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February 2001
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Tech Trends

It's a Peer-to-Peer World

By William F. Bice

It's a Peer-to-Peer World IF YOU'VE been exposed to computers for too long, a "peer-to-peer network" may conjure up images of connecting a few PCs together so that you can swap WordPerfect 5.1 documents easily with your secretary. Today, peer-to-peer is about hooking you up with everyone, via the Web. Peer-to-peer is technology that really takes advantage of those connections.

So, what really is peer-to-peer? Let's start by defining what it's not. Peer-to-peer is not downloading your checking account information from your bank or managing your checkbook online. Peer-to-peer is not accessing a court docket via a Web page or doing legal research online. Peer-to-peer is not using an application service provider (ASP) to enter your time.

Peer-to-peer is not logging into a law firm's Extranet to see case information (although, as we'll see, peer-to-peer promises a better approach). Instead, peer-to-peer is the direct connection of two computers across the Internet in order to share information. When a client needs a document, they don't call you and wait for you to e-mail it. Using a direct peer-to-peer connection, your client can immediately access all the documents that you've published to them (and a whole lot more).

Applied to the legal field, peer-to-peer holds the promise of changing how law firms and clients work together and therefore changing what case management means. Today, case management is centered on the needs of the law firm. The attorney needs a case snap shot; the docketing clerk is concerned with court dates and critical deadlines; the billing attorney is reviewing billing, payments and workload; the secretary is creating work product; the rainmaker is tracking relationships.

The missing element is the client. When we're talking about corporate clients, they're even likely to maintain their own case management system, duplicating the efforts of the law firm.

The following exemplify how silly duplicate database maintenance can be:

Insurance Defense: The insurance company has a burgeoning database on its insured. A case is filed against its insured, resulting in the need to share the insured's information with a law firm. The law firm receives the voluminous data on the insured, which it must then enter into the law firm's case management system. Once this entry is complete, the firm then sends status reports, billing information and other pertinent data back to the insurance company based on a previously determined schedule.

The insurance company then tracks how much time is spent, how many fees are incurred and the ongoing status of the case. Both the insurance company and the law firm are acutely aware of the need for timely, accurate, complete information on each case. They both expend many resources ensuring the information is updated, but without further, constant communication (often in the form of lengthy phone conversations or detail-filled emails and repetitive status reports), neither can be sure their mutual objective is being met.

Estate Planning: Typically, a client keeps financial records on a personal computer. That client hires an attorney to establish and maintain an active estate plan in the off-chance that he dies at some point. The client provides the attorney with all of the relevant information they've compiled, which the attorney uses to mold an action plan complete with a list of assets and beneficiaries.

Portfolios change, assets may shift and beneficiary information changes (telephone number, addresses, general contact information, etc.) The attorney is expected to keep track of all of these finer details, often omnisciently, because the transfer of updated records seldom keeps pace with the changing information.

These two examples illustrate that the practical, and certainly more effective and time-efficient, way to go would be to share selected case management information. Considerable time and energy duplicating one another's efforts can be avoided. Enter the information once and both parties share it.

If a database of information is automatically shared between your firm and your clients, and all parties can see it, manipulate it and refer to it. The need for transmitting via facsimile or via e-mail as attached documents (with the corresponding security risk) disappears. This results in a more effective use of resources and ultimately reduces the client's bottom line.

Extranets

One approach to sharing information is with an Extranet. An Extranet is just a Web page to which only authorized users have access. A law firm can publish case information on an Extranet, for example, and then provide clients with a log-in and password.

Alternatively, the corporate legal department can create an Extranet and require that outside counsel log into it to update case status. This all works, and law firms and corporate legal departments are starting to embrace extranets to improve communication.

There are, however, some problems with Extranets. Only one side of the equation is going to win the battle of who has the Extranet. Either the law firm is coming to the client's Extranet, or the client is coming to the law firm's Extranet. Information is being maintained by duplicated effort.

If the law firm uses the insurance company's Extranet to update case status, for example, they're duplicating -- typically by re-typing -- the information that is in the law firm's case management system. If you work with 10 different insurance companies, you now have 10 different log-ins, passwords and Web pages to learn.

It's not any better the other way around, either. If the corporate legal department logs into the law firm's Extranet, they're retrieving information which must then be duplicated in their own case management system. And they're likely to use many outside counsel, and therefore have many Extranets with which to contend. What you end up with is a lot of duplicated and wasted effort.

Now it's time for peer-to-peer to enter the picture. Peer-to-peer changes case management into a two-way street between law firms and clients. Instead of publishing to an Extranet, case information is published via the peer-to-peer network, directly sharing information between law firm and client. Let's review our two examples in a peer-to-peer environment:

Insurance Defense: The insurance company opens a new file in their case management system. The new file and all the information about the insured is automatically published to the appropriate law firm via the peer-to-peer network.

As the law firm works on the new case, selected case notes, critical dates and documents are published back to the insurance company, automatically appearing in their case management system.

The insurance adjuster can see case status at any time simply by reviewing the matter in his own case management system. Records are perpetually updated, streamlining the entire process for both the insurance company and the law firm.

The efficiency achieved with the peer-to-peer system reduces total time spent duplicating

William F. Bice is president of ProLaw Software in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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