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Law firms are different from other public and private sector organizations. More than most enterprises, their businesses turn on the creation, storage, and distribution of documents. These documents tend to be complex. A legal footnote can be longer than most corporate memos. Because of the importance and complexity of these documents, firms sink a great deal of money and resources into tools like word processing and, defined broadly, document management. They also tend to rely on third-party software vendors for industry-specific products. As a result, many firms now find themselves living within a Tower of Babel of applications. Support costs are high, and it is difficult to move forward with new, innovative tools because firms’ document management systems have become their de facto operating systems. Clients heighten the challenge for firms. Corporations are demanding extranets, secure e-mail communication, and a host of other technologies. In addition, most large firms are starting to support mobile phones, handheld computers, wireless e-mail devices, and other tools that enable lawyers to stay in touch with the office and their clients. It was against this backdrop that I joined Washington, D.C.’s Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in August 1998 as chief technology officer. My mission was to improve the firm’s technology. Our solution ultimately centered on Windows 2000 on the desktop and Windows 2000 Server in the back office. But it wasn’t as simple as that. Wilmer, Cutler started in 1962 with fewer than 20 lawyers. Today, it has approximately 1,000 employees — including more than 370 lawyers — and six offices in the U.S. and Europe. Through the years, the firm has been an early adopter of technology. It was among the early firms to give personal computers to lawyers (1984); to introduce local area networks (1987); to establish firmwide e-mail (1988); and to start using the Internet (1992). By 1998, the firm’s technology was living largely on its reputation. A standing joke within Wilmer, Cutler is that when I was interviewing for the job, the management committee failed to come clean about the shape of the firm’s technology, and I failed to come clean about the cost of fixing it. The truth, of course, is that neither management nor I fully appreciated at that point what needed to be done to fix the firm’s technology and develop a coherent, cost-effective strategy for the new millennium. When I joined, our infrastructure consisted mostly of Microsoft Windows 3.1; WordPerfect 6.1 in the United States but Word in Europe; cc:Mail for e-mail; SoftSolutions for document management, but only in the United States; Novell as a network operating system, but also Windows NT here and overseas; ECCO as a personal information manager; and Netscape as a browser. Lawyers and the staff had lost confidence in the firm’s help desk because of the endless problems associated with this legacy infrastructure. The system crashed too often. The firm had outgrown cc:Mail. And applications would freeze due to conflicts among WordPerfect, Novell, and SoftSolutions. That was the bad news. The good news was that I inherited a highly competent, dedicated technology team that understood the challenges facing the firm. I also inherited a management team committed to restoring the firm’s technological leadership. We decided to build our technology around Windows 2000 for several reasons. We would be relying on the same vendor (Microsoft Corporation) for both the firm’s desktop and network operating systems. Our desktops would be more stable (versus Windows 95/98), and we would have greater control of them (versus NT 4.0). We would have lower operating costs, increased lawyer productivity, and greater access to sophisticated collaboration tools (including Office 2000 and Exchange 2000). As a practical matter, we faced the difficult job of judging how fast we could move to Windows 2000 without exceeding the firm’s ability to absorb the change. We had to move fast — but not so fast that we would bring the firm to its knees. The first order of business was to increase the stability of the firm’s desktop. We recognized that the desktop would not be truly stable until the firm had completed the transition to Windows 2000/Office 2000. We upgraded the firm’s Windows 3.1 desktops temporarily to Windows 98. (It would be easier to make the subsequent move to Windows 2000 from Windows 98 than from Windows 3.1.) We also installed Office 2000, although the firm continued to operate in a mixed WordPerfect/Word environment until our document management solution was in place. We migrated the domestic offices from cc:Mail to Outlook/Exchange and from Netscape to Internet Explorer. The next order of business was to complete the migration from Windows 95/98 to Windows 2000 on the desktop, and from the mixed Novell/NT 4.0 network operating system to Windows 2000 Server. We completed our rollout of Windows 2000 Server (RC3) in October 1999 and our rollout of Office 2000 in December 1999. We went “native” with Active Directory in July, and are currently completing the rollout of Exchange 2000 (RC2) and Windows 2000 Professional. One of the things that we did not do was install a new document management system like iManage or DOCS Open. We initially intended to use a third-party document management system. But we started to study the alternative: using the document management tools currently available in Windows 2000 (and what we anticipated would be available in Exchange 2000 and other Microsoft follow-on products). We became concerned about whether a third-party system might constrain our ability to move quickly. We did not want a document management system to be a barrier to other technological changes that we might want to make. We ultimately decided to develop a strong, feature-rich document management system, built on Microsoft’s Site Server with a modest front end that we developed internally. The decision required a short-term loss of functionality in return for the long-term benefit of powerful collaborative tools, built into the native operating system. As often happens with complex rollouts, not everything went exactly as planned. Just as we were ready to complete the migration of the firm’s PCs to Windows 2000, two events intervened. First, the firm decided to accelerate the distribution of laptops to lawyers. By the end of July, all U.S. lawyers were given a Windows 2000 laptop (with our new document management system). Second, the management team decided to significantly accelerate the firm’s migration from WordPerfect to Word. The laptop move has given us time to rethink how we are going to install Windows 2000 on the firm’s 700 or so remaining PCs. One possibility is that we will install Windows 2000 Terminal Services. This component of Windows 2000 Server allows desktop users to run applications without having the application itself or even Windows 2000 on the desktop. One of our keys to success was the firm’s long-standing relationship with Microsoft. We are an “Enterprise” customer, a Windows 2000 Joint Development Partner, a Microsoft Word Legal Advisory Council member, and so forth. We had open lines of communication with Redmond during the transition. We also relied on experts from Microsoft Consulting Services during the rollout of Windows 2000 Server. We probably could not have completed the transition so quickly without their assistance. We also began working with Windows 2000, both Server and Professional, while it was still in early beta. (My team believes that I may hold the individual world record for number of installs of a beta version of Windows 2000!) We knew these products cold by the time we installed them for real. Finally, we had represented the Windows 2000 migration to the firm’s management team as a process that included future releases of Exchange 2000, SQL Server 2000, and so on, rather than as a discrete project with a beginning and an end. The distinction is important. Typically, law firms adopt a “punctuated equilibrium” approach to technological change — relatively long periods of technological stability broken by relatively short periods of chaos. Our goal at Wilmer, Cutler is exactly the opposite. We want to create a culture in which technological change simply becomes part of the background. We want lawyers and staff to become a bit uneasy when they realize that it has been a while since they received some cool new tool or there has been a system improvement. In other words, our goal is to make technological change the norm rather than the exception. Duncan B. Sutherland, Jr. ([email protected]) is chief technology officer for Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.

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