Technology - Law Firms Technology: Transforming A Firm's Practice

Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 01:00

Editor: Ms. Schehl, will you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Schehl: I am a general business lawyer, and I carry on a real estate and finance practice. One of my primary responsibilities involves managing the firm's relationship with a large client, and I draw on the support of a number of partners and associates in that undertaking. I have been practicing law for 21 years, and much of my interest in technology derives from the way my practice has been transformed by the effective use of technology over this period.

Editor: And how did you come to Arent Fox? What attracted you to the firm?

Schehl: I had moved to Washington from Richmond, where I was located for the first couple of years following law school. My intention in coming to Washington was to practice law for a few years in order to pay off my law school debt and then move on to something else. I was not particularly energized by my real estate practice at that point. In Washington I scheduled a number of firm interviews, including one with Arent Fox which I nearly cancelled. Once engaged in the interview process with Arent Fox, however, I felt an immediate difference from the other firms. They wished to develop me as a broad-based business lawyer, and I sensed a real opportunity to evolve and grow through an exposure to a firm practice of the very highest caliber. It was, and has remained, a very good fit for me.

Editor: How has your practice developed over the years?

Schehl: I started out handling the acquisition and development of real property, including the formation of partnerships to this end. After perhaps four or five years the real estate market crashed, and I began to get involved in restructuring and workouts. At this point Arent Fox began to represent a very large financial institution. From the very beginning of the relationship I was involved in the development of innovative new product lines for the client, and I found this work to be the most exciting that I had done as a lawyer. From these beginnings I have gravitated to the point where my practice largely concerns the support of this one client.

Editor: Please tell our readers what factors led to your being chosen as Chair of the Strategic Technology Committee for the firm.

Schehl: As I say, I have responsibility for an important client relationship, and a significant number of Arent Fox lawyers are engaged in handling matters for this client. To date, we have closed more than a thousand transactions for this client, and management of this volume of matters, and the resulting documentation, had become an increasing challenge. At a certain point, in 2001, the firm was commencing implementation of a document management system. The events of September 11, however, created a new urgency around this initiative when we were forced to acknowledge that a single catastrophic event might impair our ability to access essential documentation and information, even destroy these materials. The firm responded by requiring immediate and wholesale adoption of the new document management system. This all happened in the last quarter of the year, the busiest time of the year for transactional attorneys. To say the least, I was not terribly receptive. Nevertheless, as I got through the laborious process of organizing and then converting my documentation into the new system I came to realize that it - this new technology - had the potential to transform the way I practice. Over the next few years my practice was indeed transformed. Between document management, and Outlook's contacts, calendar and e-mail management capabilities, I began to feel more in control of the ceaseless information flow and able to be more responsive to my client's needs. I soon became a strong proponent of the effective use of technology.

On a firm-wide basis, these new initiatives represented a major investment in technology, and both the technology department and our professional development group provided training and encouragement for use and acceptance of the new technologies. As more of us came to see how powerful a tool technology could be, we began to talk about the strategic - rather than merely operational - application of technology. We were particularly excited about the strategic potential of client extranets or collaborative workspaces to create a seamless interface between the firm and the client. Our technology initiative began to take on increasing momentum. As a member of the firm's Executive Committee, I proposed the organization of a task force to make a recommendation to the Executive Committee on the most effective platform for development of client extranets. The Strategic Technology Task Force was formed around the belief that technology should serve not merely a support function, but also as a strategic tool for delivering legal services and leveraging relationships.

Editor: What is the mandate of the committee?

Schehl: The mandate of the original Task Force was to determine the most powerful technology platform for client extranets, or collaborative workspaces, and to develop a budget for the implementation of an appropriate system. The Task Force has completed its work but the firm has recognized the value of a technology committee and the Task Force now continues as a standing committee of the firm addressing issues relating to the strategic application of technology. We have also established an operational technology committee to address internal operational issues relating to technology.

Editor: Do you have a business model you are following or are you developing an individually customized model of your own as you proceed?

Schehl: We are not rigid in following a single model. We decided early on that we wanted a system that was scaleable, extensible, and able to adapt to unanticipated needs - even new technologies - as they appeared. From the beginning this has been regarded as a long-term investment. It was also important for us to utilize a system that would work with the other technologies in which we were investing - our calendaring and contact and document management systems. We are working with a vendor that has developed an effective law firm application of the Microsoft Sharepoint Portal technology that we selected as the platform for our client extranets, and they have gone on to create web parts to connect portal technology directly into our document management system.

Editor: How do you go about harmonizing the many disparate software programs?

Schehl: Being able to do so was a requirement from the very beginning of this initiative. As lawyers with heavy workloads and constant time pressures, we need access to a technology that enables us to type in new contact information once, while conveying that information to all components throughout all of our systems. As a consequence, we have required that each new software system have either the ability to interface with ours immediately or be capable of customization to do so. Today, all of our systems talk to each other seamlessly.

Editor: How will you measure the effectiveness of the newly implemented software and hardware?

Schehl: To date, our success has to be measured on an anecdotal basis. We do not have an analytic model in place to measure return on investment. We did commence this undertaking with a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve with our clients, and we will be analyzing the degree to which we have met our goals. Over the past year the work we have done in connection with the client I represent appears to validate the concept and the various prototypes as to application, and we will use the resulting template as the basis for going forward with client extranets. In the meantime, we believe in utilizing technologies that are of great benefit to the firm's practice.

Editor: What budgeting arrangements are being made to update all of your IT equipment over the next few years?

Schehl: I think we had a real understanding of the importance of technology going into this project, partly as a consequence of having a very strong chief technology officer. Going into the future, we understand that the platforms we have are going to have to be updated on an ongoing basis. Our recent capital budgets have reflected this understanding, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so going into the future.

Editor: Has the committee considered outsourcing, either domestically or abroad, for any of this undertaking?

Schehl: Outsourcing appears to be on everyone's mind these days, but, no, we are not outsourcing in the sense of working with Bangalore. We do not have in-house technological expertise to meet all of our needs, so we do retain consultants from time to time. They are all domestic, and they tend to act in an advisory capacity, not operational.

Editor: I think our readers would be interested in how you are solidifying ties with your clients by making them part of this undertaking.

Schehl: I was first motivated to take on this project by a perceived need in my client. When I saw the uses to which an extranet might be put, I realized what enormous value could be added if the client had the ability to come into our system and access the information it needed. This has served to solidify relationships to a considerable degree because, not only does it give the client the ability to control - in a very direct and efficient way - the information it needs, but it does so within a partnering framework. In developing this kind of capability what you are really doing so far as client relationships are concerned is establishing a collaborative process in which, at each step in the process, both the firm and the client are engaged. The responsiveness of the system to the client's needs is perceived as a direct reflection of the responsiveness of the firm.

Editor: How have you divided the work among members of your committee?

Schehl: The committee consists of representatives from each of our practice departments, our marketing department and our library so as to include a range of what this platform is intended to bring to the firm's clients. In light of the fact that we have moved from a task force with a limited mandate to a standing committee of the firm, our division of labor is a little amorphous. We are in the process of developing a new mandate, and we expect to develop a clear idea of how we accomplish the work of the committee once that mandate is in place.

Editor: I gather you are satisfied with the progress you have made to date?

Schehl: This is not the kind of project that is organized, constructed and implemented overnight. Indeed, if that were possible the results very likely would be much less satisfactory than what is beginning to emerge here. It takes time to work through the direction most appropriate for a technology initiative and the parties with whom to partner in order to make it effective. We have gone about this the right way, and I am very satisfied with the progress to date and excited about what is to come.

Please email the interviewee at schehl.joanne@arentfox.com with questions about this interview.