Peerless In Technology: Winston & Strawn LLP

Wednesday, September 1, 2004 - 00:00

Editor: Please give our readers the story of your background, both as an attorney and a technology specialist.

Hambourger: After law school I spent four and a half years teaching in a legal clinic connected with Loyola University in Chicago as well as practicing in poverty law areas, such as assisting low-income individuals secure social security, handling landlord-tenant disputes, etc. I then pursued an MBA after which I secured a position in 1986 with the American Bar Association working on a project called the Law Office of the Future, which today we would not consider very futuristic. I stayed with the ABA as director of the technology resource center for twelve and a half years, after which I joined Winston & Strawn in 1999. My training has been informal on-the-job training with my focus being primarily on translating lawyer needs into IT solutions. My colleagues thought my position was important enough that it deserved partnership status.

Editor: What technology initiatives is Winston & Strawn undertaking that will further the firm's strategic goals?

Hambourger: Since we are a fairly large firm with nearly 900 lawyers, one of our strategic goals is to manage and continue our growth at both a local office and global level. One of the challenges to any large professional organization is to make sure everybody knows who knows what and who knows whom. It is important that those 900 lawyers are not 900 solo practitioners doing their own thing, but that they are sharing information with each other, and if they need help, they know where to find it. Our objective is to see that the knowledge individuals have does not reside only with them, but it is also available to others in the firm. Our number one goal is to better serve our clients, to make sure that they enjoy the benefit of our being a 900-lawyer firm, leveraging all the information and knowledge that all of our lawyers have.

Editor: What kind of tools do you use to pull together all of that information?

Hambourger: There is no one silver bullet. We patch together different systems to attempt to do the job. For example, our corporate practitioners report major transactions as they are completed. Summaries of those transactions are not only e-mailed to all members of the corporate department but also individual pieces of information are stored in a searchable data base. It is a cultural matter - the process of entering the information initially. The technology behind it is elegant but simple. The lawyers report on what they have worked on, who they did it with, what the major issues were, what industries were involved and the size of the transaction. Lawyers dealing with similar issues will know whom to talk with.

Editor: Do you have a set form that a transactional attorney fills out at the end of a transaction?

Hambourger: We do. On our intranet, called Silasnet (named for one of the firm's founders, Silas Strawn) there is such a form. After an attorney identifies himself, the system knows what matters he has been working on, drawing information from our financial systems. Once the attorney identifies the matter, the system can tell who has worked on the matter, providing information on the transaction team. It knows when the matter was opened, what kind of matter it was and in what area of law. What the system doesn't know is some of the specifics of the transaction. This the attorney enters onto the form. Once a button is hit, a summary of the transaction is e-mailed to all the members of the corporate department. Thus, they have immediate knowledge as well as archival knowledge since they can later tap into the data base. Adding these post-transaction memos leveraged what the attorneys were already doing in sending out e-mails.

Editor: Are you using this storage technique with other departments?

Hambourger: Our real estate and labor departments are also using this process. With these short reports, in addition to the documents, we try to memorialize what the attorney retained in his or her head.

Editor: Have you evaluated the usefulness of the program?

Hambourger: We have a very high level of compliance on the part of our lawyers in terms of submitting these reports. We started this process only nine months ago and now have more than 500 transactions in the database. Once we have a critical mass of transactions, there will be a critical mass of information.

Editor: You mentioned in an article written two years ago that the use of technology is more weighted toward the litigation side than the transaction side. Is this still true today?

Hambourger: Historically, most technology involved in the practice of law was designed for litigators because of the nature of their practice and the amount of paper information involved in a particular case. The sheer degree of discovery and production demanded efficiency in handling these volumes. Today, the use of technology is starting to level out between litigation and transactional law, not just in M&A but in other transactions.

One example: many firms, including ours, are using electronic data rooms. When one of our clients has a business for sale, no longer do we collect reams of xeroxed documents in a room, invite prospective bidders in on a staggered basis to review the company or assets for sale, allow them to copy certain documents, all with the constant oversight of a paralegal. Because the visitors were not to know who was bidding, the visits to the data room were intentionally separated by several days. Today, with electronic data rooms, the same documents are scanned, indexed and placed on a secure website. Those potential buyers are given access to the documents, but no longer in a room staffed by a paralegal, but in a virtual data room staffed by the technology. The documents cannot be copied but only viewed. With this technology, you can take weeks off the time needed to do a transaction since potential buyers can be viewing data simultaneously not knowing who else is visiting the site. You can also know where the buyer's interests lie in terms of assets or subsidiaries so that those which draw more or less attention may call for a restructuring of the transaction. This is just one example of how a former litigator's tool may be adapted for use in a corporate transaction.

Editor: How much of your technology is off-the-shelf and how much is home-grown?

Hambourger: A majority of our software is purchased, such as our major systems - document management, time and billing system, and litigation support tools - all are off-the-shelf and may be customized to some extent. Our intranet is home-grown, as is our transactional archive. We have six developers who devise tools and software for us. We probably build more tools internally than a small firm, but if a product is commercially available, we buy it.

Editor: How do you use extranets to enhance your attorney-client communications?

Hambourger: Our experience with extranets goes back about five years, ahead of most law firms. We have about 200 extranets in active use and for all kinds of purposes. For instance, the firm may have an extranet for a particular piece of litigation where the pleadings, depositions, briefs, internal work memos and dockets are posted. Our clients have access to this information 24/7, and it is automatically organized for their use. When a new document is posted, an e-mail goes out to the client stating that the document can be found on the extranet, and the client can log-on immediately to the document. It greatly enhances communication between clients and their attorneys.

Editor: How does web technology strengthen knowledge-sharing with clients?

Hambourger: We use the same technology for sharing knowledge with our transaction as with our litigation clients. One of our clients, a franchisor, has arranged for his suppliers to access our site to locate forms, information, etc., a system that we host for both. This illustrates another way we can serve our clients' technology needs.

Editor: What kind of document analysis software does Winston & Strawn provide?

Hambourger: A piece of software we have used for several years is Deal Proof, made by ExpertEase, a company recently purchased by Thomson/West. Deal Proof, mainly used in transactions, will check a document for consistency and logic. It parses a document and tells you whether you have added an unnecessary definition of a term or if a definition is needed. It detects faulty cross-references, searching across many documents to find "broken" cross-references so that they can be repaired before the document is finalized.

Document management is de rigeur in any law firm. In each firm there are large repositories which impose some security on the documents and track for certain information. What has not been so successful is the reuse of documents by law firms since search engines have been underpowered or inadequate. We are introducing a tool called West kmTM to be used primarily by our litigators. The system will take a subset of documents, categorizing them with a tool that accompanies the product. For example, if an associate wants to do a brief on the statute of repose, she introduces the term into the search engine and elicits the work product on that subject. The citations in these documents are automatically checked to make sure they still represent valid law. Most document management systems are not helpful in this respect. This feature adds an extra layer of analysis which allows us to cut down on the workload, thus saving our clients fees.

Editor: How do these software linkages improve client relations?

Hambourger: If the client knows we can respond quickly and thoroughly and get them the result they want, that is going to be the best tool for cementing client relations and client retention. In the end, rather than being aware of the tools we use, the client is less concerned about how we do our work than the results - more focused on how quickly and efficiently we deliver them.

Editor: What role do you think technology will play with global law firms and global clients in the future?

Hambourger: It will be absolutely essential. Our firm is in eight different offices, a number which will undoubtedly increase in the future. It only makes sense to be a large law firm if you can communicate well internally and externally. It is impossible to communicate in terms of any sustained physical presence. You must build tools to allow knowledge-sharing, enhancing expertise in each location. It doesn't matter that your client in Geneva is asking you questions that only your lawyer in London can answer. Knowledge flow must be seamless and transparent to the client. To try to communicate without a very sophisticated infrastructure is nearly impossible.

Please email the interviewee at dhambourger@winston.com with questions about this interview.