MIS@Morrison & Foerster L.L.P.
Creating the "Any Time, Anywhere" Attorney
MoFo's commitment to quality of life is reflected in technology priorities.
By Jo Haraf
A COUPLE OF years ago, one of our attorneys called in from a café in Istanbul. She was checking her personal e-mail messages on Hotmail and wondered why she couldn't access her MoFo e-mail account and her documents as well. In a flash, we realized that our attorneys should be able to connect to our system whether they are working from home or while traveling for business or pleasure.
Based in San Francisco, Morrison & Foerster has more than 800 attorneys and 17 offices: seven in California; three other U.S. outposts, in Washington, D.C., Denver and New York; and seven international facilities in London, Brussels, Tokyo, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and Singapore. The firm's 17 offices are connected to each other using a virtual private network (VPN). Each office has either frame relay systems or T1 lines -- permanent, high speed connections that provide reliable, cost effective connections for both data transfer and voice links.
This system allows employees in branch offices (and authorized clients) to access MoFo's central server through the Internet. The secure VPN protects our network and individual hard drives, and is essentially an encrypted "tunnel" through the Internet.
The majority of our employees use our standard Windows NT desktop, which includes Office 97. (We plan to convert our servers to Windows 2000 this year, but will wait until 2001 to complete a desktop conversion throughout the firm.)
With the help of Payne Consulting Group, we developed Case Manager 2000, a proprietary application that includes imaging, chronology, cast of characters modules, and other features. We're currently using Carpe Diem for timekeeping and ASA Legal Partner, a well loved legacy system, for accounting and billing. (We will select a new system by September and we're considering many applications, not just the usual legal vendors, including "enterprise resource planning" (ERP) systems from SAP, PeopleSoft and JD Edwards.)
Some of our clients have requested that we submit invoices electronically and they've asked that we follow the guidelines from the LEDES (Legal Electronic Data Exchange Standards) Committee. While we have yet to adopt a formal e-invoicing system, we are able to accommodate electronic filing requests with our existing software.
MoFo has long enjoyed a reputation as a progressive, humane work environment. Ranked number 25 in the most recent American Lawyer 100 roster, the firm also placed in the Top 20 "Best Firms to Work For" by VaultReports.com, and in Vault's Top 10 for diversity and for "Treatment (of associates) by Partners." Over the last 14 years, Working Mother magazine has included MoFo 10 times in its annual list of the "100 best companies to work for."
Obviously, one key factor that contributes to that reputation is our ability to support lawyers when they are away from the office. For the MIS department, that translates to a goal of creating "ubiquitous computing." We want to offer the same "remote" experience as if the attorneys were working at their own desktops in the office.
For the firm and for the technology group, our goal is not always to be the first, but to be consistently ahead of the curve. The issue isn't really the technology, it's the mindset. If 4 p.m. is a good time for work, it's also a good time for coaching a child's team. We're trying to get away from the idea that we're locked into specific time frames. Our attorneys can work at any hour of the day from any location if they have the right technology and support.
We use technology as a way to reinforce MoFo's values and culture. One of our highest priorities is to encourage employees to balance their work lives with their family commitments. We think that our new methods of remote access allow them to do just that.
There are two ways for individuals to connect to our system from a remote location: dial-up connections, and permanent systems such as cable modems or DSL lines.
Staff who connect from multiple locations (airports, hotels, other offices), use dial-up modems from their computers. But employees who connect from one consistent location, such as a home office, can be permanently linked using cable modems or DSL (digital subscriber lines). We remind our home office users that this permanent connection only works from one location and that they have to go back to a dial-up connection when they're on the road.
Remote Access Wizard
To save time in deciding what an attorney will need to set up remote connections to the central server, MoFo developed a "remote access wizard." Available on our Intranet, the wizard walks the attorney through a series of questions to determine the best support tools.
For example, the wizard can be used by a new attorney to set up e-mail retrieval from home, or by an attorney who has had dial-in access from home but recently upgraded to a cable modem and wants a higher speed connection. Remote access is available to all attorneys and may be available to staff, with permission from the office manager.
If the attorney works from a computer at home, has cable modem access, and an ISP (Internet Service Provider), the wizard would recommend "broadband access with VPN". Translation: The attorney has a high speed connection to the Internet, and MoFo can supply Virtual Private Network (VPN) software to provide a secure connection to the MoFo network.
Because a high speed, permanent connection can increase the risk of being hacked, we also provide a personal firewall with the VPN software. The wizard's analysis also includes the lead time needed to set up the system, the cost, a performance rating, notes about installation, and the pros and cons of the system.
Depending on the attorney's need, the recommendations can range from setting up a basic dial-in connection to installing an NT desktop computer. For our more mobile attorneys, we also provide Internet support for a Blackberry or Palm Computing devices.
Not all of our business is transacted by computer. We also need voice contact between all of our offices, domestically and internationally. The quality and variety of phone technologies have improved over the last few years, and we're trying to take advantage of the technologies that allow us the fastest, most reliable phone connections at the lowest price.
The same frame relay packet switching technology that connects computers in remote offices also allows us to connect a number of remote offices on a Wide Area Network (WAN). A few years ago, only data "packets" could be sent through a WAN, but now we can send voice "packets" as well. That change has allowed us to introduce voice over frame relay to our Tokyo, Hong Kong and Brussels offices. By sharing our data network with voice, we took advantage of "spare" bandwidth and saved the firm substantial expense. We can serve a number of locations with a single phone line, regardless of the number of users at each site.
Our virtual private network also comes into play here. In its first release, VPNs could not support voice traffic, but within the last year, VPNs have added voice support. We have tested "voice over IP" (the Internet protocol) to place calls and we're very pleased with the initial results. We believe this will give us the opportunity to extend the cost savings of a VPN to more offices while retaining our inexpensive voice over WAN functionality. With the use of a VPN, no office is too small to join the MoFo family WAN.
Hong Kong will be our first international office to have this system. We are actively testing the system now and expect a launch in a matter of weeks. We plan to monitor the service for quality and consistency before we roll it out to the rest of our international offices. The goal is to migrate all international offices to the VPN for less expensive and faster connections.
Of course, one of the risks of adopting technology is vulnerability to hackers or intruders. Like all firms, MoFo is concerned about security, both for our clients and for the firm. We have a full-time manager of security and contingency planning, who audits all of our technology. We constantly monitor our firewalls and network for attacks.
Although the use of the VPN provides us with a secure way to send files back and forth, we also offer our clients a choice of additional security methods. One option is an Extranet where we store working files. Clients are given a password that enables them to share files with us. We also use the UPS Online Courier, which works like an Internet-based lock-box and allows both the client and the firm to use passwords to access files through a simple Web browser.
We also use the WorldSecure Server from Worldtalk. This system is designed to protect e-mail communications between MoFo and other WorldSecure users by encrypting messages, screening e-mail for viruses, and confirming the authenticity of an e-mail message. Although we already have firewalls in place, this system also acts as an additional e-mail firewall. In a pinch, we have also created gateways for specific clients who use other security protocols but most firms fit into one of our existing industry systems.
Our bottom line: Providing state-of-the art technology to meet the changing needs of our clients, and to enhance the quality of life of our staff.
Jo Haraf is the chief technology officer for Morrison & Foerster L.L.P., and is based in its San Francisco office.