Volume 17, Number 8
December 2000

Internet-Based Storage ASPs May Be The Next Best Thing

By Clifford F. Shnier

Whoever coined the phrase "The Internet changes everything" was guilty of understatement. And whoever came up with the old saying "There's nothing new under the sun" was wearing opaque sunglasses. There is something new, and it's changed a whole lot of things-the application service provider company (ASP). ASPs provide you with your own websites to store your data, and software at those websites to work with it, via your browser. You don't buy the software and you don't buy the storage hardware. You pay for it by subscription.

Two major categories of ASPs currently serve the legal market. The first focuses on complex litigation-heavy-duty document repositories for team collaboration. The second is the more general-purpose legal ASP, which offers some or all of the following applications: time and billing, legal research, calendar/docket, case management, document management (nonlitigation support), and e-mail.

When I began writing about ASPs eons ago (late June 2000), I believed that all of the action in the legal ASP arena involved web-based litigation document repositories. You may have heard of Casecentral (www.casecentral.com), CaseShare (www.caseshare.com), CaseVault (www.casevault.com), Introspect (www.steelpoint.com), Judicata (www.judicata.com), and Lextranet (www.lextranet.com), to name a few. These companies host your litigation documents on their secure websites; you work with your data using their software and you get access via your browser. Because litigation support is my milieu, and these companies were doing their darnedest to stir things up in that arena, I didn't see beyond that immediate circus.

It took me ages (almost six weeks) to wake up to the notion that legal ASPs were transforming not only litigation support but also other aspects of the practice of law. A lawyer in Prescott, Arizona, alerted me to the existence of a company right here in Scottsdale called JurisDictionUSA (www.jdusa.net), a legal ASP of more general focus. I thought Greater Phoenix already had more than its share of high-tech legal companies, and now I had discovered a new one, and almost in my own part of town. (I say almost-they're in south Scottsdale; I'm in north Scottsdale. No wonder I hadn't known about them. That's a difference almost as vast as northern versus southern California.) But with ASPs, geographic location means almost nothing. A user in Florida and a user in Arizona will probably detect no difference in accessing their data stored on servers in Arizona.

Technology Levels the Field

For a few years around the late 1980s, automated litigation support leveled the playing field between small firms and big firms. A solo practitioner with a PC and transcripts and documents on disk could run circles around a big firm with its teams of lawyers and paralegals. Fast decision making and nimbleness, as well as greater receptiveness, gave the edge in automation to small firms.

But after large firms realized automation wasn't a passing fad, the leveling effect disappeared. Software developers began writing for the big guys and their big checkbooks. They added complexity. This tilted the edge back toward the large law firms. Software was more powerful as a team tool on a fast network. The network needed a huge server, new hardware, wiring, network software, and administrators. Big firms were once again able to outgun a solo or small firm, because they could afford the trainers, the heavy-duty hardware, the technicians, and other support personnel.

By the mid-1990s, if a small firm was still bringing big firms to their knees with automation, it was usually one of the sophisticated boutiques, frequently a large firm spinoff.

But in the past year or so, ASPs have created the circumstances that could once again level the litigation playing field. Before ASPs, a large firm with a wide area network or the ability to store its database on a server with dial-in access had a distinct advantage. All participants in the matter could see the data in its most up-to-date form because all of them were working from the same database in real time. Small firm lawyers with a common interest-for example, plaintiffs' attorneys in nationwide product liability cases-didn't have it so easy.

About 1997, if small firm lawyers wanted to share a database, it required a great deal of copying and replication. This method created enormous version control headaches. If a Chicago lawyer made comments about certain documents in the morning, her colleague in Phoenix working on the same case that afternoon could not have the benefit of her comments because the databases hadn't yet been replicated and synchronized. And probably neither of them had on staff someone who really understood how to do manage the database.

Now, with an ASP, teams of solo and small firm practitioners with a common interest can work from one database housed on a server that all can access via their browser. And they don't have to pay for equipment and technicians that they can't afford. Don't dismiss the litigation support ASPs as relevant only to the large firms with huge, document-intensive cases. They are also hugely significant to general, solo, and small firm practitioners.

Litigation Support ASPs

With litigation support ASPs, you don't buy the software; you pay for it monthly. Your monthly cost depends on some or all of the following:

  1. The number of pages stored online, including images, full text, and the records representing each document in the fielded database, regardless of how many documents there are (this is the most common pricing model).
  2. The number of active cases stored online.
  3. The number of users with rights to access the data.

The only hardware the users need is an up-to-date PC and an Internet service provider, preferably with a fast connection such as T-1, DSL, or cable, though some ASPs use technology that squeezes adequate performance out of 56K modems.

Do the arithmetic. Assume a litigation repository ASP charges three- to four-tenths of a cent per page per month (typical for high volumes), with a flat base fee of $500 to $1,000. If ten firms need to share a million-page collection, then assuming 35/100ths of a cent per page and a $750 base charge, the total cost per month is $4,250. Split this ten ways and you've got a manageable monthly cost that includes storage measured in gigabytes and terabytes, software, updates, 24/7 support, and accessibility from anywhere, for any number of individual users. This $425 per month is much less than what it would cost any one firm to store and maintain this volume of data on its own. Now each of these small firms or solos has the same software and storage, the same ability to work collaboratively, and the same opportunity to work from home or on the road as the big firms.

General Legal ASPs

Although the market for litigation support ASPs may run into the thousands, general legal ASPs may potentially attract hundreds of thousands of users. A small firm of five or ten lawyers needs a network as much as a large firm does, and it needs all the latest software and access to legal research. But it has far fewer revenue producers over which to spread this cost than a large firm.

Along comes an offering from an ASP such as JurisDictionUSA, which offers multiple applications: time and billing, case/contact and calendar management, legal research and other information resources, document management (of the DocsOpen or iManage variety, not the litigation support kind), and secure e-mail, for $99 per user per month. A ten-person firm gets all of this for about one-fifth the salary of a network administrator, and that's only the beginning of the savings. There is also less software and hardware to purchase and update. And the ASP takes care of all backups.

Using a one-stop ASP such as JurisDictionUSA and a browser, you can enter new client and matter information, switch over to legal research for a half hour, switch back to time and billing, charge that half hour to that new client matter, and send an e-mail to that client advising her of what you've found so far. Then, you can check your firm's calendar to see when an associate might be available for a meeting with you and the new client, send an e-mail to that associate instructing him to carry the research further, and browse among past memos written by other members of your firm in the document management system to see if there's anything recently written by them on point. After using your word processor to revise a past memo you've found (you still need this on your own machine), you can publish the revised memo on the document management module so the associate can download it and work on it further. And you can do all this from home, a hotel room, or an Internet café.

JurisDictionUSA.Net appears to be the only general-focus legal ASP offering all of these applications, but the others that offer some of them include WorldDox/Web (document management; www.worldox.com), Elite.com (time and billing; www.elite.com), e-Attorney (document management, time and billing, and contact management; www.eattorney.com), and the oddly named Red Gorilla (contact and expense management; www.redgorilla.com or www.officetool.com). Westlaw and Lexis announcements are no doubt imminent.

Addressing Security

Common to both categories of legal ASPs is a tremendous emphasis on security. First, electronic security: All of these ASPs employ multiple levels of security to foil both those who would seek access to your data stored at their facilities and those who would seek to intercept it as you transmit it to or from their facilities. Passwords are only the beginning. There are also firewalls, secure socket layer encryption, digital certificates, IP address monitoring, and even the hiring of reformed hackers to keep probing and testing all these security measures.

Second, there's the physical security of your data. Legal ASPs house their servers in facilities described as capable of withstanding earthquakes, fires, floods, and riots. Aside from the bunkerlike structure, they have multiple incoming Internet connections and uninterruptible power supplies and backup generators. These physical and electronic measures are already beyond the normal range of small to medium firms, and not in place at many large firms either. One ASP in Los Angeles claims to have sufficient fuel on hand to run its generators for six months, and after that, a firm contract with Exxon for additional fuel supplies.

No networks to maintain. Maybe even no laptops to lug. The ability to do your work at any Internet-connected PC, whether it's at a kiosk at LAX or an espresso café in Budapest. That's the promise of full-menu ASPs for the legal profession.

Clifford F. Shnier is a litigation technology consultant based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached via e-mail at cliffs@az.rmci.

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