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Corporate law departments are working flat-out in this acquisitive economy, and regulatory practices are booming, but the busiest person at any law firm these days usually isn’t even a lawyer at all — it’s the tech director. Besieged with calls for technical support and software upgrades, buried under reams of computing journals, and swamped with requests for meetings, the tech director is at the center of the action in today’s law firm economy. “Technology impacts almost every aspect of a firm’s service delivery model, and there are those who get it and those who don’t,” says Stacy Hayes, managing consultant of the information technology practice at the McCormick Group Inc., a recruiting and consulting firm based in Arlington, Va. “Those who get it are moving very aggressively because technology is now a key difference between a firm and its competition.” In fact, the single unifying factor in the accompanying survey of the state of technology at local law firms is change. Nearly every one of the 22 law firms that responded has either just installed a new program, is about to switch applications, or is in the midst of evaluating new software or hardware. ( Legal Times invited a cross-section of the Washington, D.C., legal market, about 40 large and small firms in all, to participate in the survey.) For example, D.C.’s Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky is gearing up to offer extranets to clients who want to be able to tap into documents and other shared information in specific cases; Cooley Godward, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is working on a program that will take the extranet concept one step further and allow clients to search certain parts of the firm’s database; construction law firm Watt, Tieder, Hoffar & Fitzgerald in McLean, Va., is now looking at whether to upgrade its desktop interface to Windows 2000. “Whether you think about case management, the research library, or litigation support, it all has a technology component to it,” Hayes says. Hayes notes that demand for tech personnel is keen at every level, from the chief information officer to the research librarian. Because the labor pool is so tight, base salaries for chief information officers at the big firms range from $175,000 to $225,000, plus bonuses, Hayes says. Hayes adds that law firms have improved their image among the tech crowd over the last year or so by paying higher salaries to make up for a lack of equity and by treating the tech staff with greater respect. Firms also are benefiting from what Hayes calls the dot-com backlash — technology professionals leaving startup companies that failed to deliver on stock options. “The equity did not materialize, and they are tired of working 80 hours a week,” Hayes says. A steady paycheck from a law firm, and a more civilized 50- or 55-hour work week is now more attractive, according to Hayes. Plus, law firms are shedding their insularity. “It is much more common for law firms to have a very businesslike, nonlawyer infrastructure,” Hayes says. “Inside firms, technology is being handled very, very seriously.” MAKING AN EFFORT MONETARILY Technology spending is also a growing part of firm budgets. At D.C.’s Shaw Pittman, the tech budget is $6.2 million for 2000, plus another $1.4 million budgeted for capital expenses. At D.C.’s Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn, which is switching to Windows 2000 and upgrading a number of applications, this year’s capital budget is $2.5 million and its operating budget $3 million. Venable has budgeted nearly $4 million for technology spending this year. The bulk of that spending — $2.9 million — is for equipment leasing. At Dickstein Shapiro, Frances Durako, director of information technology and services, oversees an operating budget this year of $2 million, with another $1.4 million allotted for capital expenses. She says the firm is well past the stage where new technology is viewed as a “necessary evil” that has to be mastered for the client’s sake. Now her department is experimenting with developing a portal — starting with the insurance litigation group — where huge libraries of insurance documents and other information can be organized anyway the firm wants to sort it, offering much more flexibility than the traditional desktop organized by application. “The technology is finally reaching the point where you can actually start implementing new ways of pulling information together,” Durako says. In addition, Dickstein recently decided to provide all its lawyers — not just partners — with laptop computers. The decision was prompted by several factors, among them rising associate salaries and hours. “It was a good year for the firm, and there is a heightened awareness of quality-of-life issues,” Durako says. She expects the new policy to boost the use of laptops in lieu of desktop PCs to 70 percent of the firm’s lawyers from the current 30 percent. Surprisingly, Durako says that none of the firm’s clients has requested an extranet. Dickstein is among just six firms reporting that they had not set up extranets with clients during the past year. Durako says that the firm has the technology to set up extranets and plans to implement it by year’s end. At Cooley, which has a sizable high-tech client base, the firm is building a “knowledge management system” that will go beyond extranets, says Mozhgan Mizban, director of client services. The new system will allow clients to search the firm’s database, even for information outside of a client’s case. Mizban says the firm has not decided how to charge for this access, or even whether to charge for certain levels of access. According to Mizban, clients and potential clients are interested in the firm’s technical capabilities. But the days of being able to make a client pitch based on superior technology are over, she says. “It used to be part of a pitch differentiation. Now it is an expected component of your service,” she says. “The client expects to be able to easily communicate with us. That means we have to be versatile.” Claudia MacLachlan is a free-lance journalist in the District and a frequent contributor to Legal Times. Software and Hardware Used by D.C. Firms � All Systems Go: Desktop Operating Systems, Laptops, Network Operating Systems Sorting the Paper Trail: Document Management, Time and Billing, Litigation Support Tools For The Wired Lawyer: Writing, Time Keeping, Contacts

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