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Ever since the emergence of the Web in the mid-1990s, law firms and corporate counsel have experimented with cyberspace as a new way to help them work together more effectively across the barriers of time, distance, and organizational affiliation. Today, with almost 10 years of real experience behind us, it is useful to take a look at what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what a few leading law firms are doing that makes a real difference in the way law firms and corporate counsel work together. Just a few years ago, virtual deal rooms were all the rage. Virtual deal rooms are Web-based systems that provide an electronic meeting space where all the members of a deal team can share access to documents relevant to the deal as they evolve through the drafting cycle. What quickly emerged as litigation’s counterpart to virtual deal rooms were virtual war rooms, centered around shared access to all of the documents and materials relevant to a litigation matter. Both virtual deal rooms and virtual war rooms go beyond simple document sharing and provide project management tools (shared contact information for all members of the team and views of the project schedule and task assignments), project tracking tools (status reports that measure progress against the plan and views of up-to-date financial and budget-tracking information), and collaboration tools (electronic meeting facilities, online discussions, and even secured, encrypted video conferencing and instant messaging services). The “value proposition” for virtual deal rooms and virtual war rooms at first seemed obvious and compelling. Authorized parties in a deal team or litigation matter could easily view both historical and current information about the matter anywhere and anytime they could connect to the Web — even from an Internet kiosk in an airport while waiting for a delayed flight. Corporate counsel saw virtual deal and war rooms as a way to finally get their arms around what was going on in a portfolio of legal work without having to call individual lawyers for hard-to-get verbal updates. Law firms saw them as ways to capture the attention of corporate counsel and increase their overall book of business. Third-party Web-service companies saw them as easy opportunities begging for commercial service offerings. Now, in the cold light of today’s harsher economic realities, corporate counsel, law firms, and third-party providers are reassessing what these virtual deal rooms and virtual war rooms have to offer. Corporate counsel have become much more realistic and savvy in their expectations. They quickly perceived that law firms may have had the self-serving interest of capturing more business by offering these specialized services. Many corporate counsel elected to build their own or do without if that was the only way to preserve their privilege of selecting “best of breed” firms and assemble a full stable of legal service providers. WHAT WENT WRONG? Corporate counsel also quickly found that virtual war rooms and deal rooms were not as convenient to use as they expected. They discovered that the promised benefits of virtual rooms were undermined if they had to log in to many separate rooms individually in order to gather the information needed to assemble a summary picture of the status of the overall portfolio of their business. They began to understand the need for a way to roll up the relevant information into a consolidated list of tasks and assignments — preferably visible through their calendar and task management software of choice. The technology available to achieve this consolidated view was often sorely lacking. Absent industry standards for automated, bi-directional exchange of information between collaborative systems and personal information managers, there was no easy way to take the related data housed in disparate, isolated virtual deal and war rooms and make it appear in corporate counsel’s preferred calendar and task-tracking software. Finally, in many cases, corporate counsel were unfamiliar with the etiquette and conventions of electronic meeting spaces and did not know how to use them effectively. The learning curve proved steeper than anticipated, and these counsel instead returned to the well-known medium of e-mail as the preferred way to communicate. Law firms also became disillusioned, realizing that it took specially trained IT staff and programmers to build and support virtual work spaces. Firms found it difficult — and expensive — to compete with other businesses that were aggressively recruiting the few people available with strong Web development skills. Providing reliable, around-the-clock operational support for mission-critical applications used directly by clients was more difficult and demanding, firms discovered, than providing technology services for internal consumption only. Like corporate counsel, law firms found that acceptance of the new technology by their own lawyers was mixed. Many lawyers found collaboration skills as unfamiliar as their clients did. And many found that the work of providing status reports and tracking projects against budget was more challenging and more resource-intensive than they had anticipated. And what of the third-party service providers? Many have passed by the wayside, fading into the dot.com bust as a result of overly exuberant business plans and a lack of sustained funding. A few hardy companies survive and continue to offer valued services, especially where the advantages of hosting information on a neutral third-party site justify the costs. LESS IS MORE Have these lessons learned dealt a death-blow to the dreams of using cyberspace as an effective meeting space for lawyers and corporate counsel? Fortunately, no. Rather, a new, more realistic vision is emerging for those who continue to pursue this goal. Corporate counsel and law firms continue to work together to create meaningful solutions — solutions that are more clearly defined and more substantively focused on meeting real business needs. Many law firms have realized that, for some clients, “less is more.” They have found strong acceptance for simple Web sites that serve only as electronic posting spaces for documents, billing information, and project status reports. For these clients, firms are scaling back their offerings and eschewing attempts to introduce more clients to electronic collaboration (discussion threads, instant messaging, and online meetings) unless clients are already familiar with, and ask for, these tools. Other firms have focused on helping clients “roll up” tasks and schedules from multiple virtual rooms into a summary view that allows them to go to a single page and see consolidated information about task schedules, financial information, and more. Integration with the client’s electronic calendar remains a challenge, but many welcome these partial roll-ups as a workable interim step. CUSTOMIZED BUSINESS SOLUTIONS A number of progressive firms have realized that they can go beyond simple virtual meeting spaces and offer customized business solutions that integrate with a corporate counsel’s intranet or other Web services. These firms are providing online services that corporate counsel need, but cannot always easily obtain through their internal IT organizations. Examples include: • Milwaukee-based Foley & Lardner has developed a Web-based application for a client that automatically generates nondisclosure agreements tailored to specific fact patterns derived in an on-line question and answer session. The client has embedded this application in its law department’s intranet site and makes it available to all internal customers. • D.C.-based Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner has created extranet sites for clients that contain all of the electronic documents and materials relevant to that client’s specific patent and trademark matters — both materials created by the firm’s lawyers and links to other publicly available materials, including those published on the Web sites of the Patent and Trademark Office. Finnegan also provides links to its IP docket system so that the client can readily see deadlines for and the status of pending patent and trademark applications. Clients can, in turn, include links to information from Finnegan’s site on their law department intranet so that lawyers and business unit managers may refer to them as needed. So, despite some initial disappointments and disillusionment, law firms and corporate counsel continue to pursue cyberspace as an important medium for working together. Some law firms are expanding their focus beyond virtual meeting rooms and partnering with their corporate counsel in new and meaningful ways that solve specific business problems. These developments are strong signs that firms and corporate counsel will continue to leverage cyberspace to work together more effectively. Sally R. Gonzalez is a knowledge management and strategic technology planning consultant with the New York office of Baker Robbins & Co. She can be reached at [email protected].

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