Volume 19, Number 8
Enhancing Client Communications
By James Keane
Imagine your best client is traveling and you need to finish a time-critical contract with parties and lawyers in different locations. You've finished your review and marked up a whole set of changes, but the client has to make some choices and add language clarifying the deal.
Document delivery is not an option, but there's always a fax or e-mail, right? You go over the client's changes, mark your edits, and again send the revised document to the client, then to the other parties and their lawyers. One more set of changes, then, finally, one more document out the door.
There has to be a better way….
A number of law firms are now using an innovative new tool, web conferencing (or data conferencing) to mark up a single, online master copy of documents just as though you and your client were sitting across a desk from each other. In an educational panel on virtual client meetings in San Francisco last April, two California law firms reported an increased use of web conferencing among their lawyers.
One of them, Heller Ermine, has 20 prepaid "seats" on a service called WebEx, which entitles them to hold an unlimited number of web meetings for a fixed monthly fee of $100 per seat. The "retail" rate for one hour of conferencing is $25 per participant, plus $10 for teleconference charges.
The Los Angeles firm Paul Hastings reported similar increased use of Latitude, a web conferencing product that is installed like a PBX at a firm. The firm invites clients to web meetings via Outlook and holds online CLE courses that it also stores for later access by clients. It initially purchased a 32-seat device, added 32 more, and will increase this to a total of 96 seats due to lawyer demand. The cost of buying, installing, and using staff time to maintain hardware and software, plus the cost of attendant training, is initially twice the cost of buying time for one year on a self-contained service. But the firm claims the system has already paid for itself just in lower teleconference phone charges for the first year. The long-distance charges are only three cents per minute per use using Latitude.
The technology works by letting all participants look at a single computer application on the web. In the example mentioned at the beginning of this article, all the participants view the same word processing file and can discuss alternative language, strikeouts, changes, and redline edits while they are happening. The lawyer and client then can build the new version and finalize the document together. Participants might also work on a spreadsheet, present a computer slide show, visit a website, or share a whiteboard while using highlighters and drawing tools.
VoIP and Videoconferencing
Web conferencing differs from video or voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) in that it involves sharing only data over a browser while the parties use a teleconference. Communications with VoIP are improving at a dramatic rate. You can now view a movie or baseball game in real time over the web or broadcast from a single source to thousands and thousands of viewers (one to many). Neither video nor voice, however, is ready for prime time when it comes to a typical two-way interchange between people (one to one), much less among a whole group (many to many), as in a traditional videoconference.
Products like CUSeeMe let multiple people use a webcam for low-cost videoconferencing, but the bandwidth and response time are no match for the 30 frames per second used in a broadcast-quality videoconference. Many lawyers complain that even boardroom-quality videoconferencing still has too many delays to warrant buying their own videoconference equipment or taking the time to go to a public video room. Moreover, low-resolution TV signals render poor broadcast quality for documents and intricate visual exhibits.
Web conferencing, on the other hand, uses familiar, reliable technologies that really work and make modest but genuine improvements to the one-to-one attorney-client relationship. Think of it as supplementing a telephone call while remaining at your desktop and sharing data with your client through a browser.
Now, let's up the ante-and the capabilities. If you can do a three-way call, you can include third parties to share the same view over their browsers. Try a conference call for closing a deal with the document you prepared with five or 15 parties (many to many). Every person on the call can view the same document, negotiate, and eventually assent to final changes. The host can save the document and then use the web conferencing software to send it to everyone immediately, while they are on the call, with the agreed-on changes.
Web conferencing is a relatively inexpensive and effective tool for group collaboration. It can come embedded in a virtual "deal room" or be part of a "distance learning" service. Some of the sites marketed to the legal community are listed in "Deal Rooms" on page 39.
The two most widely used web conferencing programs are PlaceWare and WebEx. Accord-ing to The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet (ABA 2002), thousands of companies use one of these products. The software also is very useful in training. When I was chief legal officer at JusticeLink, our training staff gave a live, one-hour eFiling training session on the web that showed the actual website; presented via web conference/teleconference to groups of 20 lawyers and staff at time, the program reached a total of more than 4,000 lawyers.
An experiment by the eLawyering
Task Force of the ABA Law Practice Management Section compared the cost of a physical meeting, a videoconference, and a web meeting for 18 people in ten cities. The budget for the physical meeting, which necessitated transporting 12 people to Chicago, included at least $15,000 in airfare, hotel, and other travel expenses (in addition to a lost day or two of work for each lawyer). Instead, the videoconference format involved arranging for some of the lawyers to use videoconference facilities at their offices or at local law schools. Those who were not already set up with the equipment-over half of the attendees-had to use commercial (public) video rooms, which we booked and arranged through a single service at rates of $200 per hour, per room. We also had to pay $50 per site per hour to connect the ten cities over a video bridge (a third-party service that links video and voice connections).
To show the attendees the slides used during the meeting, a special device was required to convert computer signals to video so the slides would appear on screen while the attendees heard the speaker's voice. The final bill
for the two-hour meeting approached $7,000.
The web meeting with the same number of ten connected sites was by far the most viable. Using WebEx's one-time "retail" fee structure of $35 per hour per participant, the two-hour meeting of 10 people would have cost only $700-very attractive compared with $7,000 for a videoconference. Instead of opting for the "retail" fee structure, however, the Task Force chose to set up an experimental six-month contract for ten WebEx seats, at a total cost of $1,200 per month (excluding the teleconference fee of $10 per hour per participant). Thus, the web conference still cost $5,600 less than the videoconference, and any additional web conferencing during the month could be arranged at the cost of only the teleconference fees. Most significantly, no one had to leave the office or even go down the hall to the firm's own videoconference room, much less travel across town to a public video room. We never left our desks.
Although they save time and money compared to face-to-face meetings, virtual meetings need more structure and advanced planning. Video or web meetings require strategizing-you need to "produce" and "direct" the show, whether a formal presentation, brainstorming session, educational workshop, or small team meeting. It's not the same as physically getting a group together in a conference room and winging it. This casual approach is insufficient when the same person-to-person contact and feedback are missing. In this respect, videoconferencing is superior to web conferencing, which supplies even less
eyeball-to-eyeball feedback. Nevertheless, web conferencing has more tools for spontaneous interaction than videoconferencing. For further insights into planning a web or videoconference, consult Cybermeeting: How to Link People and Technology in Your Organization (AMACOM, 1998) by James L. Creighton and James W. R. Adams, who wrote the book based on their extensive experience as the videoconference managers for 3M Corp.
The Virtual Meeting Area
The web conferencing tool set includes an agenda list, a list of attendees, a whiteboard, polls, text chat, application sharing, and website sharing. Some even have video. These tools are found in the "meeting area," the centerpiece of the web conferencing experience.
In the meeting area you can, for example, set the agenda, show exhibits, list attendees, and "chat" or "whisper." A chat lets you send a message or pose a question in real time to the whole group. A whisper is an exchange of private messages with another participant. In experiments with virtual dispute resolution, the pilot lawyers very much wanted the capability to whisper to their clients. Another popular choice is the whiteboard, an online blackboard, like a shared version of the Paint program, with tools for freehand drawing, adding symbols (arrows or check marks), inserting text, and highlighting in different colors.
Figure 1 shows a live WebEx meeting area from an actual (but virtual) session of the ABA's eLawyering Task Force. My name appears in the upper right as "host." Although we had finished the meeting and the others had signed off, I captured the screen to write up some meeting notes.
In the upper right corner you can also see a tab for polling the participants with questions such as "What is the size of your firm? 1-2, 3-9, 10-50, 50+." When the attendees check a category, the system shows a bar graph with the results. There is also a tab for video. In the lower right corner, you can see the record of our text exchanges using the online chat feature. The entire left side of the WebEx meeting area is taken up by the whiteboard. As the meeting progressed, we listed old and new topics. As people jumped back and forth on different topics, I used a check mark to show what had been finalized. We added the extra text on the fly to create a to-do list with volunteers for specific tasks as the need arose, just as you would write down consensus points during a physical meeting. I used yellow highlighting to make a point about planned WebEx broadcasts.
Some of the web conferencing programs have rudimentary IP Video that is merely incidental to sharing data over a browser while speaking over a teleconference. Even over high-speed cable and DSL connections, the IP Video is too slow and unpredictably jerky to rely on it for little more than an occasional face shot to reinforce the speaker's virtual "presence."
The meeting area also can include a PowerPoint presentation on the proposed subject, allowing the presenter to page through the presentation during the meeting so that "slides" change automatically on everybody else's screen.
Several jurisdictions are planning to use virtual conferencing technology to create CyberCourts. These CyberCourts would allow remote hearings, chambers conferences, and online dispute resolution (ODR) with videoconferencing and web conferencing. This concept goes a step beyond a web conference between a lawyer and a client or a virtual deal room for closing a contract with multiple parties who want to collaborate. ODR involves multiple lawyers and their clients plus a judge or neutral to resolve disputes. This multiplies the many-to-many relationship in a contested matter.
In the U.S. business community, web conferencing is one of the technologies that will find its place in online dispute resolution and virtual hearings. The legal community is just beginning to see the fairly large-scale emergence of ODR for resolving cases involving e-commerce disputes. eBay uses the online dispute resolution services of Square Trade to resolve dispute transactions. Website owners can resolve domain name disputes through online services offered by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers: www.icann.org/udrp).
The American Arbitra-tion Association featured a demonstration website developed by its eCommerce business group (www.adr.org) with the ability to file an arbitration claim online.
As web conferencing moves into the mainstream, ODR will be one of tools available to resolve disputes over the Internet. Lawyers may not use web conferencing for evidentiary hearings for a while, but it is a very serviceable technology that lets the parties see a virtual exhibit or review the text of that case management order for 15 minutes while talking with a neutral or with the judge in chambers-without having to spend an hour or more just getting to the courthouse.