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Online meetings — whether called virtual meetings, Web conferences, collaboration meetings or any of the other terms out there — are not exactly new. Online meetings that are actually practical, useful and easier than convening in person, however, have been a pretty rare find until recently. Thanks to a new generation of meeting software, that is changing. For far too long, many online meetings either ran like molasses or needed costly equipment to work. But lately a boomlet of enthusiasm has emerged for a small flock of Web-based programs that make the online meeting experience much more pleasant. Those who attend can share documents with potentially hundreds of people, mark them up as necessary, talk via telephone or Webcam and save the whole show for later review. Best of all, such meetings can keep the associates at their desks racking up billable hours rather than idling away the time traveling to a client meeting. WEBEX AND PLACEWARE Two of the leading providers of software programs for online meetings are WebEx and Placeware. Both let a lawyer run a meeting through the Web browser on his or her computer, where other people essentially log onto that “meeting home page” to participate. The meeting host can control who attends, what those attendees can see and do, and how data are presented, edited and saved during the meeting. All while everyone sits at his or her respective desk and either calls in via phone to a teleconference or speaks via Webcam and microphone. For example, an attorney could demonstrate the likely loss to a pension fund, and an audience member might update the data by submitting new numbers directly onto the spreadsheet that appears on everyone’s screen. A contract can be edited among associates and saved for later review, or simply marked up with counsel from another firm to indicate who objects to what clause. Of the two programs, WebEx is considerably more well-known and popular. It presents the meeting in a split-screen format: one large window on the left that houses the main document a person wants to display, plus two smaller windows stacked on the right that show who is in the meeting and allow participants to ask questions. Along the top, like most other programs, are a series of pulldown menus that let participants carry out specific tasks such as opening a new document or handing temporary control of the presentation to another person. WebEx allows customers to sign on as recurring clients, ideal for a law firm with plenty of need for online meetings. It also allows a one-time-only meeting that charges 45 cents per user per minute for lawyers who want to pull together a quick meeting on short notice. Usually, a user can create and book a conference in as little as 15 minutes, complete with e-mail messages that alert participants to log into the meeting. Both arrangements offer identical features and control to manage the meeting itself. Placeware has an interface that’s a bit more complicated but equally versatile. The host has numerous control panels that surround one large main area that displays documents. Different panels track who is in the audience, the questions being asked, which documents are available for quick display and which annotation tools can be used to mark up the data on screen. It can be confusing for new users. Placeware also offers a one-time-only meeting that can be created in short order, for 35 cents per minute per customer. (Both WebEx and Placeware say they can work with firms’ pre-existing audio-conferencing systems.) AN ELEMENT OF TRUST An important item to remember is that online meetings hinge on trust. For example, if the host turns over control of a document to another participant, not only can that person edit the document that exists on the host’s hard drive — he or she can also root around in the host’s hard drive to open other documents. The real chance of abuse here is low; presumably, the host is observing the meeting and will halt security threats. But the possibility exists. Law firms should consider two questions when evaluating which software program works best for them. First, how much flexibility does the program offer to let various users manipulate data and participate in discussion? Second, how much control does it give the host to ensure that the meeting runs smoothly and nobody creates mischief? WebEx and Placeware both deliver on all fronts. The programs have sophisticated user interfaces, to be sure, but nothing overwhelming. Are online meetings worth it? Done correctly, yes. First, Web conferences can cut travel time and expenses — always popular in these recessionary times. Second, it’s well proven that people retain more information when they see, hear and participate in some activity.

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