Mark Beckwidth is a manager of Legal Anywhere's technical teams for the companies web-enabling and intranet/extranet projects.
(Archived December 15, 1998)
In todays world, data accumulation is cheap. Law firms gather large quantities of data that can help them to understand critical problems and assist in making strategic and tactical business decisions. However analysis becomes increasingly more difficult as databases increase in size. Many law firms are achieving a competitive advantage by effectively managing and utilizing the data currently on hand and that which is readily available to them across the Internet. There are a host of products on the market today that will do anything from analyze point-of-sale computer data from supermarket check-out stands, to products that will aid law firms in the discovery phase of legal proceedings in which huge (and incompatible) computer storage devises must be analyzed.
As with any new technology, there will be visionaries, early adaptors, conservatives, laggards, etc. This article discusses and shares experiences of attorneys and law firms that recognize the importance of utilizing internet technology to deliver proprietary data to enhance client services and reduce operating expenses. At least one way these law firms are achieving a competitive advantage in data management is through the use of intranets/extranets and/or web-enabled databases/services.
Over the past 10 to 20 years the capacity of technology to store and transmit/receive data (data warehousing and the world wide web) has increased dramatically. In fact, it is estimated that the amount of stored data doubles about every year and a half. This phenomenal amount of information is made ever more possible by the advent of faster and cheaper methods of storing the data. Along with these methods technology has also increased the speed of processing the data into useful and meaningful information.
What is a web-enabled database and/or intranet/extranet?
I am going to keep this simple: Consider a database of information (access, SQL, etc.), develop a web front end (web-enable) and you have information (data) that is accessible via a web browser. This is web-enabling a database. For the purposes of this article, an intranet/extranet is also a web-enabled databased.
If I build it, will they come?
Why would a law office/corporate legal department participate in delivering services/data via the World Wide Web (WWW)?
In theory, there are several examples how a law office might utilize the internet to deliver client services. Over the past couple of years we have heard buzzwords such as "intranets/extranets," "web-enabled databases," "knowledge management." However, its much more difficult to actually find practical implementation of these ideas. Advancing an intranet/extranet and/or other web application requires movement on several fronts: time (costs), technology (know how and tools), people (cultural issues) and organization (enrollment). The adoption of new technology, especially web technology, is not being met with as much as resistance in the law office as previous proprietary systems. We have all (users and administrators) at one time or another experienced frustrations with respect to "rolling out" new systems. The hours spent on training, assisting, troubleshooting applications, etc.
There are several reasons why web-based solutions are gaining momentum: web-based software is easier to learn (all one needs is a browser), law firms can make information accessible to clients/co-counsel and its not necessary to implement hardware (host off site). Consider, Exodus, Inc., out of Santa Clara, CA, which counts amongst its clients Financial Corporation's NextCard® Visa. Exodus is responsible for administering banking solutions via the WWW for NextCard Visa. Law firms should at least consider the option of hosting applications off-site, especially if these applications require custom programming and additional security.
To suggest that web-enabled applications and/or intranets/extranets will be error free (users and programming) because the applications are web-based is completely inaccurate. However, a web-based system that is properly designed should translate into a "delightful" experience for the end user. We typically do not refer to software applications as being delightful to use, and note, there are plenty of designers/developers that can turn the most basic site developments into a labyrinth of hyperlinks and unrelated web pages. Work with the right people/organization and enjoyment can be factored into the experience.
Web-enabling-Intranets & Extranets: Whos doing it?
What differentiates one attorney from the next? Several ideas come to mind: service, skills, expertise, personality, etc. Clearly, one aspect of differentiating services offered by law firms and/or attorneys is the proprietary information they have access to and/or the experience they have had in a certain specialty. A definitive aspect of an attorneys "unique" advantage is his/hers information. It is the information that is proprietary to that attorney and/or law firm. Several attorneys have begun to develop creative means for offering their clients and/or corporate counsel proprietary services and/or products over the World Wide Web.
Take for example Greg Siskind, of Siskind Susser Haas & Devine. Greg is a partner in a firm with multiple law offices, who pecializes in Immigration Law. Greg needs very little introduction within the legal web circles. Greg has authored, "A Lawyers Guide to Marketing on the Internet," and is a frequent publisher/presenter on internet related topics, such as leveraging the internet to enhance client services. Greg began his internet/web efforts several years ago, delivering a content driven web site that today receives between 650,000-950,000 hits per month. I know of few, if any, law firm web sites that generate more traffic. This begs the question: how has Greg managed to get ahead? Gregs willingness to dedicate time to proactively market to existing and prospective clients via the web at least partially explain his success.
For example, recently Greg has begun to offer a new internet service to potential clients (web-enabled databases), VisaJobs and Visahome. Leveraging the high volume of traffic off of his web site, Greg created these sites to offer additional services to foreigners seeking to immigrate to the United States. Both sites are proprietary databases that are web enabled.
Visa Jobs (developed by Legal Anywhere) is a site that matches Foreign Job Seekers with Employers in the United States. Greg comments on the sites uniqueness, "there are several job sites on the WWW, but this site is unique in that the employers listing jobs agree to sponsor the visa application process. The result is foreigners are able to locate jobs within the United States with an understanding that the employer will sponsor at least part of the visa application process."
Visa Homes assists foreigners in locating homes/apartments within the United States once they have landed a job within a respective city. The site also aims to help foreign nationals find mortgage firms, home builders, moving companies, furniture rental firms and other service providers.
Gary Mason, a partner at Cohen Milstein Hausfeld & Toll, a Washington, DC based law firm with multiple offices, utilizes his law firm's intranet/extranet in litigation. "We intend to utilize our extranet with our co-counsel around the country on several high-profile/high volume litigation matters. For example, in the Fen Phen litigation, we are working with co-counsel across the country. We intend to place important documents on a database that is web-enabled and on which our co-counsel can search for items they need. Further, we intend to coordinate calendars via the web and use bulletin boards and email "bounce back" to alert everyone to significant developments in the case. We see an intranet/extranet as potentially a great cost saver and a means to provide value added services to both our co-counsel and clients."
"Quitely, law firms are beginning to recognize the importance of web-enablement in high volume and even low volume cases," says Frank Lynch, President of Lynch Litigation and Associates, located in Lake Oswego, OR. Several years ago, Franks team handled the electronic conversion of the documents into a searchable database for Merrill Lynch v. Orange County litigation, in Southern California. "The amount of documents we stored to make searchable in these databases was enormous," recalls Frank. "Today, we are having discussions with attorneys/internet companies that now wish to have these databases accessible/searchable via the WWW or quite simply "web-enabling" these databases."
Dayna Hinderstein, Director of Information Systems, for the Los Angeles office of Seyfarth Shaw Fairweather and Geraldson (the nations 53rd largest law firm), anticipates that her attorneys will utilize their extranet to make data available to clients and corporate counsel. "In many cases the clients (corporate counsel) wish to have access to data/calendars/scheduling, and do not wish to learn proprietary and/or/ complex systems. We are taking proactive steps to web-enable databases and/or upload information to our intranet/extranet, which really can be described as a database residing on the net with access rights given to privileged persons. The big value added is ease of use for clients and attorneys, since all one needs is a web browser."
Web enablement is taking place not just in law firms, but also within legal associations. Consider Hancock Rothert & Bunshoft LLP (HRB), an international law firm specializing in insurance litigation and Year 2000 liability issues. HRBs Director of Technology Development, Rhonda M. Jenkins, has been responsible for managing the firms technology for almost a decade and currently heads the firms applications and web development team.
Two years ago, prior to the invention of the term "extranet," the HRB applications development team laid plans to harness Internet technology to share information between and among eight separate law firms and a common client located abroad. Says Jenkins, "the lawyers needed an easy way to share information and collaborate on legal issues affecting our client. We needed to share over a million pages between eight different firms with eight different systems. Before the web, an integration project of this magnitude would have been either cost-probative or downright impossible."
In conjunction with Legal Anywhere (intranet/extranet developer for the legal profession), the HRB team recently began development of an extranet for the American Law Firm Association ("ALFA"). ALFAs secure Members Only site will provide member firms with on-line access to the organizations calendar events, practice-related discussion threads, secure e-mail and a virtual document repository. The Members Only extranet provides users with the ability to exchange information and ideas 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. "Time and distance are no longer a barrier to communication," says Jenkins. "Sharing text-based information is just the beginning. In the very near future, we plan to further enhance communications through web-based video teleconferencing."
The potential for utilizing internet technology is clear. Now, if we combine vision with a little imagination and intiative, my guess is that there are several law firms and corporate legal departments that could be benefiting from a web-enabled system and/or an intranet/extranet today.
"We rise to high positions or remain at the bottom
because of conditions we can control if we desire
to control them."