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In one form or another, several medium and large law firms have experimented with or adopted extranets. An extranet may be defined as a private, typically secured, Web site that provides various users (clients, co-counsel) access to work product, reports, calendars and related materials. Questions pertaining to costs, hosting, recovery and ease of use are ongoing. But the questions that firms often neglect to ask include: Do clients perceive their extranet to be of value? What specific features, if any, make a difference? Has the value of these offerings caught up with the hype and the cost? The view that an extranet immediately adds value to the client relationship is most likely not shared by many law firms that have implemented such a product or service. Perhaps when these products and services first became available, a law firm could be seen as offering a competitive advantage by merely setting up an extranet and posting its latest work product to a Web-enabled site. However, clients have grown savvy to the fact that not all extranets add efficiencies. Rather, the use of an extranet can be seen as a complete waste of time unless it addresses the specific needs of a client. Therefore, before publishing their latest work product onto an extranet site, firms must ask themselves and more importantly ask their clients, “What is it we are trying to achieve here?” What a law firm or attorney is likely to hear from clients is that one size does not fit all. The first part of this article discusses the assessment that a firm may consider before offering any one extranet solution to a client. In the second part, specific categories of extranets are discussed. Consider the scenario in which one law firm has just received a commitment for a significant amount of business with a client. Part of the firm’s presentation and proposal includes standard language that “our firm offers extranets, generally described as repositories for client work product.” The statement has piqued the client’s interest. A senior partner who has been handling this type of work calls the chief information officer and says, “Hey, can we set up an extranet site for our client and post a number of documents to that site?” The officer replies, “Absolutely, we can set up a site in a couple of weeks.” The partner responds, “Great, let’s show it to the client as soon as you have it set up.” Although conversations at other firms may be slightly more detailed than the above, nevertheless, there’s something wrong with this picture; this approach is likely to fall short. “Turnkey” — meaning out-of-the-box — extranets rarely meet all client expectations. Not to say that these extranet offerings do not have value. In fact, in some instances a quick, out-of-the-box type of solution makes perfect sense. For example, a law firm may represent a client that is selling an asset for which there are a number of prospective buyers, all of which will need access to the offering documents. Rather than e-mail the documents to all the prospective buyers or photocopy them for circulation, a simple solution would be to post them to a third-party site and send out a link to all prospective buyers. Not only can the documents be reviewed, but it’s also likely that the partner can see which parties accessed which documents on a certain date. SUBSTANTIVE CONTENT What do clients expect to see on an extranet? The answer may surprise law firms. The days of simply posting a filed pleading to a site and expecting the client to be content with the information are likely over. Rather, firms are likely to hear their clients requesting to see substantive content, for example, access to billing invoices, case reports and matter summaries and budgets. Should firms be concerned about exposing this type of content? Of course, yet by choosing not to provide it in an automated fashion, firms may be failing to meet the needs of the client. Often, a generic extranet is meaningless and likely a cost to the firm rather than a value-added offering. The challenge with providing access to various content — firm work product and/or know-how — is that client expectations are likely evolving, and thus so are the requirements of a firm’s systems. The number of issues implicated in a discussion about security are, in and of themselves, worthy of a discussion. How sophisticated the security to support such a service needs to be is often directly correlated to the content. If the clients require access to billing information, then there probably will need to be a give and take with the client as to the level of security precautions (multiple passwords, etc). If the information is somewhat standard, and security is not the most pressing concern, a third-party-hosted extranet may suffice. This is not to suggest that a vendor’s extranet is not secure. In fact, in many instances hosted, third-party solutions provide greater security. Rather, the issue is more about ease of use and setup. Typically, internal solutions require a high level of security whether the information accessed is considered confidential or not. How flexible is the technology that is in place in meeting the needs of the client? There are some very good solutions available for secure document hosting, calendaring and discussion threads. But what if a client’s extranet requirement is to run reports against case information? For example, a client might have engaged a law firm to provide advice with respect to immigration issues — specifically, the process of filing and completing HB-1 visas for all employees needing a visa. No problem, right? Suppose, however, that the law firm later learns that the client expects the firm to provide up-to-date reports as to the status of each visa filing as it relates to each subsidiary. Further, the client expects this information to be current. Perhaps there is something that can be done to scrape together an Excel spreadsheet and post it to a turnkey extranet. However, does this ensure that the information is kept up to date? This is an example of when the form and flexibility of the extranet offering is important. It’s unlikely that clients will agree with a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, when law firms attempt to do so, the result is often a frustrated client with a reduced level of trust — most likely defeating the purpose of the extranet in the first place. Are extranets seen as a loss leader, a means of acquiring new business? That may depend on the cost to set up such a site. Extranets can be a drain on resources, both financial and from a personnel standpoint, if they are not managed properly and aligned with a strategy. For simple document sharing, it may be enough to set up a turnkey approach and write off the investment as a client-development expense. On the other hand, if a firm’s information technology team is asked to buy servers and implement and maintain software, it’s probably a wise decision to understand not only the cost, but the value that is expected to be gained. This is getting back to the issue of client expectations. If a firm is investing in the tools, and these tools are of little value and high cost, it’s likely to overshadow the few, but very important, successes the firm may be having with this technology. One extranet offering may not work in all scenarios, but this does not mean that a firm needs to develop a new offering or conjure up a unique response each time the question “do we offer an extranet service here?” comes up. This said, attorneys prefer to see solutions presented to them in the simplest fashion possible. After all, partners are not paid to know the details of everything available on the market. One possibility is to break a firm’s offerings into categories. DIFFERENT OPTIONS The following list of extranets by category assumes that the preliminary questions have been asked as to content, security, form and strategy.

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