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It has been almost three years since the acronym ASP (application service provider) crept into our vocabulary. The idea was simple: For a fixed monthly fee, software and other tools are delivered to you via the Web, letting someone else worry about everything it takes to make them available. The ultimate outsourcing package. But outsourcing practice tools, including storing day-to-day work product off-site, requires a larger leap of faith than we have needed in the past. It is fundamentally different from the traditional outsourcing scenario where you hire an outside entity to come in-house and handle your copying needs, where the process and the work product remain physically under your roof. But let’s back up. There are products that legitimately can fall under the ASP umbrella — from tried and trusted legal research databases already in use at most firms, to highly specialized, all-encompassing practice environments that have arrived in the past couple of years. In between — hosted litigation support services, “deal rooms” and a variety of other services. The trust factor for online research is minimal. You have faith that the databases will be accessible when you need them. More than 25 years of experience with those services has established their reliability and it is a non-issue for most lawyers. Even CD-ROM-based research tools are rapidly going by the wayside as more firms opt for the convenience of online without the constant updating chores. This was also spurred on by flat-rate pricing plans to provide online access at a budgetable, monthly price. LITIGATION SUPPORT ASPs at the next level are Web-based, litigation support document repositories. This does take an additional level of faith in the security and reliability aspects of the service, because of client confidentiality and malpractice considerations. Firms have been fairly cautious about leaping on that bandwagon early on, just as they were with the advent of electronic mail. Five years ago there were those who adamantly maintained it was malpractice per se to communicate with a client via electronic mail. Now it is routine business. Likewise we’ve seen firms begin to embrace online document sharing. Some firms have shut down private (translation: expensive) wide-area networks originally designed to handle massive, multi-jurisdiction litigation in favor of commercially available ASP Web offerings. FINAL LEAP The final leap is the full-blown, comprehensive, “everything I need to practice law” services that allow you to drive your practice via the Web. Because I’ve worked closely with some of the early adopter firms, I know first-hand that many of them believe this is the only way to practice law, at least in concept. But there are some problems that are keeping us from realizing the full potential of this brave new world. The first problem is bandwidth. We’ve come a long way since the early 300 bits-per-second modems of the early 1980s. Relatively cheap DSL or cable modem connections to the Internet typically offer a minimum of 256,000 (256K) up to 640K connections. Higher cost DSL lines are even faster, but you find relatively few that exceed 640K. The problem is that high-speed connection is almost 20 times slower than your slowest Ethernet network. That means opening a document could take you several seconds rather than the instantaneous response you are used to. As a practical matter, the difference is not nearly as dramatic as it may sound, as long as the number of users remains fairly small. There are a lot of factors that go into overall system performance beyond simply bandwidth. But it is a factor and the main reason the comprehensive, practice-oriented legal ASP offerings are typically targeted at the solo/small firm. Over time bandwidth will become a non-issue and speeds well beyond Ethernet will be possible on the Web. Until then it is a major gating factor. The second major issue is simple availability. Despite the early promises of high-speed Internet access to every doorstep, the reality has been much different. Your neighbor across the street may have it, but you can’t. I live in a small, almost-rural (I’m five minutes from cows and cornfields!) community 25 minutes from downtown Minneapolis and I have had DSL for two years. I had ISDN (a slower, more complex precursor to DSL) for two years prior to getting DSL. My brother-in-law, in a community ten times larger, can’t get DSL or ISDN. To add insult to injury, he works for the telephone company that provides both services to his neighbors in the next block! This is the classic “last mile” problem. It doesn’t matter how much razzle-dazzle, fiber optic, ultra-high-speed technology is deployed between New York and L.A. If the last mile of copper that leads up to your office is bad, all the rest means nothing. The realtors are right: location, location, location. So, add “DSL availability” to your office space search checklist. RELATIVE NEWNESS The third problem is the relative newness (I didn’t want to say immaturity!) of much of the underlying technologies. A prime example is the router and firewall technologies that typically sit between your local area network and the Internet. While all are based on accepted standards put forth by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), there are design choices that each manufacturer makes which results in interesting variations with each setup. One example is the use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology. A VPN is, essentially, an encrypted tunnel through the Internet connecting your PC (or your LAN, depending on how it is used) to your ASP. It provides a very high degree of security and enables capabilities not readily available without a VPN. The problem is the VPN standard adopted by the IETF was one promoted by Microsoft Corp. and was incorporated into Microsoft’s operating systems. I will spare you the gory details, but there were pieces of the standard that Cisco didn’t like so they didn’t include it in their products. Cisco Systems Inc. is the leading provider of Internet routers, the amazing boxes that figure out how to get you connected to any other computer on the Web. They also provide the DSL modem/routers that connect many DSL customers to their DSL providers. Because of this technical spat between Microsoft and Cisco, in a typical configuration with a Cisco router in place, you are limited to a single VPN connection. This means you could be connected to your ASP, but your secretary couldn’t. Or vice versa. That is just one example of some of the technical hurdles to overcome that time will probably resolve but are today’s real headaches. Finally, the relative newness of the law practice ASP offerings is a weakness. Most have been in existence for less than two years. It’s difficult to create, from scratch, a system incorporating brand new technologies in such a short period of time. Many of the products we rely on day-to-day in our practices have been around for 10 or 15 years and have achieved a level of maturity you can’t expect to find in a brand new offering. It’s also a challenge to build multiple capabilities into an integrated product and match the capabilities of products that have been focused on a single, smaller component for a longer period of time. This, too, will be overcome with time and the whole will probably prove greater than the sum of the individual parts. Despite these issues, the concept of the ASP is too compelling to be ignored by a significant number of lawyers, especially in the solo/small firm market. As the products mature, tremendous capability combined with the ultimate in practice flexibility will make traditional “fat client” technologies the path less traveled. Lawyer/technologist Loren D. Jones previously worked for West Group on its WestWorks project.

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