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August 2000

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MIS@ Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering

Turning the World Upside Down

Migrating directly to Microsoft Windows 2000 from Windows 3.1.

By Duncan B. Sutherland Jr.

MIS@Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering: Turning the World Upside DownLAW FIRMS have a number of characteristics that set them apart from most other public and private sector organizations.

Historically, the document-centric nature of the practice of law has led most law firms to focus a significant percentage of their technology investments -- and thus their support resources -- on tools like word processing and document management (using the term in a very broad sense).

Because of the specialized nature of legal documents -- it is not at all unusual to find footnotes in legal documents that are longer than most corporate memos -- the legal industry, unlike corporate America, has tended to look to third-party software vendors for industry-specific products.

As a result (and with all good intent), many firms now find themselves in the somewhat paradoxical situation of having constructed what amounts to a "Tower of Babel" of applications, with its attendant high support costs, while severely constraining their ability to move forward with new, innovative tools because their document management systems have become their de facto operating system.

To further compound the problem, responding to the requirements of increasingly technologically sophisticated clients -- who embrace Extranet capability, secure e-mail communication, inter-operability between the voice mail systems of competing switch vendors, etc., etc. -- often requires fundamental (and expensive) changes to a law firm's technology infrastructure.

In addition, most large law firms find themselves becoming increasingly dependent on various electronic tools, such as e-mail, which in turn leads to a demand for true 24/7 operational support and global access to the firm's networks via a wide range of devices such as cell phones, PDAs, and so forth -- tools that typically have device-dependent operating systems, and that may or may not play well with the firm's network operating system and/or first-tier "line of business" applications.

The Dénouement

By late 1998, Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering found itself confronting all of the foregoing challenges plus a technology infrastructure that had become, frankly, more of a problem for the firm than an answer.

WCP opened its doors in Washington, D.C., in 1962, with 19 lawyers. From the start, it was relatively aggressive in its adoption of new technology. For example, WCP was among the early firms to put large numbers of PCs on the desks of lawyers (1984). We made early use of such tools as local area networks (1987), firm-wide e-mail (1988), and the Internet (1992). With respect to technology, both clients and competitors typically characterized WCP as a "leading edge firm."

However, by late 1998 WCP had expanded to six offices in the U.S. and Europe, and had grown to approximately 350 lawyers and around 800 employees. Over the years, the firm had gone through several "sea changes" with respect to technology.

Interestingly, WCP somehow managed to skip the "Wang revolution" that swept the legal industry in the early- to mid-'70s, rolling out Barrister's mini-computer-based word processing system in 1979. It was not until 1987 that the firm rolled out WordPerfect 4.2 (subsequently upgraded to 5.1 in 1991 and 6.1 in 1996), followed by a roll-out of the SoftSolutions document management system in 1995.

Meanwhile, the firm's European offices had more or less independently adopted Microsoft Word as their word processing system of choice, driven largely by the need to work seamlessly with the firm's European clients.

Why is the late-1998 time frame so important? In June 1998 WCP hired a new executive director. In August 1998, the new executive director hired me as the firm's chief technology officer. A standing joke within WCP is that, when I was interviewing for the job, the firm's management committee failed to "come clean" with me with respect to how bad a shape the firm's technology infrastructure was really in -- and I failed to "come clean" with them with respect to how much time and money it was probably going to take to fix it!

The truth, of course, is that as of August 1998, neither the firm's management team nor I really had a good fix on the amount of work that needed to be done in terms of stabilizing the firm's legacy infrastructure -- let alone to develop a coherent, cost-effective technology strategy that would carry us into the 21st century.

As of August 1998, our technology infrastructure consisted, in main part of Microsoft Windows 3.1, WordPerfect 6.1 (U.S.) and Word (Europe), cc:Mail, SoftSolutions (U.S.), Novell network operating system, ECCO (personal information manager), Netscape, T-1 lines linking the firm's U.S. offices, and a 64 Kbps fully-meshed frame linking the firm's Washington, D.C. and European offices. That was the bad news.

The good news was that I "inherited" a highly competent, dedicated technology team that was more than acutely aware of the myriad technology challenges facing the firm. I also "inherited" a management team that was fully committed to making the changes necessary to get the firm back, if not on the "leading edge," at least on an equal footing with its major competitors.

However, due in large part to the firm's extended search for a new executive director, for approximately 10 months the team lacked top management leadership. Plans had been developed to migrate the firm to Windows 95, but there was no one to "pull the switch" to put those plans into action.

To make matters even worse, the lawyers and the staff had lost confidence in the firm's help desk, because of the endless problems associated with the "legacy" infrastructure: chronic system crashes; an e-mail system that the firm had clearly outgrown and was literally teetering on the brink of disaster; and frequent, exasperating application lockups, due primarily to conflicts between the network operating system, the word processing system, and the document management system. Clearly, things had to change and change fast.

Why Windows 2000?

During my initial conversations with WCP's management committee in July 1998, I suggested that the firm move as quickly as possible to Windows 2000 (at that point, still designated by Microsoft as NT 5.0).

The "official" decision to basically skip Windows 95/98 and NT 4.0 and move to Windows 2000 was made in September 1998.

The decision was based on a number of factors, including, among others:

  • Moving to a single vendor for both the firm's desktop and network operating systems;

  • Enhanced operating system stability (versus Windows 95/98);

  • Increased control of the desktop (versus NT 4.0);

  • Lower operating costs (i.e., moving toward a goal of "zero administration" or "red lights and green lights");

  • Increased lawyer productivity, including the ability to take advantage of off-line folders and increasingly sophisticated collaboration tools (including Office 2000 and Exchange 2000, then code named "Platinum");

  • Client compatibility; and Public relations.

The operative question, of course, was: "As a practical matter, how fast could we move to the Windows 2000 platform without exceeding the firm's ability to absorb the change?"

Obviously, we had to move fast -- but not so fast that we would bring the firm to its knees. The challenge was made even more difficult, of course, because we would be restructuring the firm's technology planning and support operations at the same time that we were rolling out the new operating system.

Thus, some of the firm's most critical applications -- including a long overdue migration from WordPerfect to Word 2000, and the organizational infrastructure required to support them -- would be in simultaneous flux.

Just Rip It!

The first order of business was to increase the stability of the firm's desktop -- recognizing that the desktop would not be truly stable until the firm had completed the transition to Windows 2000/Office 2000.

Over approximately 90 days, the firm's Windows 3.1 PCs (approximately 600 desktops) were re-cloned to Windows 98, which meant that the entire firm was now on a relatively stable 32-bit operating system consisting of either Windows 95 or 98.

The firm's U.S. offices (Washington, Baltimore, and New York) were migrated to Outlook/Exchange. The firm's technology team was moved from Novell to Windows NT; and users were provided with Internet Explorer.

The decision to migrate the firm's Windows 3.1 PCs to Windows 98 was based primarily on the relative ease of migrating to Windows 2000 from Windows 95/98 versus migrating to Windows 2000 from either Windows 3.1 or Windows NT 4.0.

The next order of business was to complete the migration from Windows 95/98 to Windows 2000 Professional on the desktop, and from the mixed Novell/NT 4.0 network operating system to Windows 2000 Server.

The Windows 2000 Server (RC3) migration was completed by Nov. 1999. The Office 2000 migration was completed by Jan. 1999 although, for a variety of reasons, the firm continued to operate in a mixed WordPerfect/Word 2000 environment.

In addition, the firm's migration to Exchange 5.5 was completed and the firm's wide-area network was reconfigured including the installation of E-1s between the firm's U.S. and European offices and a stronger frame backup system.

A few other aspects of the Windows 2000 roll-out deserve at least a brief mention. One of the most critical decisions that had to be made early on was whether the firm would adopt a third-party document management system, or simply use the document management tools currently available in Windows 2000 (and that we anticipated would be available in Exchange 2000 and some of Microsoft's other follow-on products).

The team's initial intention had been implement a third-party document management system. However, we were concerned about significantly constraining our ability to move at the pace of our operating system vendor (Microsoft). We clearly did not want a third-party document management system to become our "gating technology," given the speed at which we needed to move.

The short-term implication would be a modest loss of functionality for the users (and a great deal of insecurity!). Long term, however, we felt that the modest loss of functionality up front would be more than offset by both the ease of management (not an insignificant consideration) and the powerful collaborative tools, built into the native operating system that would be coming down the road. The result: we ended up developing a strong, feature-rich document management system, built on Microsoft's Site Server with a modest WCP-developed "component object model" front end.

Organizational Changes

The organizational changes that occurred concurrently with the Windows 2000 roll-out deserve an article of their own. However, the most radical change is in the way the firm provides on-going support for its technology infrastructure.

In a nutshell, we replaced the firm's existing training and help desk functions with a new organizational model (called "Organizational Learning" and grounded in the theory of communities of practice) that places dedicated teams of consultants in the firm's practice sections (one management layer above practice groups).

One objective of the new model is to have the consulting teams become experts with respect to how technology can, and should, be used in a particular practice group, as well as within the practice section as a whole.

A second objective is to have the teams identify and address training issues and to identify and "take ownership" of problems that need to be resolved by the firm's "Systems Planning and Architecture" team that is responsible for actually building and maintaining the firm's tools.

Also part of the "Organizational Learning" team is a group of "e-courseware" developers -- we are rapidly moving the bulk of the firm's training and on-line user support tools to our Intranet -- and a call center to back up the practice group consultants (and to handle 24/7 support).

Without question, the consulting approach is more expensive than the support models typically found in most law firms (i.e., the traditional help desk and training department).

Management backing for the new support model is based, in part, on the fact that the firm is making significant investments in state-of-the art tools, and it is essential that WCP's lawyers and staff become truly expert in terms of their ability to use these tools to provide the highest possible quality of service to the firm's clients.

Lessons Learned

As it turned out, the firm's long-standing and multi-level involvement with Microsoft Corp. (as an "Enterprise" customer, Windows 2000 Joint Development Partner, Microsoft Word Legal Advisory Council member, and so forth) played a significant role with respect to the ultimate success of the Windows 2000 roll-out.

Through our various relationships with Microsoft, we had established some important communication channels that would not have been open to us otherwise.

Likewise, it is probably fair to say that we could not have completed the rollout of Windows 2000 Server in such a compressed time frame had we not included Windows 2000/Exchange 2000 experts from Microsoft Consulting Services as part of the team.

Yet another factor that really helped us compress the timeframe of the rollout was that fact that we began working with Windows 2000, both Server and Professional, while it was still in early beta. (My team believes that I may hold the individual world record for number of installs of a beta version of Windows 2000!)

Finally, from the very beginning we had represented the Windows 2000 migration to the firm's management team as a process that included future releases of Exchange 2000, SQL Server 2000, etc., etc., rather than as a discreet project with a beginning and an end.

The distinction is an important one. Typically, law firms adopt what might best be described as a "punctuated equilibrium" approach to technological change: i.e., relatively long periods of technological stability punctuated by relatively short periods of technological chaos.

Our goal at Willer is exactly the opposite. We are working hard to create a culture in which technology change simply becomes part of the background. A culture in which the firm's lawyers and staff become a bit uneasy if they suddenly realize that it has been a while since they received some cool new tool that helps them do their job. Or if they haven't been made aware of some infrastructure improvement, no matter how small, that enhances the firm's ability to serve its clients.

In other words, our goal is to make technological change the norm at WCP rather than the exception.

More to Do

So, where are we? As often happens with very complex roll-outs, things occasionally fail to go exactly according to plan.

Just as we were ready to begin migrating the firm's PCs to Windows 2000 Professional, two things happened: First, the firm made a decision to dramatically accelerate the distribution of laptops to lawyers, so that all of the firm's U.S. lawyers would be on Windows 2000 laptops (with our new DMS) by the end of July 2000.

Second, the management team made a decision to significantly accelerate the firm's migration from WordPerfect to Microsoft Word. As one might expect, these two initiatives have essentially buried the "Systems Planning and Architecture" and "Organizational Learning" teams for the past several months.

At the same time, however, because we now had a bit of time to rethink how we are going to install Windows 2000 on the firm's 700 or so remaining PCs, we are giving serious consideration to going to Windows 2000 Terminal Server rather than individual Windows 2000 PC installs. And if these roll-outs are not sufficient to keep the team busy, we in the process of completing our migration from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2000 (RC2).

So stay tuned!

Duncan B. Sutherland, Jr.. is chief technology officer for Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.

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