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In today’s business climate, one can feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Important information is flying past on all sides, and there’s nothing to hold on to. One way that law firms have helped clients get a grip on important matters is use of the extranet — a law firm-supported system that allows clients to find important Web resources and view court and internal documents related to their representation. But as with numerous other information delivery systems, there’s no guarantee that the extranet service will be used. Some firms report client indifference to extranets. So, are extranets really a benefit to attorneys and clients, or are they just hype? The numbers indicate that most firms believe in them. According to the 2000 AmLaw Tech survey, 78 percent of firms are currently using legal extranets with their clients, up from 55 percent a year ago. But having an extranet is one thing — etting effective use of the system is the more difficult task. Within law firms, attorneys and other prospective extranet users are professionals who don’t have time for an application that will not increase their productivity or decrease the time it takes to access needed information. Similarly, clients do not want to remember more passwords, add yet another application, or learn how to follow another procedure. So to be truly useful, extranets will have to go beyond a simple application allowing the user to post documents and maintain links to other Web site resources. They will have to offer collaboration between clients and counsel, as well as tools for project, case, and document management that integrate with a firm’s internal systems. The three key elements in a successful extranet service are a robust and secure system with the flexibility to grow with the clients’ needs, consistent content management, and attorney involvement. At Alston & Bird, our first-generation extranet consisted of a discussion board, links to other resources, the ability to upload documents, a calendar, and a simple workload or project management tool. Other services provided to clients — such as a full-scale project management or case management tools –were created internally as a separate application, without integratation into the standard extranets. But in order to provide our clients the best service and to stay focused on their needs, we had to ensure that the product would improve. As a result, a new generation of extranet is on the drawing board at Alston & Bird for 2001. It will provide a full-scale product including an “out of the box” standard solution for full collaboration between the firm and clients, as well as optional modules — or independently operable units — for client usage. To ensure rapid deployment, the new generation extranet has a plug-and-play architecture, which allows us to seamlessly integrate optional modules, such as case management or project management tools, into the system without jeopardizing the stability of the existing product. This type of system has myriad positives, but also requires a considerable commitment. BUILDING BLOCKS By offering a more robust extranet, your firm will be shifting from providing a simple solution to being more of an application service provider. You may have to ask yourself if that is what your firm wants to be doing. You will have to ask if such a system will attract enough users to warrant the cost. To create and maintain such a complex system takes considerable time and resources. Moreover, having a better system does not guarantee a better rate of use. Once your firm has decided to take the plunge, actually providing a basic extranet is by far the easiest part of the service. Nonetheless, there are several options to consider. Do you want the extranet to be built in-house, outsourced, or be a commercially designed product, hosted either internally or by a third-party vendor? The cost of outsourcing can range from $120,000 to $250,000, at a fixed rate as opposed to a user-based license system or per-page user fee. The cost varies somewhat based on the consulting fees for software developers in different geographic regions. Commercial products, such as those available through Niku, Intralinks, or CaseCentral, vary in cost, with a minimum setup fee for each client extranet you wish to establish as well as a per-page fee. Or the cost can be based on the number of users. This does not take into account the cost of hosting the product, whether that is handled internally or outside the firm. Costs for building a system in-house are dependent on four primary factors: use of an established team of programmers, the software selected for development, geographic location of the development team, and overall size and scope of the project. After reviewing our clients’ needs and our ability to service those needs, we at Alston & Bird decided to create our own new generation extranet in-house to satisfy the crucial first elements of success — security and flexibility. The decision to develop our system internally was based on the cost benefit of development, the strength and stability of our internal knowledge services group, and the effective collaboration between this group and the firm’s attorneys. The system we plan to roll out has several advantages over our first-generation extranet. As clients make new requests for applications that enable different types of collaboration, we will be able to integrate new functions into the extranet. For example, if a client requests a product that has full reporting capabilities for docketing information, something the firm has on an internal application, we can “plug” this component into the extranet, making it available for other clients as well. Such flexibility helps attorneys maintain the trust and loyalty of clients, and exemplifies the firm’s understanding of the importance of technology. While our first-generation extranet required an unacceptable amount of set-up time from a developer for each client, the new system at Alston & Bird will allow us to configure an individual client’s account in a matter of minutes. Resolution of the content management and attorney involvement issues are somewhat complex, but not overwhelming. THE HUMAN ELEMENT If your extranet service is large enough to warrant the addition of a content manager to your firm, it could benefit clients. The average cost will vary by location. But if your extranet service is not large enough, or it is not feasible to dedicate an employee to the task of extranet content management, then an individual within the attorneys’ group could be assigned the task of ensuring that the client’s extranet has current and relevant information. This could be a paralegal or legal secretary with the ability to spend approximately two to four hours a week on this task. The time needed will depend on the purpose of the extranet and the flow of information necessary for a particular client. Our experience has shown that the time involved is greater at the start and tapers off over time. There are often times that a particular client extranet is virtually inactive, as one matter ends and another has yet to begin. Again, flexibility becomes significant. The final key element to a successful extranet service is involvement of attorneys. If attorneys cooperate with the technical staff in a team effort, you will find that the extranets will benefit the client far more. Alston & Bird’s extranet service is the result of team effort. Building on the success of team collaboration for our custom solutions, we are working closely with the attorneys during relevant areas of the development life cycle for our new-generation extranet. The knowledge services team is made up of project managers, programmers, graphic designers, technical writers, and quality assurance personnel. The attorneys work with the technical team, identifying weaknesses in the existing system that prevented them and their clients from using the extranet efficiently and effectively in the past. For example, our attorneys said that without the ability to import information to the extranet from their contact list in Microsoft Outlook, the contact list extranet tool would rarely be used. With attorneys eager to assist in identifying their business needs, the technical team can transform those needs into a robust online tool. Once the business needs are identified, the technical team focuses on system design and analysis, producing technical specifications and prototypes and presenting them to the attorneys for evaluation and comment. When consensus on the prototype is reached, the technical staff develops the final product without further involvement of the legal side. The attorneys become involved again during beta testing. This involves further discussions about the business needs of the attorneys and their clients, and participation in the testing of a new application module. At Alston & Bird, we are confident that the investment made in this service will reap benefits for both the firm and clients. The attorneys’ enthusiastic recommendation of the first-generation extranet to their clients and their participation in the creation of the next-generation extranet are the keys to this success. With input from counsel, we are providing clients a way to keep their feet on the ground. Without input, we may only have built a better rabbit hole. Wendy King is knowledge services manager at the Atlanta office of 550-attorney Alston & Bird.

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