In many companies, there is a fundamental disconnect between the technology resources available to the core business platform and to the legal department. With the exception of document retention and e-discovery, legal departments typically receive little investment and support from company IT. In-house counsel are tasked with protecting and mitigating litigation risk, while becoming smarter, faster and cheaper. With limited resources yet bearing significant responsibility, there is no margin for error when selecting the right tech solution. Here’s how to start.
1. Embrace collaboration. A good way to accelerate the understanding of the facts and law surrounding a case is to set more brains to work on it. Electronic collaboration and digital file-sharing mean speed, convenience, accountability, transparency, and control of important content and litigation templates. They also reduce the need for costly travel and off-site meetings.
A helpful tool likely already is on lawyers’ desktops. Microsoft Outlook provides public or shared folders, letting designated people work from a single calendar, share lists of email addresses and other contact information, and access messages relevant to a project.
As a next step, Microsoft’s SharePoint allows lawyers to share documents, pleadings and cases, plus communicate and publish reports with the work team. Both are secure, because they operate behind the company’s firewall. Shared hard drives on the company network offer another secure option for in-house collaboration.
Online file rooms with a third-party provider can provide more advanced file-sharing with people outside the company. Known as cloud computing, third-party providers can offer secure, encrypted access to generous storage space and shared functions.
Cloud computing gives outside counsel direct access to relevant information, forms, pleadings, prior court decisions, case materials, calendars, etc. It uses encryption tools to protect the content as it travels across the Internet and as it sits in the storage site. But, note that lawyers’ use of cloud computing with third-party hosts is a topic of much discussion by various national and state bar associations.
Online tools include SharePoint; Mindjet’s document-sharing, online planning, brainstorming and meeting orchestration tools; and Prezi’s online presentation tool for exploring and sharing ideas on a virtual canvas.
2. Increase face time. Video conferencing lets people have face-to-face meetings during litigation conferences and planning, even from opposite sides of the globe. New digital phone systems integrate with a computer network. They let lawyers carry on a conversation while trading pleadings, materials, texts or emails. Affordable video-conferencing options include Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, AccuConference and FreeConference.
3. Standardize pleadings and templates. There is a lesson to be learned from the popularity of do-it-yourself forms that the public uses to write their own wills, powers of attorney and contracts: Drafting from scratch eats up time and increases costs. It also ignores lessons learned in prior cases.
Document preparation tools, installed behind the company firewall or on a secure server at a cloud provider, benefit the legal department. What’s more, the use of a rule-based design enhances quality control and provides consistency in wording and format that can extend beyond the company to outside counsel using the same system.
In-house counsel must lead the charge on outside counsel’s use of these tools. My experience is that, while many firms have these tools, few lawyers use them. The software vendor or the company’s IT department can help determine whether outside firms own or use a given product in which the legal department is interested. To see a document preparation tool in action, visit hotdocs.com.
4. Collect important information. Online research sounds like a great idea, but the enormity of information called up in a single search-engine query can be overwhelming. Two free tools offered by Google (and available on its home page under the “more” drop-down button) can make effective use of time spent searching the Web.
Google Reader collects and delivers bundles of information from news, blogs and Twitter feeds in an easy-to-digest format on any topic. Rather than searching the Internet, the Internet comes to you on the litigation topic or name that interests you.
Google Scholar searches litigation topics in articles, legal journals and published legal opinions. A quick visit to Google Scholar can provide a solid grasp of the current legal thinking on an issue and a list of relevant cases for further study.
In addition, the legal department can create an electronic library of papers, presentations, pleadings and briefs inside the company’s firewall. Ask outside counsel to provide electronic copies (fully searchable PDFs) of materials the firm generates on topics of interest to the company, including redacted briefs. Have them do so periodically. In short order, this digital library will provide access to basic information, without the expense of outside counsel for every question. At the same time, it will furnish an easy way to vet the expertise of outside counsel for future matters.
Finally, harness the power of the database. Stop pulling data out of emails and conference calls. Use a spreadsheet to collect legal information needed for key operational and strategic decisions. Then, build out this same template in the basic database tools often imbedded in electronic billing software. Later, migrate the work flow to a custom-built, robust database tool. This changes the relationship between the company and its outside counsel, and it transforms the legal department from merely a cost center to a value-add player.
Most of the necessary hardware for these steps already is in place, requiring only vision, organization, old-fashioned planning and some digital networking to unleash its true capabilities. The legal department needs to learn what to request from the IT department or an outside consultant. Taking time to implement these tools will lower legal costs and improve the legal department’s standing in the company.