General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Law Office Applications Moving from the Desktop to the Web

by Neil E. Aresty

The new trend in the world of computing is the slow but steady movement of desktop applications to the World Wide Web. It’s a concept—first articulated a few years ago by Sun Computer CEO Scott McNealy—of a world where one’s data and applications are stored on secure Internet servers, accessible 24/7 wherever there is Internet access.

In case you haven’t noticed, Internet access is increasingly available and, according to this worldview, as ubiquitous as dial tone; it’s all you will need to access your work. Is this a good thing? Is it realistic? Is it feasible?

Not only is it feasible, the needed technology already exists, and I would argue that this is a positive trend. Applications and data are moving away from individual computers to web servers, and this shift will work well for the legal profession. Whether it will become the dominant model for law office computing remains to be seen, but examples of desktop applications moving to the web abound.

Legal Research

In the beginning, legal research was confined to the law library. With the advent of online research tools such Lexis and Westlaw, access typically involved sitting down at the computer terminal in the library. In the early ’90s we started to perform research with CD-ROMs; then CD- ROM towers were attached to the network, and we could perform research from our office desktops. The past few years have connected CD-ROMs to the online libraries and brought critical research capacities up to date.

Today, most legal research vendors (Lexis, Westlaw, LOIS, and FindLaw, in particular) want you to move away from CD-ROM to the .com or website version of their electronic libraries. Why? Economics is the main reason; by not having to manufacture and ship CD-ROMs, these companies will save a bundle in time and materials. But the change makes sense for other practical reasons as well.

The user interface is based on a web browser that provides a true, easy-to-use, common-user interface; one that is more intuitive and easier to train people on (which translates into greater use). People can access their accounts from anywhere, as long as they can get to a computer connected to the Internet. For lawyers this means not having to be at the office to perform online legal research; they can be at home, at someone else’s office, or even at a museum’s web kiosk and still log into their accounts via the Internet.

The bottom line is that the legal publishers understand that the movement away from desktop applications (CD-ROMs and proprietary dial-up connection software) toward web-based access is more economical and will most likely lead to greater use (and more money in their bank accounts).

E-mail

E-mail is a fact of life; for lawyers who have embraced the technology, it has become a preferred channel for instant communication with colleagues and clients. Sure, there are risks associated with the written (read, typed) word, but the ultimate value of e-mail cannot be minimized. When you’re out of the office for any extended period of time and don’t have access to your e-mail, you’re literally and figuratively "disconnected." Upon return to your office, it’s typical to find your inbox swamped with e-mail messages. So much for the rest of your day. A solution to this problem is to move your e-mail to a web-hosted system.

You could obtain a free Internet-based e-mail account at yahoo.com, hotmail.com, or even with your current ISP (Internet service provider). Before you leave the office, set up your e-mail system to forward copies of incoming e-mail to your web-based e-mail account (for example, at yourname@yahoo.com). When you’re away on a business trip, all you need to do to read your e-mail is to find an Internet-connected computer (or a web kiosk, like the one you noticed out of the corner of your eye at the airport).

Point the browser to www.yahoo.com; click on the "My Yahoo" button, type your user name and password; and voila—there’s your e-mail. You can read and respond to it as if you were in the office. Yes, it’s persistent, always available, and perhaps a bit annoying—but would you rather review hundreds of e-mails upon your return or have the ability to check in, whenever and from wherever?

Calendars

How many calendars do you maintain, and where are they located? The typical desktop calendar is based on either a personal information manager program (PIM), such as the PalmPilot, Ecco, GroupWise, or Microsoft Outlook. Or perhaps it’s a physical calendar located on your desk. Again, the problem with these desktop applications is that they are tied to your computer desktop or office.

By using a web model, you can input your events to a web-based calendar and access it from virtually anywhere. You can also give anyone you choose authority to access the information for you. Now, when you’re on the road, you can log on to your calendar to check events scheduled for you by your secretary, or have your secretary log on to see the changes you have made.

A number of services offering web-based calendars, although I don’t endorse any particular one. They are all still evolving from an application point of view, but a number of them allow importing and synchronizing from your desktop calendar to the web version. For some generic examples, check out www.netscape.com and www. visto.com; for a calendar based on a litigation management model, check out www.legalextranet.com.

Document Drafting

A classic example of a problem looking for a solution exists in the area of document drafting, especially when many people need to participate in the document review before it becomes a final work product. Traditionally, this would be done on a word processor, then couriered, faxed, or e-mailed to the relevant parties for their review and comment.

With the web model, the document is posted to a private website called an extranet. The parties who need to review and comment on the document can do so in two ways: (1) download a copy from the website, make changes, and upload the changed version identified as "so and so’s version x"; or (2) post comments on a database field associated with a read-only copy of the draft document, after which all comments are gathered sequentially for the drafter to review and adopt as necessary.

For further reviews, a messaging system akin to a web-based bulletin board could be used to gather and circulate comments and updates. The drafting process benefits from the collaborative nature of the web model. Those who need to review and edit the document do so in an environment that is always accessible—no more telephone tag, lost faxes, or late couriered versions.

Web-based applications for lawyers involved in transactional work are just starting to mature. For examples look at www.legalnetex.com, www.intralinks.com, and www.legalanywhere.com.

Litigation Support

Another natural area for the shift from desktop to web-hosted applications is in the area of litigation support. Traditional litigation support systems deploy database, full text, and imaging applications in order to structure the organization and retrieval of documentary and testamentary evidence. With document populations in the thousands, tens of thousands and, in some cases, millions, a litigation support system can go a long way to help you get organized for trial (and/or pretrial).

Imagine having a document-intensive case involving co-counsel, multiple witnesses, and a client with an office of general counsel who want to be kept informed. One of the first things you would have to do is make multiple copies of the documents for co-counsel and the client. And, of course, there are those "shadow files" that seem to pop up in every lawyer’s office; even if you image the document population, you will probably have to make duplicate CD-ROMs. If you want to share the database with co-counsel and the client, you will have to purchase copies of the software, install it and the data at the various locations, or arrange for a dial-up connection to the litigation support system.

All of this raises serious cost issues, not to mention the administrative headaches associated with maintaining duplicate systems, synchronizing changes to databases, and maintaining enough modems for the team to dial up simultaneously. Historically, these problems multiply exponentially.

In a web-hosted litigation support system, there is only one secure repository for all the electronic data. All document images, database records, transcripts, work product, etc., is stored on a single, secure web server. Access is, as they say, 24/7, available to anyone with a web browser connected to the Internet. All parties are given unique IDs and passwords. Access to the case files through the Internet is controlled by privileges associated with the login ID. In this scenario, the lawyer, co-counsel, witnesses, clients, and even opposing counsel and the court could have access to designated portions of the evidence.

Gone are the multiple document populations, the incessant faxing of drafts, copies of work product, etc. The typical costs associated with photocopying, long-distance communication, and couriering are completely flattened. Because the system is designed around the web browser interface, users find it much easier to access. In fact, I’ve noticed more people accessing and working with litigation materials in the web-based litigation support system than with the traditional systems. If more people are using the litigation support system, then you will have a better quality database.

Examples of litigation support systems can be seen on the Internet at www.legalextranet.com, www.nfo.com, and www.casecentral.com. There are others out there. Many of these systems are "front ends" to traditional document repository companies, companies that want to scan and code your document populations and provide you simple ways to access and retrieve your documents. Others are more mature in the application sense. In addition to traditional access and retrieval systems, they provide tools to help process the case information, from coding, calendaring, and docketing to maintaining people directories, messaging systems, transcript managers, and case outlines.

Conclusion

Objections to a web-centric model of law office computing are loud and clear. What about security? What happens when the Internet goes down? The Internet is too slow and unreliable!

Those objections were actually louder and clearer a year ago. Today the Internet continues to a robust and increasingly accessible medium by which to store, publish, access, and communicate. Internet technologies such as hypertext (HTML), e-mail, and cross-platform, browser-based interfaces make the medium a compelling place to shift applications. The economic and business imperatives are there. In fact, don’t look now, but you may already be heading there! n

Neil E. Aresty is a trial lawyer and a principal with Legal Computer Solutions, Inc., of Boston, Massachusetts (www.lcsweb.com ), developers of LextraNet™, a web-based litigation support application (www.legalextranet.com ). 

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