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Law firms are in a unique position to help their corporate clients develop the business processes and systems required to operate their law departments. That’s because corporate lawyers have long been at the bottom of their company’s technology “food chain.” Ten years ago, when lawyers made little use of technology, this made less of a difference. But today’s corporate general counsel is expected to run an in-house “law firm.” The corporate CEO and business unit managers are demanding more service from their law department, which most likely does not have the business practices and technology to meet this demand. This situation creates a marketing opportunity for outside counsel. Since the mid- to late 1990s, lawyers have been using computers with specialized law firm software to perform their day-to-day tasks. Those who leave private practice to join corporate law departments expect to find the same computer tools that they relied on as outside counsel. Unfortunately, many are finding the technology cupboard bare or that it contains only generalized software not well-suited to their needs. Corporate information technology departments are staffed by technology professionals experienced in their company’s industry, and most of their experience is industry-focused. IT staff at a company like Wal-Mart know retail systems; at Ford, they know manufacturing. If a lawyer at a law firm asks for Word, she gets Word, a document management system, redlining software, template programs, and other specialized legal software. Ask the typical in-house lawyer what he received when he asked for Word and the answer is usually: generic Word, straight out of the box. Unfortunately, the typical corporate IT department doesn’t have the legal industry knowledge to react appropriately to the GC’s requests, even if funding is available. That’s why many general counsel are looking to their law firms to provide them with the legal-specific systems needed to meet the demands of their internal clients. THE MISSING LINKS Law firms that connect to clients through Web-based extranets not only get their business, but also have staying power. Extranets and other types of links are providing general counsel and their staffs with case management systems, legal research tools, document management and other systemic tools of the legal business. Many law firms have been assisting their clients with this type of help for years, usually on an ad hoc basis. Frequently, this assistance was in the form of improved client communications via Web-based extranet technology or custom matter-related databases, to name two common examples. These “front end” systems of the law firm have become the law department’s “back end” and business systems. This technology connection is occurring on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Richard Suskind, a professor, practicing legal consultant, and respected legal technology advocate in the United Kingdom, in his most recent book, “Transforming the Law,” discusses the impact of law firms providing comprehensive systems and processes to their corporate clients. The BTG Consulting Group of Boston has also documented corporate counsel’s needs in its 2002 survey of Fortune 1,000 legal departments. In its analysis and report, BTG identifies significant opportunities for law firms to help corporate counsel with technology-enabled legal services. Providing technology is only part of the answer. Law firms must incorporate the work-flow processes that the technology enables. The law firm may facilitate some of this process design, or it may be done by the law department or the company’s IT staff. Either way, any solution needs to be more than a technology fix. Understanding what the client requires must precede any implementation of technology. Many law firms make the mistake of providing an extranet, only to find that it goes unused. And many GCs ask for a “connection” to their law firm, only to find that what they get is not what they need. To succeed, both parties must understand what is needed, and only then see how technology may facilitate the result. This technology is more than extranets. Litigation imaging systems, matter management, and research services are just some of the value-added services that law firms can help provide. In some cases, these systems may be used directly by the client’s employees. For example, a law firm that develops and maintains a client’s human resources forms can host a system to provide those forms, via a link to the company’s internal network. The GC now has an effective way to disseminate up-to-date forms to her clients. Just as business leaders outsource tasks or projects on a regular basis, selective use of outsourcing by the general counsel gives her the ability to deliver timely results. Providing systems, processes, and services to client law departments is not completely foreign-many lawyers and their firms have been providing some of these services, often without realizing the importance to their client. What’s in it for the law firm? Law firms benefit by: • Delivering existing legal services in new ways. • Developing new types of legal services facilitated by new technology capabilities. • Automating low-end “commodity” work to improve profitability. • Leveraging services across clients and industries. • Meeting increased client requests for efficient service delivery. • Strengthening the bond between the firm and its clients. During the past two years, requests for proposal increasingly require that outside counsel have the technology to help support the client law department and deliver services effectively. Many of these RFPs limit responses only to technology-enabled law firms. In fact, an RFP from a Fortune 100 company specifically listed extranet technology as the No. 1 requirement for responding to its request: “If you don’t have the technology to help us manage our law department, don’t apply for the job as our law firm.” Is this an ancillary business opportunity? It could be, but the function we are discussing is meeting client expectations, and the form of the business is less important. What it really is, is the continuing evolution of how legal services are delivered. COST FACTORS The cost for developing service-delivery systems depends on the type of system and the level of customization. Many products today provide law firms of all sizes with the capability to extend basic extranet systems to their clients. Software such as LawPort from SV Technology Inc. ( www.svtechnology.com) and WorkSite from iManage Inc. ( www.imanage.com) allow law firms to enter this arena without adding a Web development staff. Basic client extranets can be created in a few hours or less; systems tailored to a client’s or industry’s specific needs may require specialized technical talent, raising the cost. Either way, firms have the ability to strengthen their relationship with their clients in ways that they were unable to offer in the past. Foley & Lardner has dramatically increased the use of extranets and other methods for not only improving the delivery of existing legal services, but also developing new services to meet client needs. The use of these technologies has strengthened many client relationships, resulting in increased work, and it has also been a key factor in obtaining new clients. Legal technology is no longer an expense to be minimized. It is an investment that, if properly marketed, can make a law firm more valuable to clients — a bond not easily broken. Doug Caddell is chief information officer at Foley & Lardner and has worked with a number of corporate law departments to improve technology and processes. He is a member of the editorial advisory boards of Law Technology News and Legal Management, the journal of the Association of Legal Administrators. He can be reached at [email protected].
Working With Firms: Views from General Counsels

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