The End of Travel Online Collaboration and Communications

By Seth G. Rowland

It was 1989. I had just passed the New York bar exam. I was a litigation associate at a large New York law firm, and the firm was sending me to Orlando, Florida, to gather documents, conduct interviews with prospective witnesses, and meet with some cable industry experts. I was bubbling with excitement—my first working business trip.

Fast forward to 2007 and hundreds of business trips later. Even with active clients in California, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, Florida, Minnesota, Kansas, Tennessee, Nebraska, Colorado, New York, Connecticut, and Iowa (to name only a few) and partners in England, Australia, South Africa, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and North Carolina, I rarely travel. Working from my home office in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, I use technology to reach out across state lines, across the continental divide, across oceans to do my work every day, often at absolutely no cost.

The World Is Flat

In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas L. Friedman argues that advances in technology and telecommunications have created a level playing field between competitors that has transformed the way business is conducted. He cites how the effect of laying fiber-optic telephone cable under the ocean has reduced the cost of telecommunications between the United States and India or China to “free.” When it was recognized that the “fiber” could be used for data in addition to talk, and that the cost of the data-packets had been virtually eliminated, nothing short of a revolution occurred in China and India. Overnight, China and India changed from third-world countries to first-world commercial powers.

The revolution in business communications has also reached the practice of law. The effect is not the elevation of third-world powers, but the elevation of the solo attorney or small law practice to compete on the world stage. Armed with a web presence that establishes your credentials in an area of expertise and in a particular state, you have the ability to take on global clients who need your services.

So where is this radical new technology that spells the end of travel? It is sitting on your desktop. On your left are your phone and your computer, with a high-speed connection to the Internet. Add a few peripheral devices such as a noise-canceling headset and a digital camera (aka webcam), and you’re ready to open your global law practice. Add web services (some free and some subscription-based), and you can meet and collaborate with other attorneys, experts, and clients around the world without ever leaving your desk.

Telephone Service: From POTS to VoIP

Let’s start with the phone. Today, phone service is virtually free. There are dozens of carriers offering a fixed monthly fee for unlimited local, regional, national, and even international calls. You don’t have to even get a new phone. POTS (or plain old telephone service) will do; so dial away.

For the more adventurous, you can get voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service, which reduces the price even more. With VoIP, you can take your phone anywhere you can get an Internet connection and receive calls. Everything is a local call. However, the quality of the audio varies among VoIP providers, and service outages in your broadband connection will also affect your ability to make and receive calls.

For those who wish to dispense entirely with a phone, there are free services such as Skype ( www.skype.com). Using a headset and a computer, you can have real-time conversations with any of the tens of millions of Skype registered members, set up audio conferences and video calls, and send and receive documents. For two cents per minute, you can use SkypeOut to make calls outside the Skype network to anywhere in the world. For a nominal fee you can use Skype as your primary phone; you receive a “real number” and even a “real phone” that uses your office’s wireless network to access the Internet.

Every August, I relocate my business to a foreign location for a month-long summer vacation. I use Freedom Voice ( www.freedomvoice.com) to route my voicemail to my e-mail, and I use Skype to return calls to my clients. A one-hour call costs me a little over a dollar.

IM for the Connected Lawyer

Instant messaging (or IM) has gotten a bad rap with America Online and all the kids hanging out in chat rooms. IM has evolved a long way since the late 1990s. It is an essential tool for the connected lawyer.

IM platforms now include Microsoft Windows Live ( www.get.live.com), Yahoo! Messenger ( www.chat.yahoo.com), Google Talk ( www.google.com/talk), and Skype Chat ( www.skype.com/business/features/instantmessages) in addition to AOL ( www.aim.com). The best news: They are all free.

Through use of “friends” you can send and receive instant alerts across the globe. Jack into the Internet from anywhere, and you can set up ad hoc conferences in private invitation-only chat rooms. With a headset you can talk live over the Internet. And with a webcam (a camera attached to your computer via USB or sometimes built in) you can place live video calls. A tool originally designed to let teens send pictures to each other can be used to send legal documents to the private chat room participants to further the discussions.

Using Skype with voice and video enabled, I recently gave a seminar presentation to a number of lawyers in Sydney, Australia, gathered to review the latest developments in document assembly, my prime area of expertise.

Free Conference Services

Conference calling used to be a big production. Once you mastered the use of the “flash” button on your phone you could bring in one additional party on a call. And for that privilege you paid a monthly supplement on your phone bill. Anything more was a huge headache that required advance planning.

I now use a service called GoToMeeting from Citrix Online ( www.gotomeeting.com). When I set up my web meetings (more on that later), GoToMeeting provides me a telephone number and a private access code. Up to 25 people can call into that number and pay only the cost of a long-distance call (which you should remember from above is free). With GoToWebinar from Citrix Online ( www.gotowebinar.com), I can have up to 1,000 people on the call. With that many attendees, as you can imagine, only the presenters can talk. And the cost of 1,000 people on a call to me? You guessed it: free.

GoToMeeting uses a service called www.freeconferencecall.com. Accounts and calls are free. The company makes money when you offer a toll-free “800” number for the call. Other free or low-priced conferencing services include InstantConference ( www.instantconference.com), FreeConference ( www.freeconference.com), Foonz ( www.foonz.com), and Totally Free Conference Calls ( www.totallyfreeconferencecalls.com).

The implications of these converging technologies are revolutionary. Send a free instant message to your “legal friends” setting the time, phone number, and access code of the meeting, and in minutes everyone is on the phone meeting and collaborating for free.

Meeting in a Virtual Workspace

Talk is all well and good for small groups and short conversations. But visuals are better. Most information is now ­­­stored in a digital format that can be displayed, manipulated, and edited on a computer. When you combine a free conference call with a virtual workplace, you now have all the benefits of a face–to–face meeting without any of the calories (you know those fancy lunches and late afternoon cocktails).

Once lawyers would get together in a meeting and review documents—taking notes, making changes, and strategizing. The same now can be done on a computer screen by lawyers working in different offices. It used to cost several hundred dollars for each meeting and take several days to set up such meetings. Today, it takes under a minute to set up such a meeting and send out invitations via instant message to your friends or via e-mail. And the cost for unlimited meetings for an entire year is measured in the hundreds of dollars.

A number of services are available at different price points. Citrix Online offers three services: GoToMyPC ( www.gotomypc.com) for one-on-one meetings, GoToMeeting for meetings with as many as 50 participants, and GoToWebinar for meetings with as many as 1,000 attendees. WebEx ( www.webex.com), which started out arranging expensive corporate meetings, now offers a service called MeetMeNow for a low monthly fee. IBM, which developed Lotus Sametime for the corporate market, now offers Lotus Sametime Unyte ( www.webdialogs.com) on a metered usage basis (charging by the number of attendees and the length of the meeting) or for a fixed fee.

Microsoft has entered the action recently with Office Live Meeting ( http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/livemeeting). It is part of the new SharePoint suite of products. At the moment, you need your own communications server to host meetings via the service. Even Adobe has recently entered the fray with Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional ( www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnect). And some of the IM providers are looking into adding shared desktop capabilities to their chat services.

Lose the Calories

Once you look at the convergence of free telephone service, instant messaging, and web conference services, the question arises, “What is the benefit of a face-to-face meeting?” Personal meetings do remain important. They help assess the trustworthiness of your interlocutor and establish a personal relationship. Beyond that, the main benefits are the pleasures of fancy meals, fine wine, and strong spirits.

Personally, I would rather stay home and lose the calories. The convergence of technology allows me to set up meetings with specialists across the world on a moment’s notice and at no cost. The boost to productivity allows me to deliver higher quality services to my clients more cost effectively and in a more timely fashion. And because I’ve maximized the productivity of my work time, I have more time left to spend with my family. Happier clients. Happier family. The best of both worlds. 

 

Seth G. Rowland, Esq., is president of Basha Systems LLC ( www.bashasys.com). Since 1996 he has been advising lawyers on how to apply technology to the practice of law. Along the way he has used collaboration tools to bring together lawyers from all over the country into shared virtual workspaces. He may be reached at .

Copyright 2008

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