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With so many efficiency-boosting technologies available today to help manage and expand law firms, it is sometimes difficult to identify the right ones to implement. Given recent trends, it is clear that law firms are focusing their investments on technologies that can have the greatest impact on improving their bottom line. Due to its numerous benefits, including significant productivity gains, cost savings, and employee safety, videoconferencing is growing in popularity. Videoconferencing has been used by law firms for many years, but only recently has it become affordable for even the smallest of firms. Equipment that cost tens of thousands of dollars only a few years ago can be purchased for a fraction of that cost today. The products have become more reliable, easier to use, more compact, even portable, and their capabilities and features have been enhanced drastically. Although videoconferencing seems like a great idea, not surprisingly, many firms encounter unnecessary technical obstacles and setbacks due to poor planning. SOME QUESTIONS Here are some questions law firms should ask before getting started with videoconferencing: 1. How will videoconferencing be used? Can video depositions and video-based communications help expand the practice? For many law firms, videoconferencing is first used as a way to reduce traveling for internal meetings between offices in different cities. But there are other factors to consider. How far away are the courthouses that a firm serves? Do these courts allow video depositions or other video-based communication for legal procedures? Are some of the firm’s clients equipped with videoconferencing? Videoconferencing, in short, could save time and money. That helps the practice expand. 2. What kind of resources will be needed? With respect to network considerations, although many firms still use Integrated Services Digital Network, or ISDN, for optimal business-quality videoconferencing, firms should probably use an Internet Protocol, or IP, network. With 384 kilobytes of bandwidth available to and from each videoconferencing device, attorneys should be able to enjoy a good-quality video call. Realize, however, that if the network is shared with other resources, it may compromise the quality of the conferences. A dedicated network specifically for videoconferencing or a managed IP video network would ensure the best user experience. Once you define your network, you need someone to manage it. Will it be you? Your IT department? Does your firm have an IT department? Although your firm’s technical staff may be able to manage your conferencing network, there are more efficient ways to ensure steady and healthy performance of your videoconferences. Some conferencing providers perform “managed services” that take all of the work out of your hands. 3. How many of your attorneys have used the technology before and are ready to implement it into their workday? Talk with your attorneys and identify those who are ready to reap immediate benefits from the technology and are willing to start using videoconferencing right away. 4. How much return on investment can I expect? Once you define the extent of usage, you can calculate the amount of time that your attorneys will be freed up to work on other cases. In many instances, the time saved adds up to dozens of hours per month, per attorney. With more time available, they can work on additional cases, thus expanding the practice. 5. Have I created the right budget? As with most technology implementations, videoconferencing is best executed in phases. Features that satisfy the most important needs of the practice should be implemented in the first phase. Define what you need, find out what it costs, and budget for that phase. As need and demand increase, you can budget for future implementations as they arise. 6. Can I afford videoconferencing? Do some simple math. Once you define how much usage your firm will have, you can compare that figure to your budget. “It’s amazing how some of the most basic things can be so critical when it comes to laying out a plan for videoconferencing,” says Hal Stewart, CEO of the New York-based law firm Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker. “Things like security, a simple and friendly user interface, and pre-programmed intrafirm conference numbers all help to create comfort and ease of use, which is key when you are starting out.” Stewart says the firm uses videoconferencing to “avoid costs related to traveling, which, without videoconferencing, would reach into the hundreds of thousands per year. Having recouped our investment in the technology, we also use videoconferencing to perform depositions, firm training, and mandatory continuing legal education. We have even used it to interview candidates that are out of state, which eliminates the need to send our employees on the road.” Stewart’s firm, which has been using videoconferencing for seven years, has seen it evolve from a technology that was bulky, expensive, and unreliable to an indispensable tool that is light, affordable, and full of new features. Stewart is not alone. “Law firms starting out with videoconferencing should keep things simple,” says Gary Peet, chief information officer of Phoenix-based Lewis and Roca. “Establish three or four basic configurations from which your lawyers can choose and be sure your IT support staff knows those configurations inside and out.” Peet’s team integrated videoconferencing in 1999. The firm has used it primarily for internal meetings, specifically partner, attorney, and practice group meetings. The firm has also begun to use it for training classes and client meetings, depositions, and lawyer recruiting interviews. Like many of his legal IT peers, Peet is starting to take advantage of some new features such as dial-in telephone numbers for audio-only participants, content sharing with computers and document cameras, or recording conferences with VCRs or DVDs. For years, industry analysts have been predicting a wider, more pronounced usage of videoconferencing. These days, however, their focus is not only on how many people will use it, but on how it will be used. “Law firms interested in using videoconferencing to improve productivity, decrease costs, or increase revenue need to consider how they’ll be using the technology,” says Ira Weinstein, senior analyst and consultant with the Brookline, Mass.-based Wainhouse Research. “Which meeting rooms (or offices) will be video-capable? What type of performance do you really need (higher performance often equates to higher cost)? For example, for video sessions involving clients (perhaps a legal consultation or video deposition), a high-quality experience would be required. For internal training and continuing education sessions, however, that level of performance may not be necessary.” Weinstein suggests that law firms can avoid many videoconferencing mistakes by performing a careful audit of their needs before signing the first purchase order. Here are some of the common errors: Implementing specialized or proprietary systems. These systems typically only support “like-to-like” video calls, which means that only internal video calls will be possible. For maximum flexibility, the use of standards-based systems that easily operate with other standards-based systems are recommended. Going too big. Some firms overdo it, and their actual usage doesn’t justify their initial (and recurring) investment. To avoid this problem, companies should limit their initial purchases and expand the deployment as necessary in the future. For example, if a firm’s use of videoconferencing will be limited to a few executives holding one-on-one sessions, the firm should purchase only a few desktop systems. Similarly, if only a few users in a few locations expect to use the technology, make just a single room in each of these locations ready for video and carefully watch the usage trends for a few months. Going too small. Then there are the organizations that “underimplement” solutions. These firms try to squeeze 10 people into a small office for a videoconference call. Alternatively, they equip too few conferencing rooms with video, only to find that their users are frustrated by their lack of access to these resources. THE LAW FIRM OF THE FUTURE The law firm of the future will look very much like the wired enterprise of today. It will consist of a team of attorneys who are plugged into a collaborative network that allows them to share ideas, plans, and strategies, instantly and seamlessly. Each attorney will be able to use the firm’s global skills and knowledge at any time, regardless of the physical location of those resources. By properly using conferencing solutions, lawyers could double, or triple, the number of face-to-face (and billable) client sessions they hold each day, while decreasing their time in the office. Interestingly enough, the technology to create the scenario above is already available and ready for deployment. In essence, the law firm of tomorrow is really the intelligent law firm of today.
Harold German is a director at IVCi, a New York-based provider of managed conferencing services. He handles IP networks and the future of conferencing technologies.

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