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The trend among legal technology companies these days is toward dying (remember Red Gorilla?), not buying. Don’t tell that to the West Group. In late August, West announced it was buying ProLaw, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based software company, for an undisclosed sum. ProLaw will become a unit of West, which is owned by The Thomson Co. Although it started as a book publisher in 1872, West is no stranger to software. Ever since it launched Westlaw in the 1970s, it has been playing with ways to deliver case law and other services to lawyers. Lawyers still buy books, but their appetite for them is dwindling. West wants to deliver cases and content any way that lawyers want it. In January West bought FindLaw Inc., which houses a Web site of case law and legal material. The company also launched Wireless Westlaw, delivering cases to wireless Palm units. ProLaw makes a software package, also called ProLaw, which combines calendaring, case management and time and billing. It is meant to be a Swiss Army knife for lawyers, equipped with a tool for every occasion. “We have a different approach to automating the law firm where we literally have just one integrated product,” says Bill Bice, ProLaw’s founder, who will head West’s new ProLaw unit. ProLaw has about 1,400 legal customers, mostly small- and mid-sized firms. For the past few years, it has been trying to move into the large-firm market. West, on the other hand, has been trying to move down-market. Last year it launched WestWorks, a Web-based practice-management tool functionally similar to ProLaw. But WestWorks flopped, a victim of an awful market for new technology initiatives and overly ambitious ambitions. If at first you don’t succeed, try or buy again. West decided to buy the second time around. In buying a software company, West is bucking the trend. It is more common for software companies to buy service companies. But West says this is part of its strategy. “Our aim is seamless integration of legal content,” says Kevin Ritchie, senior director of business development for West. By buying ProLaw, West hopes to gain another outlet for selling its products and services. “This is a little bit like Pepsi buying Kentucky Fried Chicken,” says the chief knowledge officer of one large law firm. “One of the issues for content providers is developing secure ways to provide content. You purchase companies that can embed your content. It’s a way to have a private distribution channel.” WestWorks was supposed to have been that channel. WestWorks is a Web-based practice management tool that offers case and document management, time and billing, and legal research. Late last year, West launched WestWorks in selected cities. The company had high hopes for WestWorks: it was supposed to roll out nationally by the end of the year. But about six months after the launch, West stopped marketing the product. West’s clients did not necessarily have the computer systems and connections in place to take advantage of the product. WestWorks runs on Windows 2000, an operating system that firms are only now starting to install. It also works best with high-speed DSL or cable modem lines. It’s painfully pokey under a slower dial-up connection. West Group president Mike Wilens says there was not enough high-speed Internet access in pilot cities like Miami and Houston. “We assumed selling it would be hard and installing it would be easy. We got that backwards,” Wilens says. In the middle of this year, says Wilens, after it became clear that WestWorks was not selling, the company started sniffing around to buy a software company. (WestWorks is still available to its pilot customers.) Think of ProLaw as West’s consolation prize. When you can’t make what you want, buy what you want. West liked ProLaw, says Wilens, because it had a good brand in a shaky market. West needed to move quickly and aggressively. In January, rival Lexis Nexis formed a partnership with North Carolina-based Data.Txt Corp., a company that sells the practice-management software Time Matters. Time Matters now ties into some of Lexis Nexis’ case law. It has about 1,000 customers, says Ken Crutchfield, vice president and chief operating officer of desktop applications for Lexis Nexis. “They needed to come up with a response to our relationship with Time Matters,” says Crutchfield. “We don’t view it that way,” says West’s Ritchie. “We are mindful of what other players are doing in the market but we tend not to react to specific partnerships or competitive tactical moves.” West isn’t saying when it will release a new product that makes use of ProLaw software. But if history is any guide, it will be sooner rather than later.
What practice management tools are law firms and in-house departments purchasing? See Who’s Buying What from AmLaw Tech.

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