridiculous to think any significant number of lawyers would have the time or interest to learn them. It also was clear the kind of information on the firm's Web pages actually comprised a fairly short list of objects: text, URL links, pictures and documents. In short, lawyers, paralegals and staff needed an easier way to add these elements to a page-not another application to learn. They wanted to collaborate, not become gurus in Internet protocols.

It also had become obvious to the software architects that the firm should not focus its efforts solely on the intranet. Of course, extranets in 1996 were unknown to most law firms. No such project was even on the horizon for Alston & Bird. Nevertheless, the goal had become to create a database-driven Web authoring application focused on collaboration within the legal environment. A database and Web-based forms would let lawyers, paraprofessionals and staff easily create new pages and maintain information objects on these pages. Full-text search technology would allow easy location of anything within the intranet/extranet, and simple security would allow any given page to be owned and edited by a specified group of users. Thus, it was envisioned that such a system could be left internal as an intranet or be ported to an external server to act as an extranet.

Pure Oxygen, Pure Collaboration, Extreme Growth

“AGGRESSIVE PUBLISHING.”

In January 1997, the application (code-named "Pure Oxygen") was demoed at Price Waterhouse Cooper's New York LegalTech. (The name was metaphorical of its intended purposes; the oxygen atom always appears in collaboration with another oxygen atom, and oxygen acts as an important ingredient in biological organisms for physical work.) By summer, all static HTML pages were gone; every page of the intranet was being driven from databases.

The new tool liberated both the technology personnel and those holding the content. Each practice group had its own page (with subpages) and easily could maintain the content within the pages.

According to Fran Pughsley, director of library services, it "allowed the library to move aggressively into the realm of publishing on the intranet." Instead of merely finding valuable resources, "the library could now move forward on its own without any reliance on MIS, publishing its legal resource links, library newsletters and online catalog."

For the library, the focus became the publishing of information, not a bunch of technical how-PTO's.

Enter Knowledge Services

“THERE IS NO END IN SIGHT.”

After four Internet-years, one might think that the firm's needs for these technologies could be waning. Not so, according to Nill Toulme, the firm's technology partner. "There is absolutely no end in sight to the applications we will create. The internal demand and the needs of our clients have become so extreme that we have spun off the Web team into an entire department titled 'Knowledge Services.' By mid-1999, we expect to have six Web developers on staff."

Over the four years, the firm's intranet has grown dramatically. Applications have included a help desk tracking/routing process, a summer associate work request/evaluation system, the InfoFinder" search tool, an expert witness profile/testimony application, a foreign counsel tracking system, an investment banker database application, an audit letter routing/tracking groupware procedure, niche case/matter tracking applications, and numerous Pure Oxygen sites (example: the firm's paralegal site). These systems have increased the skills of the firm's technology personnel, paving the way for even more complex and demanding groupware applications with imaging and mail enabling features.

Today, more intranet applications are in development, like an online conference room/visiting attorney office scheduler and a robust employee directory application.

Interestingly, while the intranet was growing rapidly, the firm's Web site project had stalled. By pulling the project back in house and bringing in graphics design talent, the firm was able to implement a graphically pleasant site with robust database-driven capabilities. This experience showed that project management for a Web technology project did not differ from any other kind of technology project. Managing the content production was just as important as developing the technological back end. Bringing it inside allowed consistent project management.

Know Your Net:  A List of Terms

  • Black-box - Equipment that requires very little effort to set-up and has a well-defined human interface; it is called a black box because one need not know anything about the internals within the box. The TV and telephone are good examples.
  • Cold Fusion - An excellent example of a middleware development environment. See http://www.allaire.com.
  • Database-driven intranet - The use of databases to store information rather than capturing it within static documents. Database-driven intranets automatically can have searching and sorting capabilities through leveraging of the database.
  • Extranet - The creation of a private site for interaction between a law offices and an external entity. Depending upon the specific being exchanged, security measures may be extreme or lax.
  • Full-text database - Full text databases have special capabilities where large volumes of text are stored. Their usual hallmark is unstructured, natural language searches, though structured Boolean queries can also be used. In past years, Verity, Fulcrum, Excalibur, etc. were the only databases to provide such capabilities; now Oracle, Informix, and SQL Server have limited, if not robust, full text capabilities.
  • Groupware - Software that is used by a group for collaborative purposes. Email, Lotus Notes, and Groupwise are examples. Intranets may or may not contain groupware capabilities.
  • HTML - Hyper Text Mark-up Language. This is the formatting language that is used to create documents that are readable by a web browser like Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Explorer.
  • Intranet - The use of Internet technologies (usually web pages and related technologies) for internal purposes within an organization.
  • Middleware - This is a programming environment that allows one to "connect" web pages to databases, mail servers, and other "back-end" facilities.
  • Multi-media applications - Applications go beyond text and may present information in graphical form, audio, or video.
  • Network Effects - The result where "critical mass" of a technology is achieved and the use and growth of the technology becomes self-sustaining.
  • Portal Site - A web site that becomes a primary resource to an individual and one that acts as a jumping off place for all sorts of resources.
  • URL Link - Links are unique references to materials on an intranet, extranet, or Internet site (e.g., http://www.abanet.org).
  • Web Server - A PC that has software on it that allows the machine to be accessed by other machines running a web browser. Web server software can run on even desk-top PCs running Windows 95/98.

Client-Centered Extranets Build and Expand Relationships

“TECHNOLOGY IS THE CURRENCY OF TOMORROW.”

By summer 1997, the firm had begun to demonstrate its technology to a few clients. The purpose was to initiate client-related extranets. The clients were very enthusiastic-and those sentiments have grown.

Today, the firm has about a dozen extranets. They range from transactional nets focusing on the exchange of deal documents to litigation extranets where the firm acts as coordinating counsel for a number of other law firms. By mid-1998, the firm had begun developing applications to be hosted within these extranets, including client-specific database and multimedia apps.

Anne Rampacek, a partner in the Labor and Employment Practice Group, says "the efficiencies that extranets can bring to a client relationship make it obvious why clients are excited about them. Simply having a shared file cabinet is a great opportunity to extend the relationship between the firm and the client."

Ben Johnson, Alston's managing partner, points out the firm's commitment to these technologies goes beyond a mere return on technology investment. "We are convinced that our intranets and extranets have been good short-term investments of limited technology dollars. But, more importantly, we find that our clients are excited about the vision we offer them in how these technologies can better serve the attorney-client relationship. Technology is the currency of tomorrow, and those firms that understand how to meld today's and tomorrow's technologies into their practice can simply serve their clients better."

Johnson says client service, technology and law practice all converge in the use of client-centered extranets.

What Do These Technologies Really Mean to Law Firms?

"THIS TIDAL WAVE IS HUGE"

Four years of development, implementation and reflection have yielded insights into what these technologies can mean for law firms.

  • Actual use is the real metric. To begin with, Alston & Bird learned, putting the technology infrastructure in place so everyone can get online should be an initial objective. But actual use, not just capability, is the real metric. It involves at least a casual-and hopefully a daily-use of a Web browser.
  • Lawyers must have good reasons to go online. Providing them with pointers to relevant content on the Internet, the use of Web-based third party resources and the publication of internal and client-related content on an intranet provide such reasons. A firm must solve this chicken-and-egg problem before it can take substantial advantage of its newfound capabilities.
  • Network effects. Once the firm's members are using the Web, the "network effects" can kick in. Network effects are exemplified when an entire enterprise has reliable e-mail and everyone in the organization becomes familiar with it. Initial usage is low, but once the effects of this new, networked technology are felt, those who refuse to take advantage of it are quickly out of the loop. The flip side to the network effects is that the value of the technology to the organization rises dramatically with usage (value=users² ). This is because the enterprise can leverage this interconnectedness in new ways.

After four years with the Internet, intranets and extranets, all A&B lawyers and staff definitely know how to use their Web browsers. This foundation enables the firm to deploy all new applications with the same technologies, bringing to bear the cost and training savings that the technologies afford. It also means a client team can move forward with an extranet without worrying about whether all the lawyers on the team can or will participate.

In short, the firm has built a foundation of usage and understanding, of technology personnel and infrastructure, and of successes, failures and expertise. Now, the firm its ready to engage clients with these technologies in evermore interesting, powerful ways.

What do Internet technologies really mean to a law firm?

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Huge opportunities for firms that focus on adding value to the client relationship.

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Getting Started

Technology Leadership
  • Discuss the issues presented in this article and other articles within the committees thinking through the firm's long term business strategy.
  • Attend the ABA's Techshow™ or PricewaterhouseCooper's LegalTech technology conferences to meet others who have implemented intranets and extranets.
  • Read some of the articles at the following web sites: The Law Practice Technology Center(www.lptc.com), Intranet Journal (www.intranetjournal.com), and the Law Librarian Resource Exchange (www.llrx.com).
  • Read and discuss books like Intranets: What's the Bottom Line by Randy Hinrichs (Prentice Hall, 1997) and Leading Change by John Kotter (Harvard Business School Press, 1996).

Technology Implementation

  • Setup a web server internally or purchase some web server space at a commercial hosting company in order to begin using web development/middleware systems.
  • If you cannot develop the expertise internally in the short-term, hire a web consultant to get your project jump-started.
  • Use web technologies to implement a system to meet one of the most pressing needs for your attorneys.

The New Electronic Environments

“THIS IS ABOUT SERVING CLIENTS IN THE 21ST CENTURY.”

Many law offices want to frame the intranet/extranet/Internet discussion as a technology investment. Although technology components must be budgeted, a law office will make a grave mistake if it frames the project in these terms.

To begin with, implementing these technologies is not about money. Inexpensive Internet technologies are available. An office raising the cost spectrum is simply hiding other issues. The bottom line is that a firm can set up a static intranet on an existing file server without additional investment. Even a standalone Web server can be set up for a few thousand dollars. Indeed, a firm can outsource the cost of hosting an intranet to an external provider. At an absolute minimum, a firm can put in place a standalone, inexpensive PC with a dial-up Internet account for anyone to access.

Arguably, the important issues are not technology issues. With the advent of "black box" implementations (at the lowest level, WebTV exemplifies this approach), the barriers to using these technologies are de minimis. Clients, competitors and America's children are using the Internet for countless purposes. Children from different cities, states and countries are learning to play cooperatively through virtual games. Consequently, making technology implementation the primary issue is misleading. Indeed, this is no longer even a question about the human/machine interface, since users can learn to use a Web browser in an hour or less.

Years of experience show that the only proper framing of the issues is to focus on human factors, firm culture and the ability and willingness of lawyers and staff to embrace the realities of the 21st-century economy. At the core, these technologies are about creating collaborative electronic workspaces, decentralizing and transferring information and knowledge, and developing extra-organizational teams. These new electronic environments raise issues of collective action within the context of the new media. Law offices now must address issues that might have been avoided in the past. Will we draw arbitrary lines about who will or will not use technology? Will we impose hurdles to Internet use by our staff, fearing they will "fool around" on the Internet? Can the office culture accept that it must decentralize content ownership to make the new electronic venture successful? Has the organization established a climate of collaboration and information sharing? Is the firm secure enough in its strategic position that it can permit the inevitable knowledge transfer among extra-organizational teams collaborating in extranets? Has the firm reconciled itself with the fact that electronic workspaces are becoming surrogates for personal contact and that this means personnel will become more "glued to the computer screen?"

Law practice long has stressed individual expertise, knowledge and relationships. While advanced business degrees focus on group projects, law programs evaluate on the basis of more solitary activities. If the 21st century will involve long-term partnering between organizations, not individuals, then the electronic corollary becomes important. There will be increasing knowledge and expertise transfers on behalf of corporate clients.

At the same time, the spin-offs from these technologies offer huge opportunities for a law firm. Firms that combine legal expertise with technology to create and offer legal products and services through the Internet can help existing and new clients across the planet.

The issue confronting law firms is not one of technology or money but of innovation and the grasping of these opportunities. Understanding how to create, for example, the "portal site" on labor compliance issues is one thing; executing this understanding is another. It can mean bringing together not only technology and legal experts, but also Internet marketing and extra-organizational entities (e.g., consultants) with whom the law firm may not even have a relationship.

Organizations that focus on "How can we add value to the client relationship?" will do fabulously well in the next century. Firms that do not may find themselves increasingly marginalized in the new economy, with growth opportunities dwindling. This is what Internet technologies really mean to a law firm.

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First published in the March 1999 issue (Volume 25, No. 2)
of the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Management magazine.

Copyright John Hokkanen, 1999. All Rights Reserved.