Collaboration Tools You Can Afford

By Andrew C. Simpson and Seth G. Rowland

The increasingly competitive legal marketplace is forcing lawyers to learn to collaborate online with their clients and other lawyers. In this article, we will provide you with an overview of the tools that are realistically available to a solo or small firm. We hope to demystify collaboration tools and make you more comfortable with employing them. Because several are hosted services, we will explain some of the benefits and some of the considerations in using these tools.

The first step to demystifying collaboration tools is to call attention to the way that you may already be using them. If you’ve ever used Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” feature to edit a document sent to you by e-mail (or perhaps on a hard disk or USB drive), then you’ve used a collaboration tool. Similarly, if you have ever shared photographs using an online host such as Shutterbug ( www.shutterbug.com) or Flickr ( www.flikr.com), then you have used what is essentially a file sharing space. Social networks such as Linked-In ( www.linkedin.com) and Facebook ( www.facebook.com) are a means to facilitate collaboration by allowing you to connect with people you know and people who know people whom you know. These networks, along with Twitter ( http://twitter.com), also allow you to query people who know (or follow you) for information in Twits (short, 140-character posts), on wall postings in Facebook, or in threaded discussions in LinkedIn.

Collaborations often begin with a post, followed by a call, and then a meeting for dinner or drinks (when you or your collaborators are in the same town). The difference with online collaborations is that they are not based on where you work or live. Such collaborations are based on what you do, what you write, who you know, and what you know. The link occurs after a demonstration of credentials, expertise, and common interest.

Once you do connect, you will need tools to do more than talk. You will need the ability to work effectively together, produce written work, share documents, jointly communicate with clients, and track billing. You will need to be able to meet, to converse, and to work together—even if you and your collaborators live in different parts of the country.

Quick, Easy, and Inexpensive

Group scheduling. To ease you into your eventual embrace of all things collaborative, we will first touch on some of the easier collaborative tools. Let us begin with a need to schedule a meeting or conference call with five other people. You could send out an e-mail with several dates and ask for each person to respond with his or her preference. You would then sift through the responses (and auto-replies), only to find out that no dates match up for all five of the participants. If all of your participants use Outlook, you could use the Outlook calendar “plan a meeting” feature to send out the schedule and reduce some of your effort. But this feature will not work with people who do not use Outlook.

Instead, you could put the dates up on a free collaboration tool such as Google Calendar ( http://calendar.google.com) or Yahoo Calendar ( http://calendar.yahoo.com) and share the calendar with the five participants, asking each to log on to the calendar to pick acceptable dates. These calendars can do far more, if you wish: You can put critical dates for the team’s project on the calendars so that there is one master calendar for the entire project. You can add reminders that will send SMS (“short message service” text message) and e-mail reminders to the team members. As an additional advantage, the calendars are online, so you can view them anyplace in the world where you can access the Internet. You may also want to look into Microsoft’s Office Live ( www.officelive.com), which promises the same web capabilities but closer integration with your Microsoft applications.

Threaded group discussions. As a result of your conference call, the six of you decide that you will work closely on the project. Several of you are always on the road, so you want your communications to be easily available from any location. It’s sometimes hard to remember all the e-mail addresses to include in a group communication, especially as the size of the group increases; and this task gets harder when trying to send the message from a mobile device. The solution: Use a Google Group ( http://groups.google.com) or Yahoo Group ( http://groups.yahoo.com).

With one of these groups, you essentially create a small listserve (e-mail discussion list) for all the members of the group. A single e-mail sent to the listserve address (e.g., groupname@googlegroup.com or groupname@yahoogroups.com) sends the e-mail to each member of the list. All of the group’s communications are maintained online as well, so it is easy to log on to the group’s web page and review past correspondence. Another advantage to using a group is that membership access can be controlled. If someone leaves the group, it is easy to deny that person privileges to the group and avoid the risk that other members will, out of habit, continue to copy that individual on e-mail related to the project.

Large file hosting. A related e-mail collaboration tool allows you to send large files (greater than two megabytes). There are many of these tools available, such as YouSendIt ( www.yousendit.com), TransferBigFiles ( www.transferbigfiles.com), SendThisFile ( www.sendthisfile.com), FilesAnywhere ( www.filesanywhere.com), BigString ( www.bigstring.com), and Megaupload ( www.megaupload.com). Most of these sites have free introductory offers, although the free offers often limit the size of the files you can send and the storage space offered. It is important when using these sites to read the terms of service. What happens to the document when it is uploaded to the company’s server but after your recipients have downloaded a copy? Lawyers sending confidential documents will want files that are end-to-end encrypted, both in the transfer process and as hosted on the website.

Instant messaging. Instant messaging is simply another form of collaborative communication, but it offers the advantage of allowing the conversation to occur in real time. Common collaborative uses of instant messaging are to send a message from court back to the office (“I need you to bring me the Smith research folder” or “update Roe v. Wade and send me all Third Circuit cases citing headnote 9 in the last three weeks”); to communicate with an expert witness during a deposition (“The witness just testified that the floor was treated with an acrylic coating. What kind of maintenance issues does that raise that I should ask him about?”); or to communicate with an investigator in the field. Sure, a telephone call can sometimes accomplish the same thing, but many times, these communications occur at a time when connecting via telephone is not practical or when someone is in a meeting and cannot step out to take a call, but can take a moment to discretely text a reply.

Project management. Now that you have the project organized and are able to communicate with the team easily, it’s time to think about managing the project. There are some relatively sophisticated tools to do that task that are discussed later in this article, but for “easy and inexpensive,” it’s hard to beat Toodledo ( www.toodledo.com). Toodledo will allow you to create online to do lists and task lists for free. Each task or to do can be assigned a priority and a deadline. You can share these lists with all or some of the members of the team and have the program send e-mail or SMS reminders to the appropriate team members. There are many similar free programs available, such as Remember the Milk ( www.rememberthemilk.com), Todoist ( http://todoist.com), and Ta-da List ( http://tadalist.com), but Toodledo has many more features than these others.

Document creation. Your project team can jointly write and edit a word processing document online, using a tool such as Google Docs ( docs.google.com) or Adobe Buzzword ( https://buzzword.acrobat.com). Both of these programs are free online utilities. You can upload a word processing document from your computer to either program or create a new document within the word processor employed by the utility. Both Google Docs and Buzzword have all of the basic word processing features you find in Word or WordPerfect. Google Docs also includes the ability to work with spreadsheets and presentations. Mobile phone users can access the documents using a mobile phone browser. Somewhat surprisingly for such simple, free programs, two or more people can be working in and editing the same document at the same time. This article was written using Google Docs, with both authors simultaneously making last-minute changes as the deadline neared.

Desktop sharing and web meetings. If you’ve ever had a technical support person remotely access your computer to diagnose a problem, you have dealt with a screen- sharing collaborative tool. Screen sharing can be a valuable way of sharing data with other team members, especially when they do not have the same programs on their computers and thus cannot access the data in the native format on your computer.

You can use a screen-sharing program to allow another user to see whatever program you have open on your monitor. Windows users have “Remote Desktop Connection” available to them on their Windows Start Menu as a free screen-sharing tool. More robust versions are available such as Citrix Online’s GoToMyPC ( www.gotomypc.com) and GoToMeeting ( www.gotomeeting.com), which allow you or several people to co-view your desktop as you present your case, review documents, or co-draft agreements and documentation. Other tools include NTRglobal’s NTRconnect ( www.ntrconnect.com) and NTRmeeting ( www.ntrmeeting.com), and WebEx ( www.webex.com), all offered for a fixed monthly subscription fee. There are also free services that don’t offer all the security bells and whistles, such as Beam-YourScreen ( www.beamyourscreen.com), Bosco’s Screen Share ( www.componentx.com/ScreenShare/index.php), and Invitt ( www.invitt.net).

With these tools, you can work from the comfort of your desk, whether in your office, at your home, or from a hotel room in the Virgin Islands. A number of the services include integrated telephone conferencing that allows all collaborators to dial into a free conference number and connect to the meeting. Some will even integrate with Internet phone service providers such as Skype ( www.skype.com) or a VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) telephone and record the entire session for later playback.

A word about security. Free is a great thing, but all of the free services we have been describing come with security risks. One of the drawbacks of the free applications such as those offered by Google and Yahoo is their consumer orientation. Such sites are designed to be easy to use and very public, and they do not take into consideration a lawyer’s need to preserve client confidences. If you read the terms of service for these sites, you will discover that most reserve the right to review the content, index it, and use the text in some form or another (usually in a form that would not truly breach a confidence, such as to insert an advertisement onto the user’s computer screen). They also lack any guarantees of accessibility or true privacy. For example, in March 2009, Google announced that it had found a flaw in Google Docs that allowed public access to a limited number of privately stored documents. There are also reports that images embedded in supposedly secure Google Docs are assigned a URL that is not secured.

In most jurisdictions, your ethical obligation to protect your client’s confidences is based on taking reasonable steps to keep them secure; and reasonableness will depend in part on the consequences that could flow from disclosure of the confidences. Thus, your duty may be greater if you are collaborating online on a multi-million-dollar business merger than if you are using collaborative tools to have a client fill in an intake questionnaire. If in doubt, consider upgrading to the commercial (paid) versions of these applications or using the secure workspaces described below.

More Security, More Features, More Dough

Workspaces. There are numerous vendors offering secure workspaces with varying features. One such product is WebEx’s WebOffice ( www.weboffice.com). WebEx made its fame with the first online meeting spaces, and it has now introduced WebOffice, which lets you easily—and securely—share ideas, group calendars, and content across firewalls in your own online intranet.

New web services have catchy names. Huddle ( www.huddle.net) gives you simple, secure online workspaces. Huddle is a hosted service, so there’s no software to download; it’s free to get started. With Huddle you can manage group discussions, create and edit Word and Excel documents online, assign tasks and send out project alerts, host white boards, and manage wikis (indexed, linkable, editable web pages). Other workspace collaboration tools include nGenera ( http://cim.ngenera.com), Beehive from Oracle ( www.oracle.com/beehive), HyperOffice ( http://hyperoffice.com), and Microsoft’s Office Live.

Mind mapping. Fans of mind mapping or visual outline tools can use Mindjet’s MindManager ( www.mindjet.com) or MindMeister ( www.mindmeister.com) to lay out the elements of a project or to analyze a case or deal. The MindManager visual outliner also includes a project management feature that integrates with Outlook, Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. You can embed documents, calendar events, and assign tasks to members of a team. Mindjet recently started a hosted service called Mindjet Connect. With this service, you can collaborate in real time over the web and leverage MindManager in a secure, online environment. With MindManager and Mindjet Connect, multiple team members can access and update the same map and see instantaneous progress. MindMeister also allows online, real-time collaboration, even in its free version.

Offices and wikis. Some firms have made effective use of wikis to define the scope and terms of a particular project. Imagine a private version of Wikipedia for your case, where all the research is posted in a single searchable and editable platform. Tools such as TWiki ( www.twiki.net) allow you to build a package that includes wikis, discussion forums, and a Facebook-like environment.

Project management. If you need a more comprehensive solution to project management than simply using a free Internet “to do” list, project management collaborative tools may fill the bill. One tool is Basecamp ( www.basecamphq.com). Basecamp is fairly easy to use and set up and can run as low as $24 per month for 15 projects. It does a good job of handling work assignments, and it also includes file sharing, message boards, milestones, and time tracking. Another popular project management tool is Goplan ( www.goplan.info). Goplan offers a free version that is limited to two projects as well as paid services with various pricing plans depending on the number of projects you need. This type of software will become essential as lawyers begin to collaborate long-distance with other lawyers or with clients. An obvious application that we’re surprised has not been adopted to any great degree is the use of project management software by insurance companies or corporate legal departments to follow the status of every case (to replace the use of individual case assessment reports, frequently completed in Word and submitted via e-mail).

Deal rooms. Unlike a workspace, the goal of a deal room is management and hosting of hundreds of documents in a secure and cost-effective space. For projects requiring more than file sharing over the Internet—if, for example, your client is selling a company or if you are representing the buyer—a deal room might be the collaborative tool you need. Rather than traveling on-site to a warehouse and spending several weeks to collect, organize, and box up all those documents, you simply scan and upload the documents into a secure “virtual warehouse” where the buyer can log in for access.

There are numerous deal room vendors. V-Rooms ( www.v-rooms.com) provides you with a privately branded electronic data room. The system lets you segregate folders and documents to particular user access and track who opened what document and when. ShareFile ( www.sharefile.com) is designed for business users and offers super-fast upload and support for very large files. Like V-Rooms, ShareFile lets you custom brand the deal room to reflect your firm and project. Firmex ( www.firmex.com) is more focused on legal professionals, allowing you to streamline deal and document distribution, review, revision, execution, and archiving. Other deal room offerings include Ansarada ( www.ansarada.com), ShareVault ( www.sharevault.com), and IntraLinks ( www.intralinks.com). Deal room pricing varies depending on the number of employee accounts, the storage space, and monthly file transfer limits. Pricing can be built in as a fixed cost and passed on to your client as a service.

Extranets. Extranets were one of the earliest of the big collaborative tools to appear on the legal landscape. An extranet is a private network that allows users outside of your law firm to access a restricted portion of your firm’s intranet. For example, an extranet could allow a client to see the documents in the client’s folder but not see documents in any other folder. Unfortunately, they remain costly, and most solos and small firms will not find that the return justifies the expense; however, if your office is running Windows Server 2003 or 2008, the server license includes the right to use Windows SharePoint Services. With SharePoint, you have a powerful toolkit that includes the capability to build an extranet. The line between extranet, portal, and hosted workspace has blurred in recent years with multiple offerings.

To get a taste of SharePoint, you can try Office Live. Once you set up an Office Live account, you can get a link on your Office application toolbars to save directly to your Office Live workspaces. If you want more security and more customization, you should consider a hosting service such as SharePointHosting.com ( www.sharepointhosting.com), Link2Exchange ( www.link2exchange.com), Handshake Software ( www.handshakesoftware.com), or Apps4Rent ( www.apps4rent.com). One solo who “discovered” SharePoint characterized the experience as that of a “kid in a candy factory.” He used it to set up model workspaces for each client. He preconfigured the workspaces with “templates” that included intake information about the client, questionnaires, task lists, project outlines, and even several automated transactional documents. Setting up a new workspace for a client would take under five minutes. And the benefit in client relations from access to their document, ability to see the calendar for their case, and level of communication was priceless.

Some editions of Microsoft Office 2007 come with a product called Groove. Groove is a peer-to-peer collaboration software program that helps teams work together, even if team members work for different organizations, work remotely, or work off-line. The prime advantage of Groove is the off-line mode. Under the hood, Groove makes a local copy of the workspace (documents, calendar, tasks, notes, etc.) on the computer of each participant. When the participant connects to the Internet, the separate workspaces of the participants are synchronized. If this “Groovespace” is very large, however, the synchronization process might take a little while.

Practice management and document management systems. One final collaborative tool that is underutilized is the ability to link to practice management systems. Time Matters ( http://law.lexisnexis.com/time-matters) has a web server edition that allows you to open up a matter to your client. Rocket Matter ( www.rocketmatter.com) and Clio ( www.goclio.com), both web-based practice management systems, let you securely share documents and matters with your clients on an invitation-only basis. Worldox ( www.worldox.com), a popular document management system, has a web edition, and Hummingbird ( www.hummingbird.com) and iManage ( www.imanage.com) have versions that enable web access.

Conclusion

Collaborative tools are a great way for you to give your law office a virtual presence at the doorstep of your clients and other lawyers. Like any other technology, you need to consider the security that is associated with the tool and deploy it appropriately. You should also consider how data that is developed collaboratively will be backed up or how it will be accessed if there is a disruption in the Internet. But when properly used, these tools will set you apart from many other lawyers, improve the way you practice law, and allow you to deliver high-quality service to your clients at a price that makes sense for solos and small firms.

Andrew C. Simpson, Esq., is the owner of a small insurance defense firm ( www.coralbrief.com) in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition to his active law practice, he is a frequent contributor to GPSolo magazine and regularly speaks on legal technology at conferences across the country; he may be reached at . Seth G. Rowland, Esq., is president of Basha Systems LLC ( www.bashasys.com), a consulting firm that develops and supports practice management solutions for law firms. He is a frequent writer on legal technology and a leading specialist on document assembly solutions with HotDocs, DealBuilder, GhostFill, and Exari. You may visit his blog ( www.bashasys.info) for his take on the latest developments in legal technology, or contact him at .

Copyright 2009

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