Long gone are the days when clients were won over by a dinner and a handshake. Today's legal clients are looking for a law firm that has a solid technology infrastructure and knows how to use technology in order to guarantee excellent customer service. Luckily, advances in technologies are paving the way for law firms to meet these demands. Firms are staying competitive by choosing products that facilitate better communication, while providing clients high-speed and remote access to both legal counsel and legal documentation.
Choosing applications that maximize communication with clients' own technology infrastructures is an excellent foundation for supporting clients' needs. Many law firms are switching to applications that their clients use to facilitate this. Better functionality and efficiency from having an integrated product suite allow firms to communicate both internally and externally on a higher level, thus producing better results for clients. For example, many firms have switched to the Microsoft Office XP Suite, which contains the most popular products that businesses use for word processing and e-mail-Word and Outlook.
Having the same word-processing software as clients makes creating and sharing documents much easier since both the firm and the clients the firm represents use the same software. Collaboration between attorneys and clients on documents is also less cumbersome, and there is a narrower margin for error when documents are created using one platform as opposed to two. And since there is no need to convert the documents from WordPerfect to Word, or vice versa, it also saves valuable time for both attorneys and clients.
Of course, there are many factors a firm would want to consider before changing its word-processing software, specifically what to do with legacy documents created in WordPerfect. Last year, New York's Proskauer Rose, like many firms, made the decision to retire WordPerfect and make Word the firm-wide standard for document creation. As part of a complex desktop upgrade project, attorneys and staff were given various options to convert critical active WordPerfect documents to Word before, or in conjunction with, receiving their new desktops. Proskauer decided to continue to allow users to view and print old WordPerfect documents without converting them even after the migration. Providing such options allows firms to leverage important precedent documents even after significant software changes are implemented.
Having the same type of e-mail system as clients also allows for easier retrieval and sending of documents. When a firm and clients both use a system like Outlook, a common language of structure and organization is created. Attorneys can therefore retrieve an e-mail or a thread of e-mails more quickly for clients because there is an understanding of the way the system works. The ability to organize and archive client/matter-related e-mails in searchable folders aids attorneys in retrieving client/matter-related e-mails quickly. Attorneys also have more options, such as prioritizing by using flags or follow-up cues when sending e-mails that clients can read and act upon if necessary.
The system of organization and creation extends internally as well. Tools such as calendars, tasks lists and scheduling features allow attorneys to excel in personal time management. And since clients require more results in less billable time, these are important tools to have on hand for greater efficiency.
The Importance Of Training
As technology continues to advance at an ever-increasing pace in both the consumer and business markets, staying ahead of the curve for law firms means not only finding and implementing the most appropriate technology, but always ensuring that attorneys and staff know how to use the technology in innovative ways. Even with all of the advances in technology, if attorneys do not know how to exploit a tool's features, then the technology can be underutilized. Thus, when and how to introduce new technologies is as important as the technology itself.
Deciding to upgrade a system or switch to a new system altogether is only the first step. A carefully planned program for training is paramount to the technology's success. Firms need to balance the necessity for training with their attorneys' pressure to bill hours. Many firms are doing this by introducing creative solutions.
Some firms are offering one-on-one training for attorneys. Floor-support is also a common approach. Firms are even using technology itself to train and assist attorneys. The Proskauer training department sends out "Tips of the Day," which are brief e-mails that introduce step-by-step processes so that the user can learn a new feature quickly. Implementing a system for remote assistance can also be very beneficial, allowing a help desk analyst to log-on to a caller's computer remotely and show them how to solve an issue that they have with a particular software makes the learning more applicable.
Once a solid foundation is in place and an approach to training has been established, many firms are introducing innovative non-core applications. Having an attorney wait for a phone call to be returned, or even an e-mail to be sent, is not the best use of resources when trying to produce quick results for clients. That's why instant-messaging products have become popular tools to facilitate immediate communication.
Instant-messaging products work by allowing users both to send and receive messages in real time. Users can send to individuals or groups of users in a firm by clicking on their name(s) in a directory. In addition, users can invite others into a chat meeting room. This ensures that the chat session is viewed only by the discussion participants. All messages are sent instantly and pop up on top of other applications that are running on the desktop.
Since attorneys are so frequently required to be in court, in meetings or simply out of the office, a majority of law firms are turning to handheld wireless devices as a tool for 24/7 access. By using a BlackBerry, attorneys have remote access to e-mail, tasks and calendar applications, allowing them to check and respond to mailbox items anytime and anywhere. Many even use the BlackBerry while they are in court or in meetings because the devices are compact and less disruptive than laptops or cellphones. The BlackBerry also gives attorneys immediate connectivity to each other, meaning they can stay in the loop on up-to-the minute case developments, resting assured that confidential information is secure since messages sent from the BlackBerry are encrypted.
Improvements in authentication products, firewalls and bandwidth are also allowing law firms to accommodate client demands for instant access to documents. Previously, clients had to wait for attorneys to e-mail them a document. Now that high-speed Internet access is more commonplace and retrieval and transmission processes have a higher level of security, many law firms are opting to offer clients access to their documents via extranets.
A firm's extranet can give clients access to the litigation databases that contain imaged discovery documents used in many large cases. Clients can access their documents remotely on any computer that has an Internet connection and Citrix software. They simply log on using a secure log-in ID. Ease of access and ease of use (extranets are designed in a familiar Web-based format) means clients have what they need when they need it with little time wasted in conducting searches and retrieving documents. Remote access is especially important for clients when there is a very active case and they need an up-to-date version of a document quickly in order to make well-informed decisions.
Other inventive ways of using extranets include giving access to expert witnesses so they can analyze documents more easily. An expert witness can best create an educated hypothesis if he or she has access to documents that are the most up to date. If the documents are not up to date, a lot of time can be wasted in analyzing and drawing conclusions that may be inaccurate.
Another way that firms are using extranets to assist attorneys in providing better service for clients include using them to display and share transcripts and exhibits of depositions, hearings, arbitrations and other transcribed proceedings. Sometimes attorneys have to travel far in order to participate in a deposition and they need a place to record notes and comments quickly and easily so that others on the case team can have easy access and continue to move the case forward even while the lead attorney is away from, or traveling back to, the office. By allowing attorneys access to transcripts through an extranet, any team member can access the transcripts remotely. Remote access and instant access is thus crucial for both clients and attorneys to produce winning results.
How firms keep clients happy through technology will continue to play a key role in effective business development. Technology today is advancing at such a rapid rate that the most competitive of firms will not only harness the advantages it provides, but continue to find innovative ways to implement it within the legal environment. With the nature of international business running on a 24/7 basis, the development of devices that give clients instant access to their legal counsel will also remain important.
Of course, no matter how much technology advances or how great a technology plan a firm has, or even how well the attorneys know how to use the technology, these factors can only go so far in fostering better client relations. Perhaps a firm that really wants to stay on the cutting edge in client service may do better to remember to incorporate a little old-fashioned relationship building along the way-such as a dinner and a handshake.
Angela West is a Partner and IT Technical Writer with Proskauer Rose LLP in New York City. This article was originally published in the National Law Journal, Management and Technology Section, March 22, 2004.