Apps on Tap: Are Desktops Obsolete?
Law office applications are moving to the Web. Is it feasible? Is it a good thing?
By Neil E. Aresty
THE NEW trend in the world of computing is the slow but steady movement of "desktop applications" to the World Wide Web. The idea, first articulated a few years ago by Sun Computer's CEO, Scott McNealy, envisions a world where one's data and applications are stored on secure Internet Web servers, accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week (24/7), wherever there is Internet access.
In case you haven't heard, access to the Internet is increasingly available, as ubiquitous as dial tone. All you would ever need to access your work is access to the Internet. Is this a good thing? Is it realistic? Is it feasible?
In large part, this is a positive trend. Not only is it feasible, but the technology exists, applications and data are already moving from PCs to Web servers, and this shift in computing works well for the lawyers and their clients.
Whether this will become the dominant model for law office computing remains to be seen. However, the legal profession is witnessing the movement of "desktop applications" to the Web and examples of this trend abound.
In the beginning legal research was confined to the law library. Even with the advent of online research tools, such LEXIS & Westlaw, access was typically by way of sitting down at the computer terminal in the library.
In the early '90s we started to perform research with CD-ROMs; ultimately, a CD-ROM tower was attached to the network and we could perform research from the desktop PC in our office. In the last few years we have witnessed the connection of CD-ROMs to online libraries in order to bring our research up to date.
Today, most legal research vendors (LEXIS, Westlaw, LOIS & FindLaw, in particular) want you to move away from the CD-ROM to the .com, or Web site version of their electronic libraries. Why? Economics is the main reason; without CD-ROMs to manufacture and ship out these companies will save a bundle in time and materials.
It makes sense for other practical reasons. The "user interface" is based on a Web browser that provides a true, common user interface; one which is easier to use and more intuitive to train people on (therefore it is quite likely that more people will use it which translates into greater revenues for the publishers).
As far as the legal professional is concerned, people can access their accounts virtually anywhere, as long as they can get to a PC connected to the Internet. That means you no longer have to be at the office to perform online legal research. You can be at home, at someone else's office or even at a museum's Web kiosk and still log into an account via the Internet.
The bottom line is that the movement away from desktop based legal research applications (e.g. CD-ROMs and proprietary dial-up connection software) towards Web based legal research is more economical and will most likely lead to greater use.
E-mail is a fact of life; and for those lawyers who have embraced the technology, it has become a preferred channel for instant communication with colleagues and clients.
Sure there are risks associated with the written (read typed) word, but the ultimate virtue of e-mail cannot be minimized. When you are out of the office for any extended period of time and do not have access to your e-mail you become literally and figuratively "disconnected." When you return your inbox is swamped with e-mail messages. So much for the rest of the day! The answer to this problem is to move your e-mail to a Web hosted system.
For example, you can obtain a free, Web hosted e-mail account at yahoo.com, hotmail.com, or even with your ISP (internet service provider). Before you leave the office you have a copy of your incoming e-mail forwarded to your Web hosted e-mail account (e.g. at firstname.lastname@example.org).
On your next business trip, all you would need to read your e-mail is an Internet-connected PC (or a Web kiosk which you have probably noticed out of the corner of your eye at the airport).
In this example you would point the Web browser to www.yahoo.com, click on the "My Yahoo" button, type your user name and password, and voila, your e-mail would appear. You could read and respond to it as if you were in the office. It is always available and perhaps a bit annoying -- but would you rather review hundreds of e-mails upon your return or have the ability to check in when ever and where ever you are?
A similar example to the e-mail scenario exists for calendaring. How many calendars do you maintain and where are they located? The typical desktop calendar is based on either a personal information manager program (PIM) such as the Palm Pilot, Ecco, GroupWise or Microsoft Outlook. Or perhaps it's a physical calendar located on your desk.
Again, the problem with these desktop applications is that they are tied to your computer desktop or office. By using the Web model discussed above you could be inputting your events into a Web based calendar, which will be accessible virtually anywhere or by anyone you give authority. Now when you're on the road, you can log onto your calendar and see the events scheduled for you by your secretary, and s/he can instantly see the changes you have made to your calendar. There are a number of services offering Web based calendars. They are all evolving from an application point of view, but a number of them allow importing and synchronization of your desktop calendar to the Web version. Check out www.netscape.com, www.excite.com or www.visto.com.
Document drafting is another example where the new Web model poses tremendous virtues over the old fashioned way of writing a transactional document. There are often many people who need to participate in the document review before it becomes a final work product. Traditionally this would be done on a word processor then couriered, faxed or e-mailed to the relevant parties for their review and comment.
In the Web model the document is posted to a private Web site (called an Extranet). The parties who need to review and comment on the document either download a copy from the Web site, make changes and upload the changed version which is marked appropriately as, so and so's version x, or, post their comments on a database field associated with the single inviolate copy of the draft.
All comments are gathered sequentially for the drafter to review and adopt as necessary. A messaging system akin to a Web-based bulletin board might be used to gather and circulate comments and updates. The drafting process benefits from the collaborative nature of the Web technology. Those who need to review and edit the document do so in an environment that is always accessible. No more telephone tag, waiting for or losing faxes or couriered versions. Web-based applications for lawyers involved in transactional work are just starting to mature. For examples look at www.legalnetex.com, www.intralinks.com, www.legalanywhere.com and our company, www.legalextranet.com, to name a few.
Another natural area for the shift from desktop to Web hosted applications is in the area of litigation support. Traditional litigation support systems use database, full text and imaging applications in order to structure the organization and retrieval of documents and testimonial evidence.
With document populations in the thousands, tens of thousands and, in some cases, in the millions, a litigation support system can go a long way towards getting organized for trial (and/or pre trial).
Imagine having a document intensive case involving co counsel, multiple witnesses and a client with an office of general counsel wanting to be kept informed. One of the first things you would have to do is make multiple copies of the document population for co- counsel and the client. And, of course there are those "shadow files" that seem to pop up in every attorneys office.
Even if you image the document population, you will probably have to make duplicate CD-ROMs. If you want to share the database with co-counsel and the client, you will either have to purchase copies of the software and install the application and the data at their location. Alternatively you could arrange for a dial-up connection to your computer system containing litigation support applications.
All of this raises serious cost issues, not to mention the administrative headaches associated with maintaining duplicate systems, synchronizing changes to databases and maintaining enough modems for the team to simultaneously dial up.
In the Web hosted litigation support system, there is only one secure repository for all the electronic data. All document images, database records, transcripts, work product, etc. is stored on a single, secure Web server. Access is, as they say, 24/7, available to anyone with a Web browser connected to the Internet.
All parties are given unique ID s and passwords. Access to the case files through the Internet is controlled by privileges associated with the login ID. In this scenario, the attorney, co counsel, witnesses, clients and even opposing counsel and the court, could have access to designated portions of the evidence.
Gone are the multiple document populations, the incessant faxing of drafts, copies of work product, etc. The typical costs associated with photo coping, long distance communication, and couriering are flattened. Because the system is designed around the Web browser interface, it's much easier to access. In fact, one notices more people accessing and working with the litigation materials in the Web based litigation support system than with the traditional systems. If more people are using the litigation support system, then you will have a better quality database.
Many of these systems are "front ends" to traditional document repository companies; companies that want to scan and code your document populations and provide you simple ways to access and retrieve your documents. Others are more mature in the application sense.In addition to the traditional access and retrieval systems, they provide tools to help process the case information; from coding, calendaring, docketing to maintaining people directories, messaging systems, transcript managers and case outlines.
Objections to a Web-centric model of law office computing are loud and clear. What about security? What happens when the Internet goes down? The Internet is too slow and unreliable! Those objections were actually louder and clearer a year ago. Today the Internet continues to become a sound and increasingly accessible medium by which to store, publish, access and communicate.Internet technologies such as hypertext (HTML), e-mail and cross platform, browser based interfaces make the medium a compelling place to shift applications.The economics and business imperatives are there. In fact, don't look now, but you may already be heading there!
Neil E. Aresty is a trial lawyer and a principal with Legal Computer Solutions, Inc., based in Boston, Mass. LCS is the developer of LEXTRANET, a Web-based litigation support application.