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Those decorous partners at Alston & Bird must be pouring something mighty potent into the office water cooler. In the past two years the Atlanta-based firm has grabbed first place and third place, respectively, for job satisfaction in The American Lawyer’s survey of midlevel associates. For the past four years Alston & Bird has made the coveted Fortune list of “The 100 Best Companies to Work For” — an honor that the firm flaunts all over its offices. And now it has another trophy for its display case: Associates gave Alston & Bird the highest marks in technology — a composite score of 4.35 — in AmLaw Tech’s annual technology survey. Alston & Bird’s flight to the top of the technology heap is not completely surprising. For the past three years, the firm has ranked among the top five firms in technology, as judged by associates. As part of The American Lawyer’s midlevel associates survey, we asked young lawyers to rate their firms’ technology. This time, Alston & Bird beat out powerhouse Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, which had monopolized the top technology prize for the last two years. (This year New York’s Wachtell came in third, while Palo Alto, Calif.’s Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich pulled in second.) Unlike Wachtell, which offers associates such free goodies as cell phones, BlackBerrys, laptops, and high-speed Internet connections at home, Alston & Bird’s most extravagant high-tech offering is the BlackBerry. Sidney Nurkin, the firm’s financial partner, says, “We don’t spend extravagantly [on technology]. . . . We are not bleeding-edge.” The firm devotes about 4 percent of its gross revenue to technology, a healthy portion, not indulgent. The firm just decided to buy laptops for all timekeepers. Up until now, Alston & Bird merely subsidized lawyers’ purchases of laptops — a practice that partner Nill Toulme, chairman of the firm’s technology committee, says “gave lawyers a greater sense of ownership and incentive to learn.” So why are the associates so rah-rah about Alston & Bird’s technology? What seems to set the firm apart is something that’s remarkably quaint, perhaps even downright retro — and that’s the human touch. Alston & Bird won an exceptionally high score (4.65 — the highest for any firm) for support services and came in fourth in training. These categories represent the touchy-feely side of technology. It’s hard to overestimate the effect of having Dr. Feelgood answer the help desk phone. The top four finishers in the technical support category — Alston & Bird; Wachtell; Lowenstein Sandler; and Winston & Strawn — finished first, third, fourth, and fifth, respectively, in the overall survey. Alston & Bird doesn’t only provide a soothing voice at the other end of a late-night phone call when the computer just ate the table of authorities of a brief due at 10 a.m. Besides BlackBerrys, the firm also offers accessible document-management systems and client extranets that associates say help them to be better lawyers and happier, too. Adam Biegel, an antitrust associate, says the BlackBerry e-mail device is his most important “day-to-day” tool because it allows him to stay in touch with partners and clients. Adds Elizabeth McCubrey, a heath care and life science associate: “It gives you more freedom because you can be at the doctor’s or the vet’s . . . and still keep things at bay.” For litigators and those involved in regulatory work, the firm’s document management system, built by Hummingbird Ltd., and extranets, which the firm builds itself, help alleviate drudgery. McCubrey, who represents the Georgia Hospital Association, says the firm’s extranet services gives clients direct access to current documents, thereby freeing her from being the document traffic cop. For partners, those same tools have a different meaning: They help develop and retain clients. Senior partner Nurkin says Alston & Bird ended up handling several patent cases because the clients were wowed by the firm’s capacity to efficiently transfer client files, keep scientific databases, and provide secure extranets. “I’m convinced that it set us apart from other firms,” he adds. Of course, BlackBerrys, document management systems, and extranet services are hardly exotic in law firms anymore. What makes Alston & Bird different is that its lawyers use those services because the firm makes it easy. IN-HOUSE HELP A HIT Virtually everyone — partners and associates — rave about the technology support team, especially the help center. Unlike some firms where technical support is farmed out to contractors, Alston & Bird has an on-site 12-person help team that sits by the phones, just waiting to field calls from anxious lawyers. Antitrust associate Biegel, for one, says, “I love the help desk!” Biegel confesses that he calls for help all the time: “I’m always stumping the band. I’ll say, ‘Today, I have a question about Excel.’” And Karen Cross, a litigation associate, marvels that “they are available Saturday and Sunday. [So] when you need stuff, you’re already stressed out, and if you can get somebody [to help], it’s huge.” This love affair is not a 24-hour-a-day undertaking. Unlike many firms that offer a 24/7 operation, Alston & Bird’s support desk is open from 6:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. — although there is emergency coverage after hours. The praise doesn’t stop at the help desk. Senior associate Fielden speaks fondly of a knowledge management member who worked by his side on trial presentations until 3 a.m. “The next day,” says Fielden, “the guy came in bleary-eyed and asked what else he could do to help out.” Why are the Alston & Bird technology support folks so dedicated? The answer might be that they are treated like professionals rather than a cost center. Robert Marburger, the firm’s first chief information officer, says he joined Alston & Bird a few months ago because it was “known for technology and culture.” (Marburger, a technology veteran of Cleveland’s Squire, Sanders & Dempsey and Houston’s Vinson & Elkins, says his job is to provide integration. The IT group, knowledge management, application development, practice support, and library all report to him. Before Marburger’s arrival, technology staff members reported either to the technology committee or the executive director.) Jeff Allaman, the IT director, seconds his boss’s enthusiasm about the firm’s culture: “There is no caste system [here]. . . . They make the technology team part of the practice of law.” Inclusion breeds stability. Wendy King, a nonlawyer who heads the firm’s knowledge management initiative, says her staff has been intact for the past three years, an eternity among technical staffs, where average turnover is generally 18 months. In fact, says partner Toulme, “there’s low turnover on every level [firmwide], so it allows us to have a staff that really understands the law firm.” The lesson of Alston & Bird seems to be that old-fashioned collegiality counts in every sector, including the technology front. In some ways, the firm’s 60-year-old managing partner, Ben Johnson III, represents the convergence of its fabled Southern gentility and technological foresightedness. Though Johnson is a Harvard Law School graduate who now presides over a 700-lawyer firm, he calls himself a “Luddite in technology.” But Johnson is a lot more savvy in computers than he lets on. For one thing, he recognized early on what technology can do for morale: “I think our young lawyers feel empowered when they have the tools to get the job done.” And though he complains — “It bothers me when people spend more time reading their BlackBerrys than looking at me” — he also realizes they help lawyers service clients more quickly. But what really bugs Johnson about technology is that few lawyers come close to using its potential. “I guarantee you there’s not a lawyer who’s using 10 percent of its capacity,” he laments. To address that concern, Alston & Bird puts a high priority on training. Not only are there on-site classes and individual tutorials, but the firm has designed classes that count toward continuing legal education credits. There’s almost no excuse for any lawyer not to be trained — even Johnson. “I go to training like everybody else,” he says. “I have to set an example.” Vivia Chen is a staff reporter at The American Lawyer. This article previously appeared in the AmLaw Tech supplement in December 2003.

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