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If anyone was truly worried about the millennium apocalypse, it was Brian Collins. On Jan. 1, 2000, Collins, the international director of information technology at London’s Clifford Chance, had to simultaneously merge three computer systems and cope with the Y2K computer bug. On that long-dreaded New Year’s Day, computers were supposed to crash and airplanes were to collide in midair. The world, of course, didn’t end. But the merger of London’s Clifford Chance with New York’s Rogers & Wells and Frankfurt’s Punder, Volhard, Weber & Axster did officially take effect. The union created the world’s largest law firm, with 2,700 lawyers in 30 offices. It also created a two-year headache for Collins. While many of his technology peers at other firms breathed a sigh of relief on that New Year’s Day, Collins could not rest. He was working to harmonize the distinctly different conflict-checking systems, e-mail programs, practice management software, and accounting systems in what was suddenly supposed to be just one firm. When the mergers were announced in the summer of 1999, Collins became the master carpenter assigned to make the three firms technologically compatible. “What we did was federate the systems so they could work together and pass data,” says Collins of his mission. The short-term goal was to make sure that as soon after Jan. 1, 2000, as possible, the three different law firms would be able to live together in the same technology house. Conflict checking was the top priority. Collins needed to ensure that the software could determine that a new client in Sao Paulo wasn’t the foe of an old one in Singapore. To accomplish this, he had to create a database that was searchable around-the-clock from anywhere in the world, regardless of the native language of the lawyer and client. Unlike their e-mail systems, the conflict-checking systems were different for all three firms. There was much to discuss, since each firm relied on different methods for different tasks. Rogers & Wells checked conflicts through its CMS Open accounting system. Clifford Chance relied on a homegrown system, and Punder used a rudimentary e-mail system to check conflicts. Administrators decided that the merged firm would adopt the Rogers & Wells approach. But it took until May 2000, four months after the three-way marriage, to turn on the new system. During that time Collins built a new system based on CMS Open. The database resides in London but is accessible from all offices. “It was somewhat difficult at first to get searches done properly,” Collins admits. Because of the multilingual names, a German company might be input differently in America. “How they put in German symbols, like the umlaut, will confuse a database system.” These conflicts within the conflict system were eventually fixed, but only after an extended period of trial and error. “In the beginning there were some technical problems that come from using different database formats,” says Michael Dernbach, the director of IT for Clifford Chance Punder in Frankfurt. “It is working more efficiently now,” he says. Merging e-mail and groupware programs, which give firmwide access to calendars and address books, came next. Clifford Chance and Punder used different versions of Microsoft Outlook, an e-mail and groupware program. Rogers & Wells used Novell GroupWise, which is quickly becoming a relic. One of the first tasks was to convert Rogers & Wells to Microsoft Exchange, the platform for Microsoft Outlook. In New York, Michael Donnelly, the firm’s director of IT for the Americas, rolled out the system slowly, adding new users in groups of 30-40 people. By August, the entire transition was complete, and a common firmwide address book was up and running. “It went pretty smoothly,” says Donnelly. “There were a few glitches, in the calendar for example, but there were no major issues.” Adds Collins, proudly: “We didn’t lose an e-mail or a folder.” A lawyer in the New York office calls the system “light years” ahead of the old one. Rogers & Wells had only used Groupwise as an e-mail system. But Exchange and Outlook can handle scheduling and other functions like synchronizing data with handheld computers. Throughout 2000 the staff worked on trying to create technological harmonic convergence in less critical areas. Developing a common word processing format, for example, proved impossible. The three firms had too many different style, font, and format preferences. Ultimately, individual practice groups made up their own rules. “There are different working styles between Germany, the U.S., and the U.K.,” says Tjardo Siemens, regional chief operating officer for continental Europe. Collins and his crew have also been focusing on the firm’s intranet. By the time the merger was finalized, lawyers from all three firms could access the intranet. As with the personalized design of the word processing software, the intranet ultimately has embraced, rather than suppressed, regional and cultural differences. For instance, language-specific sites in German, English, and Italian, cater to the firm’s different lawyers. In addition, various practice groups use the intranet to store such data as contact information and model documents, which can be easily updated. “The intranet has been expanded so much,” says Alan Wight, a real estate associate in London. “It is difficult to say if it’s gotten bigger because of the merger, or just because it has come of age.” Of course, the path to uniformity has not always been smooth. Collins is still working to get every lawyer on a common operating system, Windows 2000, by the end of this year. That was also his goal last year. Things never succeed as planned when it involves nearly 3,000 lawyers based in cities around the world. One of the biggest changes still in the works is the integration of accounting software. The offices that once belonged to Rogers & Wells and to Punder currently use the CMS Open accounting software. But the Punder lawyers have never warmed to this program, complaining that it is too U.S.-centric. The Clifford Chance office, meanwhile, uses a homegrown accounting system. In spite of its disparate systems, the combined firm has managed to send out bills and take in fees. But the ultimate goal is to find a single software package. Now that the plumbing is almost all in place, Collins wants to tackle knowledge management — the way the firm stores everything from old documents to new phone numbers — and start thinking about other blue-sky issues. Like how to go even more global, techwise.

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