WestWorks Melds Into ProLaw
By Ashby Jones
Exactly two years ago, Law Technology News' cover featured West Group's Steven Daitch in the "President's Corner," announcing the launch of WestWorks, an ambitious, Web-based, souped-up case management system aimed at small and medium-sized law firms. It was the product of tens of millions of dollars worth of market research, programming, and internal development.
Photo by Ashby Jones
It was splashy. It was innovative. It reeked of high-growth potential. It was a bold move.
But it went nowhere, fast. The first iteration failed to gain traction -- primarily because West-Works asked its users to do too much, too soon. It was designed as an "application service provider," (ASP) and to use it, firms needed to upgrade to the powerful Windows 2000 operating system, quite a leap for small firms where Windows 95 was still dominant. It required both high-speed Web connections and, because WestWorks ran totally through the Internet, an unshakable faith that documents stored on West's servers in Eagan were safe and snug. Neither small firm lawyers on tight budgets, nor the lagging DSL market, were willing to cooperate.
Fortunately for West, Wilens and his crew had the foresight and humility to change directions quickly. Rather than continue pumping life into the Web-based WestWorks, West cut off the oxygen last summer. For about a month, the legal tech world waited to what West would do next.
No Need for Risks
For most of its history, Eagan, Minnesota's West Group hasn't needed to take a lot of risks. For decades, the company maintained healthy profit margins chiefly by peddling two products: hard-bound volumes of legal opinions, and Westlaw, an electronic, searchable database of statutes and case law.
That all changed in the late 1990s. West's brass realized that Westlaw and rival Lexis-Nexis had pretty much saturated the big law firm market. And the advent of the Internet made it clear that the future of low-cost alternatives to Westlaw and LexisNexis lay not in West's books, but in cheap (or free) Web sites. Hence the WestWorks experiment.
The ASP version of WestWorks may not have done as well as hoped. But West, it turns out, had shrewdly hedged its bets. Last spring, while the company's sales force was out singing the praises of WestWorks to solo practitioners and small firms, back home West executives were eyeballing the market, searching for a ready-made substitute in the event WestWorks failed to catch on.
By mid-2001, the case management software market was a crowded place. But in West's eyes, one company ultimately rose to the top: William Bice's Provolution Corp., better known as ProLaw Software. For years, the Albuquerque-based company had been pulling down good reviews with its own comprehensive case management system.
Like other case management applications, ProLaw organizes everything a lawyer needs to reference in a case and brings it to one centralized spot on the desktop. With a couple clicks of the mouse, attorneys can see client and opposing counsel phone numbers, calendars, pleadings, discovery, and time-and-billing information.
ProLaw's mission isn't unique in the marketplace. But ProLaw is uniquely flexible. Over the years, Bice has worked hard to make sure that ProLaw integrates with all of the most popular products in legal technology. Today, ProLaw works with word processors, Microsoft Corp.'s Word and Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect; document management programs, iManage (iManage Inc.), WORLDOX (World Software Corp.), and PC Docs (Hummingbird Ltd.); time-and-billing software from Elite Information Systems Inc. and Solution 6 North American Inc. (CMS OPEN), and other legal technology heavyweights such as Summation (Summation Legal Technologies Inc.)
For years, integration has been one of ProLaw's big selling points. A law firm can run the system without having to chuck thousands of dollars worth of existing software.
West saw other bright spots. In a struggling economy, ProLaw had done well in the mid-sized law firm market. For a relatively small company, it was also making good strides among big firms (among them, Washington, D.C.'s Steptoe & Johnson L.L.P., and New York's Fish & Richardson P.C.)
ProLaw doesn't run over the Web. The application sits on a law firm's server and connects a firm's lawyers internally, like an Intranet. ProLaw users don't need bleeding-edge operating systems or high speed Web connections to run it.
Carrying the Torch
With all this, West became convinced that ProLaw was the one to carry the WestWorks torch. But there was a problem. Bice didn't want to sell. His reluctance wasn't about money. It was about giving up what he had: autonomy, a staff he liked and trusted, and a 60 percent ownership of a thriving business.
But the word is that it all came down to -- as so often happens -- a relationship. After a few meetings, Bice and Wilens just simply connected. Both are exceptionally bright and are steeped in technology (Bice still writes much of ProLaw's code; Wilens was West's chief technical officer before ascending to president.)
The duo seem to share a vision about what the future of law office computing will look like. Wilens also assured Bice that he wouldn't move ProLaw from Albuquerque or make pony-tailed Bice change ProLaw's laissez faire office culture. The companies inked the deal in August for an undisclosed sum.
Since then, the ProLaw staff has been working feverishly to make sure it had something new to show at this month's New York Legal Tech show. Rather than design an entirely new system, the companies decided to meld Westlaw and portions of the old WestWorks into ProLaw's latest version (ProLaw 9).
Want to know how many patent litigations opposing counsel has handled? From within ProLaw, the answer is now only a click or two away. Ditto for a search of the lead plaintiff's property records.
ProLaw also links to West's practice libraries, which lead lawyers to content and questions on various subject matters. California practitioners can also open the state's legal forms directly from the inside of ProLaw.
Of course, ProLaw and West have much bigger plans. West's content will continue to be added to the ProLaw template. And Bice boldly predicts that, partially through the use of comprehensive West Key Number System taxonomy, the companies will soon make knowledge management something law firms do, not just talk about.
For now, they're taking a relatively small step. Which is probably a good thing. West has money. And now West has Bice. It all leaves West well-positioned to have a big say about the future of legal technology.
But West also has one more thing it didn't have a year ago: a lesson under its belt about the importance of timing. It just might behoove the company to take a page from its old publishing days: move boldly, move steadily, but move slowly.
Ashby Jones is contributing editor of Law Technology News and a technology reporter for American Lawyer Media Inc.