GPSolo Magazine - December 2004
Collaborating with Clients
Meet Your Clients Virtually Anywhere at a Reasonable Cost
Online meetings and long-distance collaboration are no longer the exclusive province of big-firm lawyers doing big deals or handling big cases. Many solos are finding situations in which they have discussions with attorneys, clients, and experts in other states and even other countries. Even in local cases, conference calls and other technological alternatives may prove more convenient, efficient, and inexpensive than bringing people into a conference room, whether at your office or elsewhere.
Business clients, in particular, have begun to use technology for online meetings and prefer not to make a trip to your office for a meeting if it can be avoided. You may already have clients who do not like to come to your office, cannot take time off work to meet you during office hours, or simply think their matter can be handled without a face-to-face meeting. Similarly, you may have clients who are located at a distance. Collaboration technologies can help you make more profitable use of your time (especially if you don’t charge clients for your travel time to and from their offices).
Today’s collaboration technology offers a wide range of options, from the simple to the complex, and from the all-but-free to the expensive. Some options are even available on a one-time or per-use basis. If you develop a toolbox of collaboration technologies, you can choose the option that works best for a given situation.
I like to think of collaboration technology in an expansive sense. I also want to move your thinking away from the sci-fi images of videophones and “virtual holographic meetings.” Let’s get practical and run through the range of options, starting with the simplest and cheapest.
Telephony. Long-distance savings. A great first step on the collaborative path is simply to minimize the cost of your long-distance calls. From aggressive pricing plans to fixed-fee, unlimited long-distance plans, telephone companies have moved to pricing models that are attractive to small businesses. Explore what options you might have, especially if you commit to a one- or two-year service term or bring all your telephone services to one company. As an example, SBC is now offering unlimited long-distance calls for a flat fee of $20 per month.
VOIP. Voice over IP (commonly, “VOIP”) is a relatively new type of telephone service that uses your computer and Internet connection for calls. In essence, your Internet connection replaces your phone service. There are cost savings, but you may make some sacrifices in voice quality and reliability. However, many individuals and businesses are using VOIP with success, and its growth is impressive. You will often hear the name of Vonage in connection with VOIP services. They have a range of plans, including an unlimited local and long-distance plan for small businesses at $49.99 per month.
Conference calling. The basic foundation for collaboration technology is, and probably will remain, the simple conference call. Do you still have only POTS (“plain old telephone service”)? Get with the times. Three-way calling is a common feature with both cell phones and standard home or business services. If you add only that feature, you can at least speak with both spouses at work during an estate planning conference. As a practical matter, three-way calling will do the trick in most cases. However, if you expect to be doing multiparty conference calls on a regular basis, you will want to talk to your telephone company about adding a more robust set of conferencing features. Basic three-way calling costs about $5 per month these days.
Conference call services. I am a little surprised by the number of my clients and colleagues who use third-party conference call services on a regular basis. There are a number of services that handle the technical details of conferencing for you. You simply set a time for your call, reserve a block of time, specify the number of users, and get a phone number and meeting number to give to the participants. At the time of the conference, you and the other participants call into the phone number of the service, enter the meeting number, and then get brought together for the conference call. You do not need to have any special conferencing features on your own phone.
There are a large number of these services, with a variety of pricing plans that reflect the level of services (do you want an operator present?) and features provided. An important consideration is whether to offer your participants an “800” number to call into the conference. While it is not necessary, the participants in your conference calls will appreciate it—especially if they would otherwise need to pay long-distance rates to call in. In general, unless you need specific advanced features, you can focus on reputation, reliability, and cost when choosing among these services. Most of the services will offer you a way to arrange a conference call on a one-time basis or to set up an account. My research showed that prices tend to be about 20 to 25 cents per minute per line, with some flat-rate plans available. Providers include both the telephone companies and specialty services such as Conference Calls Unlimited and ConferenceCall.com.
“Pumping up” technologies you already use. One of the easiest and cheapest ways to achieve online collaboration is to use the carbon copy (“cc:”) feature of your e-mail program. If you send copies of every e-mail to every person involved in your project, you can keep everyone “in the loop” on conversations, report on news and developments, and even collaborate on documents by sending around drafts as e-mail attachments. Many lawyers already do this without realizing that they have moved into the world of “collaboration technology.”
Carbon copying e-mails is an important illustration of how simple it can be to improve client service and get work done by turning what you might have thought of as a “one-to-one” vehicle into a group vehicle. Some lawyers have used other Internet applications such as chat, instant messaging, e-mail discussion lists, and newsgroups into platforms for simple group efforts. If you find that you have a project involving people who have comfort and capability with e-mail or another application of this type, you may be able to be a little creative and achieve good results at zero expense.
Text-based collaboration. Our next step up the ladder of collaboration technologies brings us to a group of programs and services specifically designed for and marketed as collaboration tools. What they have in common is that they are predominantly text-based. You will use e-mail, store and exchange documents and messages, and generally work with text. Their advantage over conference calls is that they, like e-mail, are tools for asynchronous communication. You do not have to find a time that fits everyone’s schedule as you would with a conference call. If you happen to be involved in any international dealings, these tools give you a great way to deal with time zone issues.
Yahoo Groups. A good example from this category is the free Yahoo Groups from Yahoo.com. You must sign up for a Yahoo account. You may then create your own group or set of groups. In the simplest sense, a Yahoo Group gives you a private e-mail list. You define the rules for your group, choose the features you want, and invite the people you want to participate. Everyone can then send e-mail to a single e-mail address, and copies will be simultaneously sent to every member of the group. Copies of all the e-mails are kept on the web page for your Yahoo Group for members to review. You can also upload and store files and take advantage of several other helpful features.
Although the service is free, there are a number of catches to consider. The service is free because it is advertiser-supported and language is added to the bottom of each mail. The other members of your collaborative group must also sign up for their own Yahoo accounts. As a practical matter, Yahoo Groups work best when you have perhaps four or five people involved and your project has an extended duration.
QuickTopic, Socialtext, Basecamp, and similar services. The category of collaborative services that has caught the attention of investors is the collaborative workspaces. QuickTopic, Socialtext, and Basecamp are three good examples. While these can be used in the same way as Yahoo Groups, they offer a much richer set of features. These services allow you to create and edit documents, keep notes, share to-do lists and calendars, and generally manage projects. If you expect a high level of collaboration, with jointly written documents or a need for project management tools, these services are excellent tools. They also give a more professional appearance to your efforts than the Yahoo Groups.
The companies in this space are continuing to build and evolve the tools of collaboration, and these services have a lot of potential. If you plan to use them in a meaningful way, however, they are not free. QuickTopic Pro is $49 per year and another $79 per year for the Quick Doc Pro document review and collaboration service. Basecamp costs $59.95 per month for unlimited projects, but a 25-project plan costs $19 per month. The price of Socialtext starts at $995 per year for five users. You will want to compare services and find the tool that best fits your needs. From personal experience I can attest that these services are not intuitive—you will have to learn how to use them. Although they may reduce or eliminate the need for conference calls over time, you will be best served by using conference calls to get the project moving until people learn to use the tools.
Extranets and deal rooms. Extranets and deal rooms (actually a specific kind of extranet) can be best understood as private, secure web pages used for cases and deals. Traditionally, extranets have been tools that big firms hosted on their own servers and provided to specific clients. There are a number of extranet services that will host extranet sites for you. There are also legal extranets and deal rooms specifically designed with legal matters and requirements in mind; their features fit the needs of lawyers, and they reflect some experience in the legal area, especially with respect to security and confidentiality issues. Xerdict and TrialNet are examples of legal extranet providers. Basecamp, mentioned in the preceding section, is an example of a standard business extranet service, without specific legal features.
Extranets are difficult to price because the cost will depend on the features you want. Still, you may find them surprisingly affordable. For most solos and small firm lawyers, they will probably make sense only for a few important cases or deals, but they are definitely items that you will want to know about and add to your collaboration toolbox.
“Multimedia” collaboration . The next logical step up the ladder is to combine text-based workspaces with conference calling. We might also throw in the ability to show PowerPoint slides, use electronic “whiteboards,” collaborate in revising or marking up documents in real time, and other similar features. We can do this with increasingly familiar programs and hosted services such as WebEx and LiveMeeting.
Although you can host these services yourself, you will probably purchase the services from hosting companies that give you access. It is worth noting that these services are commonly used by software companies that want to demonstrate how their products work. Consider these services when there is a need to share information visually when a group of people is on a conference call. Depending on your practice, these services might either be quite interesting or something that you cannot even imagine using. Expect to pay a flat fee of about $375 per month or a per-use rate of about 35 cents a minute.
You might also create a “poor lawyer’s” version of these services by creating a couple of web pages on your website and directing people to those pages during a regular conference call.
Video collaboration. Videoconferencing technology has advanced to the point where, on a broadband Internet connection, your results can be quite acceptable. You will need to make some investment in video cameras and create a “studio” setting to get the best results, but you are not looking at a lot of money. As you may know, many college students and their parents use $50 “net cams” to videoconference with each other.
Perhaps the best approach for a solo is to use a third-party service. In large metropolitan areas, you might find videoconferencing companies that sell you the use of their facilities on an hourly basis. Some large law firms have built videoconferencing facilities and may let you rent their facilities.
The key issue is whether you have projects or matters where videoconferencing helps you or your client. Saving travel costs while still “attending” depositions might be one example. Handling the screening or initial interview of a busy or expensive expert witness might be another. Videoconferencing may in fact be a reasonable alternative—don’t dismiss it out of hand. MIVNET provides access to videoconferencing rooms for rent in 671 cities, with rates starting at $175 per hour.
Special Concerns You Must Weigh
Now that you have a sense of the various collaborative technology options, let’s weigh their benefits against their risks. As with any technology, there are the normal risks you always must consider. The technology might not work well or even work at all. You might not be able to learn how to use it. Your collaborators might not be able to learn how to use it. You or others might not have the appropriate hardware or software. You might also find that the method you have chosen really does not work well once you get into the project.
There are also special concerns when using collaboration technologies in the practice of law. In most cases, you can effectively deal with each of these potential problems, but if you charge forward without thinking carefully about them, you may create significant risks for yourself and your clients.
Security. If you meet with a client in your office, you can close the door. When you go home at night, you can lock up your filing cabinet, your file room, your office space, and your office building. In many of the collaboration technologies listed above, you don’t have this kind of immediate control over access. Often, you are attached to and using the Internet. Important information may be stored on a website hosted on a third-party server (which might be physically located in another state or country). Whenever the Internet is involved, you have security issues. You will want to look into how information held or transferred online is secured, including the physical security of the server. You will want to consider whether you and your collaborators use good enough computer security practices, including appropriately strong passwords, to make the use of Internet services advisable.
Confidentiality. Confidentiality and security issues are intertwined. Who might have access to a client’s confidential information if it is stored on a third-party service? Do you have appropriate controls over access and use of passwords and accounts? Even though I would argue that information is much better protected on a third-party hosting site than it is on computers at most law firms, malpractice insurance companies and disciplinary committees might have a different view. Can you satisfy yourself that client confidentiality will be adequately protected and attorney-client privilege will not be blown by the collaborative technologies you use? These issues obviously argue for the use of providers with legal industry experience when available.
Storage and backup. What happens if the entire project is on a website and the website is unavailable or the provider goes out of business? What backup and disaster recovery procedures are in place? Can you easily make copies of what you need when you need it? You might find that some services conveniently record your conference calls for you. Does that have implications under civil or criminal laws in your state? If you want to move to another service, can you obtain and transfer your data easily?
Incorporation into your files. Many law firms are already having a difficult time incorporating e-mail and voice mail into their clients’ master files. Collaboration technologies raise the ante on this issue because they add to the volume of non-traditional material generated and they add to the number of places it can be located. Perhaps most important, if you use collaboration technology well, the most important and necessary documents, notes, and other information will be found in these tools and services. How will you make sure that anyone working on the file will be able to see the whole picture?
Recent surveys suggest that clients, especially business clients, are well ahead of lawyers in using non-paper approaches and new technologies. There is a growing expectation that many meetings can be handled electronically. If a client videoconferences with her child in college and her parent in a nursing home, she will wonder why she must drive to your office for a routine meeting.
It makes good sense to prepare for these types of client expectations. The good news is that there are a number of ways to collaborate using the phone, the Internet, and other technologies. Even better, many are quite inexpensive. Best of all, not only will these technologies cater to your clients’ wishes, but they may also make your life and your practice a little easier.
Conference Calls Unlimited: www.uconference.com
Yahoo Groups: http://groups.yahoo.com
David Woolley’s Guide to Conferencing on the Web: www.thinkofit.com/webconf/index.htm
Robin Good’s Official Guide to Web Conferencing and Live Presentation Tools, with a section devoted to appropriate tools and services for small firms (access fee of at least $99 required):
Dennis M. Kennedy is a solo practitioner in St. Louis, Missouri, who concentrates his practice in computer law and provides legal technology consulting services for law firms and corporate legal departments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.denniskennedy.com.