Technology - Law Firms Leading Edge Technology Enhances Relationships Between A Law Firm And Its Clients

Thursday, September 1, 2005 - 00:00

Editor: Please tell our readers about your firm and its practice areas.

Spadafino: We are a general practice firm with more than 375 attorneys in 11 offices. Historically, we are known best for our labor and employment and our healthcare and life sciences practices. We are increasingly gaining recognition for our commercial litigation, corporate, real estate and environmental practices as well.

Editor: In what areas do you see technology having the most impact on the practice of law today?

Spadafino: There are two ways of looking at the impact of technology. One is how it can be used to increase internal efficiencies and enhance the practice. The other is how it can be used to enhance our relationships with our existing and potential clients.

Internally, newer technologies enable us to take a more matter centric approach to the information that we provide to our attorneys and the way that they organize their information. Until recently, information systems were more application centric. That is, they were organized around the type of application being using. Over the last couple of years, we have moved towards matter centric technologies. That is, they collect information from disparate systems and provide it to the attorneys in a manner that is organized by matter. Electronically mirroring a process already familiar when dealing with paper is a more natural way of working that is not only more comfortable, but also adds efficiencies.

Externally, we have been able to leverage Internet technologies such as extranets and web conferencing. The result is that we can share information in a very convenient way with our clients. Our extranets allow us to compile a wide variety of information about a matter in one easily accessible web site, minimizing the email exchange of information. Additionally, we can enhance a meeting, which may have been a traditional conference call in the past, by displaying documents or a PowerPoint presentation run over the internet using Webex or similar web conferencing technologies.

Editor: How does technology help a law firm manage its relationships with in-house counsel?

Spadafino: First and foremost, a stable and well organized information system enables attorneys to be as responsive as possible by providing them the tools they need to do their job. Once you get beyond this most basic requirement, you begin to look at facilitating the exchange of information that takes place during the life of a matter. Technologies such as an extranet, which allow clients to access information about their matters at their convenience, help in this area. In fact, our work with extranets began several years ago when an existing client asked us to provide this capability. Once our attorneys became aware of this capability, it was offered to more clients and its use has grown quite a bit. Our extranets offer status information, document collections, contact lists, calendars, and other information related to an individual matter. Finally, you must remember that in-house counsel may have specific technology requirements based on the initiatives put forth by their own Information Technology department. The ability to accommodate these specific requirements can make their lives easier and ultimately strengthen the relationship between the firm and its client.

Editor: How is technology decreasing costs and increasing the efficiencies related to litigation management?

Spadafino: Technology is having the greatest impact in the area of managing large discovery requests. Collecting information in response to complicated discovery requests includes increasingly large collections of electronic information that needs to be searched through. In one recent case, we had a collection of about 22 DVDs full of electronic mail that needed to be sorted through. Doing this manually would be an extremely time consuming process. Our ability to load the information into a litigation support program with full-text capabilities created tremendous efficiencies for us. Our ability to create custom databases to collect and analyze other information related to a complex litigation has proven to be a great help as well.

Editor: How is support for your firm's technology solutions organized?

Spadafino: We have a centralized Information Technology department from which we manage our help desk services, engineering, telecommunications and IT administration. We also have a formal Technical Education division within the national IT organization which provides training for new technology initiatives as well as ongoing staff training. In addition to our national IT department, we have technology professionals in several of our offices providing desk-side support as needed. We generally try to solve as many problems as we can at the helpdesk, but frequently need to escalate to desktop support groups to handle issues which require a physical presence. The IT department works closely with the firm's Technology Committee, comprised of Shareholders from several offices, to set strategic direction and standards for our Information Systems.

Editor: Please tell us about your IT department staff.

Spadafino: We are lucky to have a dedicated group of IT personnel with diverse backgrounds. Some of our people, particularly those who work day to day and hand in hand with our attorneys, have had prior experience in law firms and others have not. Our engineering staff and other behind-the-scenes experts have a variety of different backgrounds. Their experiences with different sized computing environments and different types of technologies enable us to bring a broad perspective to the creation of technical solutions for our firm. We would not be able to be as creative as we'd like to be without this diversity. I am very pleased with the excellent mix of expertise that we have on our staff. The best technologies in the world will fail miserably if you don't have the right people standing behind them. We are lucky to have the team we have.

Editor: What technology capabilities should in-house legal departments expect their law firms to have today?

Spadafino: I will return to my earlier comment about first expecting the basics. In-house counsel should always expect that their firms have a stable information system which allows their attorneys to focus on their practice and not their computer. Beyond that, certain efficiencies should be expected by the appropriate use of these information systems. Electronic research sources such as Lexis or Westlaw are an excellent example of technologies that increase efficiencies when serving our clients. Clients should also expect that their law firm can easily communicate and share information internally, especially when dealing with a firm as diverse as ours which can leverage the experience and expertise of attorneys in all of our offices.

Clients should expect that the privacy of their information is appropriately and adequately protected and that it is handled responsibly. Their firm should also have the technical expertise on staff, or available through technical partnerships, to address their specific technology needs.

Editor: What technology solutions do you see on the horizon?

Spadafino: I don't see any groundbreaking technologies on the immediate horizon. I expect a maturing of existing technologies such as extranet systems and information portals. The earlier generations of extranets were separate systems from the firm's internal document management and other systems. Going forward, the extranet will be an extension of the firm's internal systems, further facilitating the sharing of this information. Direct access to internal systems increases efficiencies in sharing information with clients because it involves fewer steps to share information with clients. The process is more natural than extracting data and posting it to a separate extranet. Of course, appropriate security must be in place for this to even be considered to ensure that there was no possibility of information being inappropriately exposed.

I also believe that alternative means of communications, such as instant messaging, will become part of the mainstream interaction between clients and their attorneys. Initial use of IM resulted from employees downloading the free products such as AOL Instant Messenger, which by the way is a virus issue and is now blocked by most firms. Many of us are now evaluating newly available commercial products that are run behind the firewall, managed by the IT department, subject to the firm's information systems policies, and contain appropriate logging and reporting capabilities. We are currently evaluating Microsoft's product to determine what its role could be in both our internal communications and communications with clients. Presence awareness, an intriguing feature of IM, can be a powerful tool to our attorneys who are in three different time zones and frequently work outside of normal business hours. Knowing who in the firm is a subject matter expert in a particular area is powerful. Simultaneously knowing if he or she is available to speak to you right now, no matter the time of day or where they are is even better. I recently spent two days in another EBG office, but the people who used IM to contact me never knew the difference. The people who called me got my voicemail.

Editor: How would instant messaging enhance relationships between in-house and outside counsel?

Spadafino: The attorney-client relationship is a complex and very personal one. Technology can enhance the relationship by making information available more quickly and efficiently, but we certainly never want to move in a direction that makes the relationship less personal. Instant messaging, like email, extranets and web conferencing, is not meant to replace a telephone call or meeting when a voice-to-voice dialog is needed. Technology tools enhance the attorney-client relationship because they give our clients more options in the ways that they can contact our attorneys so that they can communicate using a medium that has the speed and flexibility that they would like.

Please direct questions about this interview to the interviewee at fspadafino@ebglaw.com.