Today it’s relatively simple for any lawyer, regardless of firm size or budget, to collaborate with clients, colleagues, co-counsel, experts, or even opposing counsel in nearly any corner of the world. What has allowed this revolution? The rise of the Internet as a communications tool. Collaboration technologies can take many forms, depending on the task you want to accomplish. This article discusses some of these technologies, with a particular eye toward midsize and small firms.
Extranet connectivity. An extranet is one of the fundamental building blocks of online collaboration and probably one of the most common collaboration tools for law firms. Simply put, an extranet is a private, secure website. Its security features make it confidential, yet because it’s a website, authorized users can easily access it from any computer with a web browser. This makes it an ideal tool for lawyers who want to share information with their clients or others with whom they work, across time and distances.
Extranets are extremely versatile, and you can create one or as many as you like for your practice. For many law firms, setting up a “matter extra-net” is routine when opening a new file for a client. The common features of an extranet are calendars, message boards, document repositories, research and form banks, collections of useful links or resources, and other project management and work-flow tools. In essence, an extranet functions as a 24-7 “matter concierge,” providing constant access to a client’s files and other important information. One of our favorite extranet providers is AMS Legal ( www.ams-legal.com). Its Legal Collaborator extranets offer a lot of power and flexibility and can be customized and branded to your firm’s individual specifications. And for small firms with no IT staff, AMS offers the Collaborator service, which requires absolutely no in-house infrastructure at your end.
Online project management tools. With the practice of law becoming less about matters and lawsuits and more about “projects,” lawyers increasingly find themselves in project management roles, shepherding information and data through the completion of transactions. There are a number of project management tools that facilitate this type of work. One of the best known is Microsoft’s SharePoint ( www.microsoft.com/ sharepoint), a portal-based collaboration platform that is highly customizable. SharePoint is a free add-on for those who use Windows Server products. A basic SharePoint portal is composed of modules called Web Parts, which can be mixed and matched to suit the particular client or matter. Available modules include calendars, discussion forums, task lists, and shared document areas. SharePoint’s two basic flavors are a hosted version, usually provided by Internet service providers for a monthly fee, and a server-based version, which is typically installed on a firm’s servers inside the firewall. For those who want a cheaper, more basic alternative, we recommend Basecamp ( www.basecamphq.com), a hosted project management site that offers much of the same functionality of a SharePoint portal, although it is not as customizable.
Web conferencing. The easiest way to meet online is by using a “screen-sharing” program. CrossLoop ( www.crossloop.com) is one free program that allows the user to share his or her computer screen with another person—this is a good option if you simply want to show someone documents or other files without a lot of back-and-forth interaction. Adobe ConnectNow ( www.acrobat.com/#/connectnow) has more powerful features—up to 20 people can have an online meeting, which takes place within a web browser. Anyone can “take control” of the screen or share their screens with the other attendees.
For more advanced, full-featured online meetings, the power tools are services such as GoToMeeting ( www1.gotomeeting.com) and WebEx ( www.webex.com). Both of these programs can accommodate many more people than the services listed above, and they provide some great interactive tools. For example, users can highlight or annotate the meeting screen, and chat and video functions allow meeting attendees to talk to and see each other. These services integrate live video, audio, and data for multimedia presentations. The meetings can be recorded so others can view them later. These services are available at subscription pricing or on a “pay-per-use” basis for meetings on the fly.
Document collaboration sites. With some great new web tools you can now share documents online with anyone and work on them together in real time. Probably the best-known online document creation tool is Google Docs, which allows you to easily create word processing documents and spreadsheets that can be shared with collaborators. Your team can access the document on Google Docs at any time, from any computer, and many people can view or work on it at the same time—for example, during a conference call or online meeting. When you are done with the document, it’s a snap to save it to a PDF, Word, or Excel file, and then save it to your computer or document management system. Other great document creation tools include Zoho ( www.zoho.com) and ThinkFree ( www.thinkfree.com).
However, while we love tools like Google Docs for online document collaboration, we don’t recommend that you use such services as a document management program or permanent repository. Use Google Docs to create and collaborate on the document, then save it to your own computer or network and delete the original online version, especially if the document contains confidential client information.
Other web 2.0 goodies. We also want to mention a few other terrific web 2.0 services that can help you work better with others, whether they’re down the street or in another country. Sending large files via e-mail is often cumbersome, and the recipient’s e-mail server may not even accept the bigger files. But instead of e-mail, you can use one of several websites that allow you to temporarily “reserve” a portion of the Internet to store your files. An old standby is YouSendIt ( www.yousendit.com), where you can upload a single file (up to 100 megabytes for free) to a temporary site from which members of your team can then download the file. A newer and even more powerful service is drop.io ( http://drop.io), which permits users to create their own “drop” sites for uploading multiple files (again, up to 100 MB for free), where the files can be accessed by anyone for an unlimited period of time.
Those who need to brainstorm on lawsuits or transactions are turning to online “mindmap” tools that provide a visual representation of the ideas generated in a brainstorming session. Some of the more popular, free mindmap tools are MindMeister ( www.mindmeister.com), Mindomo ( www.mindomo.com), and Bubbl.us ( http://bubbl.us).
A wiki is essentially a website that can be easily edited by anyone. Although some wikis have enjoyed immense popularity, they have been slower to catch on in the legal community. Many lawyers and firms are now using wikis as incubators of information, however—for firm personnel manuals, trial preparation sites, and business development brain- storming, to name a few examples. Some recommended choices include PBwiki ( http://pbwiki.com) and TiddlyWiki ( www.tiddlywiki.com), but there are literally dozens of wiki sites, with both web-based and stand- alone applications. A great site that can help you make a decision about the best wiki for your needs is Wiki Matrix ( www.wikimatrix.org).
For More Information About the Law Practice Management Section
- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 38 of Law Practice, July/August 2008 (34:5).
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Dennis Kennedy is an information technology lawyer and legal technologist; he may be reached at email@example.com. Tom Mighell lives in Dallas, Texas, and is a senior manager at Fios Consulting; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.