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It takes law firms a while to catch up with the crowd, but they eventually do. A year after instant messaging went mainstream, two large New York firms, Shearman & Sterling and Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts, have started to add the feature to their lawyers’ desktops. The platforms will allow Shearman and Winthrop, Stimson lawyers to have chats with one another in real time without having to pick up the phone. Once the lawyers sign on, they can type and send messages to other lawyers who are also logged onto the system. The messages reach their recipients within seconds — unlike e-mail, which can take minutes or more — and responses come back just as quickly. The back-and-forth dialogue is only slightly slower than a phone conversation. Does the average law firm really need instant messaging? After all, hasn’t the combination of pagers, e-mail, cell phones, and voice mail already made it all too easy to reach out and touch someone? Not according to the early adopters at Shearman and Winthrop, Stimson. “Instant messaging is really fast,” says Eugene Stein, Shearman’s director of information technology. Since the introduction, e-mail traffic has dropped by 30 percent. “It’s much faster than e-mail,” says Stein, “so we’re pretty sure it’s saving our lawyers time.” Winthrop’s David Boyhan, an associate who serves on the firm’s technology committee, says that it will be particularly helpful in specific situations — such as when a Winthrop attorney is on a long conference call with opposing counsel and needs to dash off a question to a fellow Winthrop attorney in another office. “It’ll be a great way to interrupt without really interrupting,” he says. According to Boyhan, Winthrop’s IT department will also use the platform to walk attorneys through technology support problems. Both Shearman and Winthrop, Stimson are using Lotus’ SameTime platform. It’s an expensive alternative to the free IM systems offered by America Online and Yahoo! The firm paid in the “mid-tens of thousands of dollars” range to outfit all of its attorneys with the platform, according to a Shearman official. But the product’s security features justify the price, according to Stein. “Obviously, we’re going to have confidential and privileged information being shuttled back and forth,” he says. “For our own peace of mind, we’d prefer it to run over an internal server.” The price of this security is that SameTime does not communicate with AOL or any of the other IM platforms. Shearman lawyers can’t, therefore, chat with their teenage daughters. Both Stein and Winthrop IT director Anthony DeCerce also rave about SameTime’s other features. The platform allows attorneys to swap applications quickly and to create instant chat rooms. “You can really use it as an impromptu collaborative tool,” says Stein. Any worries Shearman had about introducing the platform have not blossomed into real problems. “Our real fear was that people would find it disruptive and intrusive, that it would be a continuous knock on the door,” says Stein. “But so far, only two people out of 760 have asked for it to be removed from their computers.” But Winthrop’s Boyhan has another concern. “With an IM platform, anyone can create the appearance of doing work,” he says. “We’re hoping it doesn’t just become a time-waster.” Instead, Boyhan hopes the platform will add value by performing functions that neither e-mail nor the phone handles perfectly. “In certain instances, the most efficient way to talk to a bunch of people in different offices is not through a conference call,” he says. “We expect it’ll make those types of communications much more focused.” Shearman and Winthrop may be the pioneers in the IM movement, but at least right now, there seem to be few followers. Some firms are piloting IM systems, while others remain unconvinced that IM actually offers something unique. Steve Agnoli, the chief information officer at Pittsburgh, Penn.-based Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, is eager to see how the firm’s other recent investments pan out before jumping into the IM game. “Our thinking is that you can have IM functionality in devices that basically traffic in e-mail,” Agnoli says. He is referring specifically to Kirkpatrick’s latest support of hand-held wireless devices such as RIM Blackberries and Palm Pilots. “We’re not about to run out and look at IM platforms,” he says. Even Boyhan hints at a major shortcoming of the IM concept, as it now exists — that it doesn’t involve the clients. For this reason, Winthrop is thinking about merging SameTime with another Lotus platform, QuickPlace. QuickPlace builds extranets that can hook into SameTime, providing IM capability between lawyers and clients. To learn more about SameTime, Lotus’ instant messaging platform, visit the company’s Web site at www.lotus.com/home.nsf/welcome/sametime.

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