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For years technology-savvy law firms have been using information technology to support “back office” business processes such as accounting. In the past decade progressive firms have been expanding their use of technology to support sales, marketing, and other “front office” business requirements as well as interoffice communication. Now, with the advent of Web-based technologies, these same firms are embracing another trend: extranets, using secure networks, that clients can access to track elements of their business with the firm. At Foley & Lardner, for example, our online network allows clients instant access to information on any legal matter they have with Foley. Clients use a secured, client-specific extranet Web site, and the system adapts automatically as new information is added. These private networks serve as repositories of information relevant to clients’ cases. The extranets also offer new technical Web applications. For instance, software can allow clients to • Use templates to generate legal documents, such as nondisclosure agreements, based on specific business rules

• Track agreements so clients can monitor the cases handled by the law firm • Track legal trends within clients’ industries and produce reports

Using extranets for clients lets law firms deliver their work product on a more timely basis worldwide. It also makes it possible for attorneys and clients to work together more closely. In-house counsel at client companies now have more flexibility. For instance, they can access documents from anywhere and at any time and have information at their fingertips about their case or business transaction. Improving the use of information technology to enhance the delivery of services is important because information technology is more than just an expense for law firms to pass on to their clients — a traditional and still prevalent perspective — but rather is a strategic tool that actually benefits clients. For example, one Foley client uses the firm’s system to track more than 200 active matters we currently handle. All documents and correspondence for each matter, including a vast array of resource information and legacy documents, are accessible by the Foley attorneys and the in-house counsel and executives involved. Previously, the documents existed only in hard-copy format in various locations across the country, and they required hours to receive via fax. Now the documents are available immediately. Experience has repeatedly shown that clients are happier with the known than the unknown. The more clients feel that they help shape the delivery of legal services, the more they will feel that their law firms are putting clients’ interests ahead of their own. Access to these technology applications significantly facilitates that feeling of partnership. As our chief information officer, Doug Caddell, says: “Foley has made significant investments in leading-edge technology, which has differentiated us from our competition. Our clients recognize that our technology tools add significant value to our legal service offerings.” The secure extranet system is also helping in-house counsel improve their own efficiency on the job. Many general counsel want tools and systems to help them track, manage, and coordinate the vast quantities of information, documents, case materials, billing progress reports, and other aspects of their work, both internally and with outside law firms. In many companies, general counsel do not automatically have access to this information or the ability to manage it. Legal-technology tools, such as templates that can be easily used to create documents such as nondisclosures and other types of agreements, allow clients to perform many of their own tasks without external attorney assistance. The result is that clients are less dependent on outside counsel for agreements for each customer or vendor. Technology tools such as these drive down costs on lower-value legal work and allow law firms to focus their efforts on the clients’ most critical need: high-level legal counsel. In-house counsel have an enhanced role in the company when they have tools that enable them to expedite legal matters independently. In effect, law firms with these tools are providing an “outsourcing” opportunity to in-house counsel, enabling them to get more done at less expense. Additionally, because legal departments in most companies are not revenue-generating departments, they have not often been at the top of a company’s priorities in receiving IT assistance. Moreover, corporate IT staff are typically focused on the IT needs of their own industry, not the specialized applications of the legal world. OVERCOMING CHALLENGES The primary risk for law firms thinking of developing such tools is using the firm’s resources to provide high-tech tools in an industry in which users and management are risk-averse and historically not leaders in the use of technology. There is also a risk that these new IT products and services would not be well received by enough attorneys throughout the firm or by the clients. Law firms can mitigate this risk, however, by selectively marketing the systems to the most innovative attorneys and by hiring an internal technology consultant to ensure that the systems are properly demonstrated and supported. Far from being an annoying afterthought or merely a necessary expense for worker productivity, law firm technology services are becoming a source of added value and competitive advantage. The rewards will flow to those firms that embrace the opportunity most aggressively.
Richard A. Weiss is the managing partner of Foley & Lardner’s Washington, D.C., office.

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