October 23, 2012

Collaborative Technologies: Working with Others Around the Corner or Around the World

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July/August 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 5| Page 38

Collaborative Technologies: Working with Others Around the Corner or Around the World

Not that long ago, a “worldwide law practice” was limited to the largest and wealthiest firms. For most other lawyers, working with clients or law firms in different parts of the world was not a practical option. The expense and distances involved were simply too great to make international legal work worth the effort. But no longer. 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. The difference? The rise of the Internet as a communications tool. Work that previously could only be accomplished in face-to-face meetings is now taking place online, with a minimum of effort and often at little or no cost. Collaboration technologies can take many forms, depending on the task you want to accomplish. Here, we’ll discuss some of those technologies, with a particular eye toward midsize and small firms. These tools and others make it remarkably simple to collaborate across geographic gaps, no matter how far away your collaborators may be.

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 Web site. Its security features make it confidential, yet because it’s a Web site, 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 extranet” 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. 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 fully ASP-delivered Collaborator service, requiring 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, a portal-based collaboration platform that is highly customizable. Windows Sharepoint Services is a free add-on for those who use Windows Server products. More powerful collaboration is available with the MS Office Sharepoint Server, which comes—for a fee—with the Office Server Suite.

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: (1) the hosted version, which is usually provided by ISPs for a monthly fee, and (2) the server-based version, which is typically installed on a firm’s servers inside the firewall. Sharepoint has many of the features of an extranet, but with many more capabilities.

For some, Sharepoint can be expensive or difficult to configure. For those who want a cheaper, more basic alternative, we recommend Basecamp, a hosted project management site that offers much of the same functionality of a Sharepoint portal, although it is not as customizable. Many solo and small firm lawyers are using Basecamp sites as extranets for their clients, providing them with an online space for accessing case files, messages, calendars and other matter information at a lower cost to both attorney and client.


Web Conferencing

Nowadays collaborators don’t have to travel to the same city for a meeting because it’s dead simple to hold that same meeting on the Internet. Your online conference can range from a very simple, free get-together to a more full-featured, fee-based gathering. The easiest way to meet online is by using a “screen-sharing” program.

CrossLoop 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 (available for free at the new www.acrobat.com site) 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 like GoToMeeting and WebEx. Both of these programs can accommodate many more people, 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, with a quality that rivals being there in person. Also, 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

Until recently, when you drafted a document with others, you might have to e-mail the document to the rest of your collaborators, then wait (and wait, and wait) for them to return the document to you—at which point the whole process might start all over again. With some great new Web tools, however, you can now share documents online with anyone and work on them together in real-time if you like.

Probably the best-known online document creation tool is Google Docs (http://docs.google.com), 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, ThinkFree and Buzzword.

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.

Large file exchanges. 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 Web sites that allow you to temporarily “reserve” a portion of the Internet to store your files. An old standby is YouSendIt, 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 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.

Mind mapping. 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, Mindomo and Bubbl.us.

Wikis. A wiki is essentially a Web site that can be easily edited by anyone. Although some wikis have enjoyed immense popularity (as of this writing, Wikipedia boasts over 2 million articles), they have been slow to catch on in the legal community. But many lawyers and firms are using wikis as incubators of information—for firm personnel manuals, trial preparation sites, and business development brainstorming, to name a few examples. Fortunately, there are many free or cheap wiki tools, so you can try them out before committing to the process. Some recommended choices include PBWiki and TiddlyWiki, 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.

All the tools discussed here can be used as easily with someone in the next state over as with someone in a different hemisphere. But that’s just what makes these technologies so important in the global marketplace. Consider that if we need to meet with someone in our country, it’s relatively inexpensive to hop a plane and be in another city in a matter of hours. Meeting with someone on the other side of the world is a different matter entirely, since the cost in dollars and time to get a face-to-face on the other side of the prime meridian can be prohibitive for many lawyers and their clients. But with this new generation of collaboration tools, the opportunity now exists to truly level the playing field across borders.

The tools discussed in this article are just a few of the technologies covered in the authors’ book The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies: Smart Ways to Work Together (ABA, 2008), available at www.ababooks.org. The authors have also compiled a directory of collaboration tools at www.lawyersguidetocollaboration.com.

About the Authors

Dennis Kennedy is an information technology lawyer and legal technologist. He blogs on legal technology topics at DennisKennedy.com.

Tom Mighell is Senior Counsel at Cowles & Thompson in Dallas. He served as ABA TECHSHOW® 2008 Chair.