THE HIGHLY touted WestWorks application service provider program for small firms may be grinding to a slow halt, the latest victim (at least temporarily) of the skittish technology climate.
John Shaughnessy, director of corporate communications of parent Thomson Legal & Regulatory, confirmed that West Group has put sales efforts on hold while it monitors the economy. But, he insists, WestWorks has not shut down.
Seventy six firms are using the product. "We have hit our initial target for seats sold in the pilot," said Shaughnessy. And beta testing will continue in three cities (San Francisco, Miami and Houston), he said.
"Product development is continuing," said Shaughnessy. A third release of the platform is due out this summer, as is a third library, on civil litigation.
WestWorks was unveiled at the January 2000 LegalTech show. It is a suite of services and software for small firms, including time-and-billing, legal research, case management, calendaring and document management. Partners include IBM, Elite Information Systems Inc., and Microsoft Corp.
To use the system, firms must have high speed Internet access and adopt Windows 2000, an industrial-strength operating system that was marketed more toward the giants of industry than small business/firm operation. (Around the same time, Microsoft released Windows ME for consumers, who were actively discouraged from buying 2000.)
Nor is WestWorks cheap. For a loaded version, West charges each attorney $132 per month, and that does not include Westlaw access.
Was the Windows 2000 requirement a deal-breaker for small firms? West officials concede that that timing was a key issue.
"Any firm that has to make a new investment in technology in this economy is seriously evaluating whether they can make it for another year," said Steven Daitch, who started WestWorks and left in May to run West's LegalEdcenter continuing education project. Howard Zack, executive vice president, of information and product development, is now monitoring WestWorks.
But the same wait-and-see dynamic is operating with case management and other software, observes Daitch. "As attractive as an ASP is, it's a new investment."
"I don't perceive that there is a technology chill in big firms, but WestWorks was aimed at small and medium firms," he continued. "An ASP is a competitive advantage for small firms; they will come back when they feel comfortable with the economy."
Interviewed last winter for AmLaw Tech, West Group president Mike Wilens acknowledged that WestWorks ran the risk of being premature. "We agree that it's early to be doing this," he said. But he'd rather West be too early than too late, Wilens said.
Others suggest that West was not prepared for the intensive handholding that the small firms would need to install and use WestWorks.
Shaughnessy did not dismiss the observation. "One of the purposes of a pilot is to identify sales, training, and implementation needs, and build a structure to best serve customers in helping to get the product implemented," said Shaughnessy.
"It's very different than selling a customer a legal research product," where West has an entire support structure in place, he said. " I think we've learned a lot about the market," said Shaughnessy.
And yes, in any event, West will leverage the information and experience gained on the project, said Daitch. "We do that all the time."
-- Monica Bay. (Ashby Jones contributed to this story).