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More than ever, time is a precious commodity for the legal profession. Today’s soft economy has forced law firms to consolidate, cut administrative staff, and place more word-processing duties on the shoulders of attorneys. At the same time, firms must expand their client base, handle a rising document load, and deal with clients demanding more personal attention at lower cost. One key to accomplishing all this is to streamline current business processes that may be tedious, repetitive, or simply inefficient. Many technologies for legal professionals have come and gone over the years. From streaming media to video conferencing and project management software, so many have offered the promise of time and money savings — yet many have proved disappointing. What has emerged from these “lessons learned” is online meetings that allow real-time collaboration and communication between multiple offices, clients, and attorneys or co-counsel, regardless of time or location. Online meetings let two or more people engage in “live” meeting activity over a network, using a variety of features embedded in the product. The best products available today provide a high level of security, thus protecting attorney-client privilege; integrated video and telephone-like audio; an ability to introduce documents, diagrams, and exhibits; and a sophisticated document editing capability. Online meetings can help your law firm cut costs significantly. In fact, they can actually help increase revenue. Let’s take travel, for example. The legal profession clocks a staggering number of air miles each year traveling to client meetings, presentations, and other firm offices. In some instances, these face-to-face meetings are best — for example, meeting a client for the first time, cultivating an extremely important new client relationship, or speaking with someone in an environment that is highly emotionally charged. But not every meeting requires personal contact, and travel is increasingly expensive and bothersome. For one person to travel for a daylong meeting out of state, the hotel, airfare, meals, meeting materials, and car rental alone can top four figures. Yet expenses are only one side of the problem. What about the cost of unproductive time? Clearly, while they wait in line at security or baggage, travel from airports to hotels to offices and back, and sit cramped in an airplane seat, lawyers are not being productive. That means they’re either not billing valuable hours or are simply not getting through the pile of work that has accumulated. Little wonder why many firms in the past year have cut their travel activity by as much as 60 percent. THE ADVANTAGES How do you reduce or eliminate travel and still get the work done? Video conferencing alone, where meetings are conducted using specialized video suites complete with cameras, monitors, remote camera controls, and so forth, is one solution. But video conferencing can be very expensive, and while it does provide audio and video, it does not offer graphical or document interaction or instant messaging — capabilities that are needed to match the productivity of in-person meetings. As for individual applications such as teleconferences, e-mail, or instant messaging, these alone are economical and have their place, especially if all that is needed is a very simple discussion among a few people. However, these applications are limited in what they can offer and usually are not protected against eavesdropping, so attorney-client privilege is at risk. Online meetings combine all of these functionalities, enabling you to streamline some of your current business processes. For example, in addition to sending text messages, some online meeting services allow you to see and hear one another in real time, for an investment of about $100 for a headset and desktop camera. Some services allow you to schedule meetings using Outlook or similar calendaring applications. With others, you can create online meeting rooms around specific clients or cases, so you can store documents and files for simple retrieval and use in a meeting. Each of these capabilities was designed to help you integrate the technology easily into the current way law firms do business. Document creation and approval cycles are another business process that can be streamlined with online meetings. Attorneys deal with huge volumes of documents — 200 or more in any given month — but with support staff shrinking, much of the drafting and approval process is done by attorneys. Let’s say an attorney needs input on a proposed contract from clients, colleagues, and other outside experts, all geographically dispersed. Typically, the attorney will either mail or e-mail these sensitive documents and await revisions. Unfortunately, she must then merge all of the changes from the multiple copies she receives — many of which are conflicting — back into one document. Of course, several of these changes may not be acceptable to all the parties, so the revised document is then sent out again to the respective groups for more changes and comments. The process is repeated until agreement is finally reached. In other situations, the attorney may call a meeting of all the parties, causing travel time and expenses to skyrocket. In contrast, an online meeting that provides joint document editing allows you to edit a document online among as many people as necessary. Since the document is stored online, it can be edited either in real time with all parties present or at each person’s leisure. There is only one central version of the document for comments and revisions, so the need for tracking multiple versions or worrying that someone is working on the wrong draft is eliminated. Meetings can be quickly arranged to deal with last-minute changes, and all revisions can easily be merged into a single definitive final copy. This streamlined online process can easily reduce the creation-to-approval cycle from weeks to hours, ultimately freeing up more time for other billable projects. CHOOSING WISELY Are online meetings the solution for your law firm? The answer may be yes, especially if you are dealing with scattered associates and clients — or are under pressure to reduce travel and downtime and streamline document editing. Online meetings run approximately 45 cents per minute, on average. Compare that with the combined costs of airfare, downtime, and inefficient document processes, and the case for having meetings online instead of in person becomes clear. First find out how often your attorneys really need face-to-face meetings. Survey them by practice group to find out what types of meetings they hold and what kind of interaction takes place there. Next, decide which service to consider. There are many different applications and services, and competition is fierce. Here’s what to consider before choosing a service: • What capabilities are included? What capabilities do you need (audio, video, document editing, instant messaging, total security, etc.) for an effective meeting? • Is the technology easy to use? Does it require complicated firewall configuration? Does it require special equipment? Will it run on your operating system? • Is the attorney-client privilege preserved? Not all online meeting services are secure, and some provide security only as an option. What security measures are in place? Are online documents protected? How are passwords handled? What are their privacy policies? • What are the associated costs? How much does the service cost? What is the vendor’s billing scheme? Do the rates climb or fall as more people attend meetings? Can you customize the billing codes? Law firms today are being squeezed, stretched, and challenged as never before. Every minute matters. The time and expense savings offered by online meetings not only improves the bottom line, but also can create opportunities to add value for clients elsewhere. Kathryn A. Romley is vice president for marketing at the VIACK Corp., a Tempe, Ariz.-based company offering online meeting services. She can be reached at (480) 735-5920.

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