Baker Donelson’s Interactive Client Environments Drive Better Service

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 - 08:56

The Editor interviews Meredith L. Williams, Chief Knowledge Management Officer, Baker Donelson Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC.

Editor: Please tell our readers about Baker Donelson and your responsibilities at the firm.

Williams: Baker Donelson is a worldwide law firm that is mainly based across the southeastern United States. We are a full-service firm, with close to 700 lawyers and public policy advisors and 1,500 people within the organization. I have been with the firm for 15 years, serving in multiple roles beginning in college as a research assistant and returning as an associate.

Some years ago, a few people at the firm were looking to develop an area they couldn’t even name at the time, but that would become Knowledge Management. My mentor in that capacity eventually left to become a bankruptcy judge, and I was asked to oversee this function as Chief Knowledge Management Officer.

Editor: How great an emphasis does the firm place on knowledge management and technology?

Williams: The firm’s decision to focus on knowledge management and technology was a strategic one. We have a strategic planning board, which is responsible for developing innovative ways to move us forward, whether that be moving into a new market or developing new ways to deliver legal services. The board consists of a number of our key leaders, including the president and CEO, COO, as well as our department leaders. I serve on that board as well, as do our CIO and our Chief Business Development Officer. Ours is the only firm I have heard of where those functions work together to focus on the future of the firm.

Editor: What are the implications of technology for the way the firm works internally, and what are the benefits of its focus on technology?

Williams: The firm invests heavily in technology. The attitude toward technology is that it should always aid in providing greater effectiveness and efficiency, for example, that it should enable seamless collaboration across multiple offices, or that it should empower our attorneys to work more effectively and at lower cost. We look at technology from a business problem perspective.

We’re always looking at the functions we perform and asking ourselves if we are being effective. “Are we being efficient in our drafting and reviewing of corporate documents?” If the answer is “no,” some people might say, “We need a new drafting tool.” Not necessarily. The problem is not the tool, it is that we are spending too much of the client’s time drafting documents, and that is a business problem, not a technology problem. The purpose of technology is to fill the voids in the functions we are trying to perform. We may deploy a number of technologies, but our end users don’t necessarily care what the actual technology platform is, as long as it’s helping them conduct their day-to-day business.

In part, the firm has made a very large technology push because we have 19 offices and 1,500 end users. We have to find a way to work as one firm rather than 19 separate organizations. This is a challenging task, but we accomplish it, thanks to our firm culture and our technology.

Editor: To what extent do you use technology to connect with clients in new ways and to deliver innovative services?

Williams: We have a full knowledge management online services initiative within our organization. We have a layered approach to our collaboration with clients. At the base level, every single client and matter has an online dashboard that we can turn on for a client to access. Numbering well over 30,000, these matter dashboards provide transparency such that clients can gather any information they want about a particular case or a deal.

Our second layer consists of about 2,000 full-blown extranets where we build collaboration spaces with our clients, environments that will aid them in seeing what we are doing and also provide them with our work product. We look to manage cases with them, exposing the actual legal process, from budgeting to work flows. We do all of this through our SharePoint 2010 environment.

Third, we offer “Toolkits” to our clients. These range from iPad Toolkit  apps, such as those for our labor and employment clients, which provide access to all of our explanations of the different labor and employment laws. Other Toolkits, such as our highly interactive Emerging Company Institute Toolkit and our Intellectual Property Tracking Toolkit, are more complex. Both of them allow us to communicate in a unique way with the client.

The highest layer of our extranet is our Collaboration Platform, on which clients can themselves utilize our technology for better efficiencies on their side. Here is where we leverage ContractExpress document automation. We’ll bring in a client through our standard SharePoint 2010 environment and work with them to determine their inefficiencies. A number of clients, for instance, ask us to help them standardize the way their employees across the globe accomplish certain tasks. We’ll sit down together and map out that process and standardize it. Then we’ll use the ContractExpress tool and develop a work flow for the client such that their employees come into our extranet to generate documentation over and over again.

As you can see, we try to partner at all levels with our different clients, creating transparency environments ranging from letting them look into our budgeting to utilizing our technology for their own purposes.

Editor: Tell us more about how you use ContractExpress.

Williams: Typically, ContractExpress is used as a tool to standardize contracts, but it can also be expanded to standardize any type of documentation. We can standardize the process around whatever we are producing over and over again for a client (or whatever that client is producing over and over again themselves). We use ContractExpress for efficiency both internally and in our client-facing environments.

Say you come into one of our environments and you want to create a package of documents for an emerging company. You will be taken through a series of questions that the system will use to create a decision tree. For example, when asked, you indicate that the company has 10 founders. You will then be prompted to fill in 10 different blanks of information about those founders, and the system will learn from your answers and use them going forward.

The ContractExpress templating process is also helpful when you have several different versions of a document. Based upon how you answer specific questions, the system can pull the necessary provisions from those different versions as necessary.

In short, ContractExpress can produce multiple documents – an entire package of information – through one set of questions, rather than just one contract or document at a time, the way we used to have to create contracts with Microsoft Word. Take the example of an emerging company, for which there are 20 or so documents – bylaws, charters, and founders agreements – that you need to generate. With our ContractExpress tool, you fill out a five-page questionnaire, and the information gathered is propagated to all 20-odd documents, saving precious time and resources.

Editor: How do you find working with the people at Business Integrity, who produce ContractExpress?

Williams: They have been a privilege to work with, and we use them in multiple roles. Of course, we use them for general support. In addition to that, we utilize them when we are mapping out processes. I have two attorneys on staff whose roles include simply looking at processes, breaking them down and building them into the system. We utilize the people at Business Integrity to help us through those processes, especially when we are breaking down large-scale matters.

Editor: I would assume that your clients are very satisfied with your firm’s aggressive adoption of technology. Have they enjoyed cost savings as well?

Williams: I would say so. Of course, it does depend upon the level of interaction that we have with the client. For those with just one case, it isn’t necessarily worthwhile to develop an entire collaborative system. But among those with whom we work a lot, we’re known for being innovative in the way we deliver legal services. They are very pleased; many come back frequently to ask us to add on specific functionalities to their collaboration platforms.

In part, I think this phenomenon may be occurring because law departments are cost centers, and they don’t have access to many of the same technologies that we, as a law firm, do. So, if we can allow our clients to come in and utilize some of our technology, it’s extremely helpful.

As far as cost savings, our clients have definitely seen cost reduction in some of our internal processes. Even better, there are some clients for whom we’ve mapped out processes that helped them work more efficiently in their day-to-day operations, as well as in their communication with us. These cost savings were an unexpected bonus to our legal services delivery.

Editor: Where do you see the future of legal services, and how will your firm take it there?

Williams: We will continue to push the envelope. Currently, we are analyzing all the types of matters we work on and are looking to generate processes that will automatically tell us specifically what a client will need. We are looking to take this even further, so that the client automatically gets certain technology collaboration features out of the box, and then we can add customizations, databases and work flows on top.

Meanwhile, the mobility market is the next landing spot for legal services. If you’re not building mobile apps, you’re falling behind from a law firm perspective.

We are always looking to innovate, and where that’s going to take us, I can’t really say. We focus on what will be truly beneficial to clients, whether that be a functionality our client has asked us to add, or a tool we’ve built that they didn’t even realize they needed.

I think the economy is going to have something to say about how far we can go with these offerings, but I don’t think we will ever go back to the standard law firm delivery of services of ten or even five years ago – first, because we have a younger base of general counsel who are very consumerized when it comes to technology. They’re very accustomed to their iPhones and Androids, and they want what they want when they want it. Second, clients are too savvy generally. They know we have access to deliver things in different ways, and they are driving a lot of our efforts today. 

Please email the interviewee at mlwilliams@bakerdonelson.com with questions about this interview.