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Law firms have many characteristics that set them apart from other public and private sector organizations. The document-centric nature of legal practice has led most firms to focus their technology investments on tools such as word processing and document management. Because of the specialized nature of legal documents — some footnotes in them are longer than corporate memos — the legal industry, unlike corporate America, has turned to third-party software vendors for industry-specific products. FIRMS FACE A PARADOX As a result, many firms now find themselves in a paradox. They have constructed applications into a proverbial Tower of Babel, with high support costs. In addition, their document management systems have become their de facto operating systems, severely limiting the ability to add innovative tools. Moreover, increasingly technologically sophisticated clients often mean fundamental and expensive changes to a firm’s tech infrastructure. A further problem: Most large firms are becoming increasingly dependent on electronic tools, such as e-mail, which leads to 24/seven operational support and global access to the firm’s networks via devices such as cell phones and PDAs. THE DENOUEMENT By late 1998, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering was confronting these challenges, plus a technology infrastructure that had become more of a problem than a solution. When I joined the firm in August 1998, our technology infrastructure consisted, in main part of Microsoft Windows 3.1, WordPerfect 6.1 and Word (in Europe), cc:Mail, SoftSolutions, Novell network operating system, ECCO (a personal information manager), Netscape, T-1 lines linking the firm’s U.S. offices, and a 64 Kbps fully-meshed frame linking the firm’s Washington and European offices. During my initial conversations with WCP’s management committee in July 1998, I suggested that the firm move as quickly as possible to Windows 2000 (at that point, still designated by Microsoft as NT 5.0). The decision was based on several factors, including: • Moving to a single vendor for the desktop and network operating systems. • Enhanced operating system stability. • Increased control of the desktop. • Lower operating costs. • Increased lawyer productivity, including using off-line folders and increasingly sophisticated collaboration tools (including Office 2000 and Exchange 2000, then code-named “Platinum”). • Client compatibility. The operative question was, as a practical matter, how fast could we move to the Windows 2000 platform without exceeding the firm’s ability to absorb the change? Obviously, we had to move fast — but not so fast that we would bring the firm to its knees. The challenge was made even more difficult because we would be restructuring the firm’s technology planning and support operations at the same time that we were rolling out the new operating system. Thus, some of the firm’s most critical applications — including an overdue migration from WordPerfect to Word 2000, and the organizational infrastructure required to support them — would be in simultaneous flux. JUST RIP IT! The first order of business was to increase the stability of the firm’s Desktop, recognizing that it would not be truly stable until the firm had completed the transition to Windows 2000/Office 2000. Over 90 days, the firm’s 600 Windows 3.1 desktop were re-cloned to Windows 98, and the entire firm was now on a relatively stable 32-bit operating system consisting of either Windows 95 or 98. The firm’s U.S. offices (Washington, Baltimore, and New York) were moved to Outlook/Exchange. The firm’s technology team was moved from Novell to Windows NT; and users were provided with Internet Explorer. The decision to shift the firm’s Windows 3.1 PCs to Windows 98 was based primarily on the relative ease of moving to Windows 2000 from Windows 95/98 versus moving to Windows 2000 from Windows 3.1 or Windows NT 4.0. Next, users of Windows 95/98 were moved to Windows 2000 Professional on the desktop, and from the mixed Novell/NT 4.0 network operating system to Windows 2000 Server. The Windows 2000 Server (RC3) move was completed by last November. The Office 2000 move was completed by January although the firm continued to operate in a mixed WordPerfect/Word 2000 environment. ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGES The organizational changes that occurred along with the Windows 2000 roll-out focused on support for the firm’s technology infrastructure. We replaced the firm’s existing training and assisted desk functions with a new organizational model called “Organizational Learning.” Grounded in the theory of communities of practice, this model places consultant teams in the firm’s practice sections, one management layer above practice groups. One objective of the new model is to have the consulting teams become experts with respect to how technology can, and should, be used in a particular practice group, as well as within the practice section as a whole. A second objective is for the teams to identify and address training issues and to address problems to be resolved by the firm’s “Systems Planning and Architecture” team that builds and maintains the firm’s tools. From the start we had presented the Windows 2000 move to the firm’s management team as future releases of Exchange 2000, SQL Server 2000 and other programs, rather than as a discreet project with a beginning and an end. The distinction is important. Typically, law firms adopt what might best be described as a “punctuated equilibrium” approach to technological change — relatively long periods of stability punctuated by relatively short periods of chaos. Our goal at Willer is the opposite. We are working to create a culture in which technology change simply becomes part of the background. A culture in which the firm’s lawyers and staff become a bit uneasy if they suddenly realize that it has been a while since they received some cool new tool that helps them do their job. Duncan B. Sutherland, Jr. is chief technology officer for Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. His e-mail address [email protected]

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