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St. Louis isn’t exactly Palo Alto, Austin or Seattle. But don’t bother telling that to the folks at Bryan Cave. The Gateway City’s largest firm recently joined a handful of firms (including London’s Linklaters; Sydney, Australia’s Blake Dawson Waldron; and New York’s Davis Polk & Wardwell and Weil, Gotshal & Manges) that are selling clients access to interactive Web sites. These sites help clients answer their own basic legal questions. The Bryan Cave project consists of two extranets. A client preparing to import or export goods can access the firm’s “Trade Zone” site. On the site, a client answers a series of detailed questions about its trading partner, the goods to be shipped and other relevant information. The site flashes a “red light” if an answer indicates the deal is likely to run into international trade snags. When that happens, a client can “link” to a Bryan Cave lawyer for immediate help. The firm’s international trade attorneys take turns staffing the site. But the clients aren’t the only beneficiaries. “Trade Zone saves our lawyers a lot of time,” says John Alber, Bryan Cave’s partner in charge of information systems. “Most questions we get from our clients are vastly more informed than they used to be.” Which can amount to big efficiencies for the firm. According to John Hokkanen, the former chief knowledge officer at Atlanta’s Alston & Bird, do-it-yourself extranets help get rid of the simple five-minute client questions that are hard to bill. “The lawyers can stay focused on the larger projects that truly require their expertise,” he says. The other Bryan Cave site, “No Zone,” trains workplace supervisors in the thorny arena of harassment law. Supervisors spend an hour or so moving through the site, which features discussions of federal law, state law and the client’s internal harassment policies. As they are learning, they receive e-mails asking them to respond to hypothetical situations. If they pass the quiz at the end, they receive a certificate, which is delivered to the human resources department. This is not a groundbreaking concept (go to corpedia.com and lrn.com to see competing training platforms). But there aren’t many law firms doing the same thing. “We’ve created a system that makes it easy for us to tailor the site to what each client wants,” says Alber. Trade Zone and No Zone mark a philosophical change in the way the firm practices law. “Lawyers are used to churning out reactive work product,” says Alber. “But now we’re helping our clients head off problems before they come up.” Bryan Cave didn’t have to look far for this idea. In 1998, fellow partner Thomas Schweich published a book that instructs companies on how to prevent lawsuits. “We learned that clients really want to better control their legal problems,” says the firm’s managing partner Walter Metcalf. But it was the firm’s idea to make this happen through technology. “It seemed the best way to give our clients the around-the-clock service they were looking for,” Metcalf said. So the 600-lawyer firm upgraded its technology staff. And it decided to tackle the projects in-house, without much help from outside consultants or vendors. The staff last year rolled out an elaborate intranet platform called eCave. Trade Zone was launched last November and clients are expected to be using No Zone by the time this column goes to press. The initiative was no small feat. Alber says that “years worth of [lawyer] hours” were invested on the sites. The firm encouraged lawyers to participate by giving billable credit for hours worked. But the firm has taken steps to ensure that the new technology doesn’t affect the bottom line. It charges an annual (though unspecified) “all you can eat” fee for both products. The firm also hopes to make up for the inevitable drop in billable hours by using the technology to bring in a handful of new clients. Metcalf expects the technology to forever change the firm’s revenue model. “Clients want more cost predictability,” he concedes. “And if that [means] less reliance on the billable hour, then we’ll yield to those demands.” Hokkanen likes Bryan Cave’s approach. “Law firms are smart to experiment with alternative types of [fee] arrangements,” he says. “A few years from now, the Bryan Caves of the world are going to really understand how to make money on flat fees.” The firm plans to have other sites up and running before long. But it’s keeping mum on any specific timetable. And on the subjects it plans to cover on upcoming sites. Given the firm’s recent change in philosophy, this isn’t surprising. “We’ve got some ideas,” says Metcalf. “But we’re really waiting for our clients to tell us exactly what they want.” For more on Bryan Cave’s attorneys, practice areas, offices and technology platform, pay a visit to the firm’s Web site, which is located at www.bclaw.com.

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