Taking the Pressure Off
By Doug Caddell
WHAT CAN law departments and their technology people can do to work more effectively with their law firm colleagues? During last month's LawNet 2000 meeting in Palm Springs, Calif., a panel tackled just that topic. Joining me were technology directors and managers from three firms: John Green, of Baker, Donelson, Bearman & Caldwell (Memphis); Sharon Gietl, Bryan Cave L.L.P. (St. Louis); Amy Stewart, of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn (Detroit). The moderator was Frank Kilsdonk of Johnson Controls, Inc.
The panelists identified eight key steps to help law firm technologists to better serve corporate clients:
1. Communicate early and often.
Give law firm technology staff a technical contact at the corporate law department. Too often one attorney will talk to another about a technology idea and the translation given to their respective technology staff is inconsistent or not feasible. Get technology people from both organizations together early on.
2. Ask what technology the law firm uses.
There is often more than one way to make a technology initiative work. Law firm technology departments often are told that the client "demands" that we use a specific product or service. Ask what technology the law firm may already have in-place -- "demands" may only be suggestions. Many times existing technology can work as well and be implemented more quickly.
3. Understand that most law firm technology departments are understaffed.
Historically, law firm technology departments were staffed to support word-processing and then basic e-mail communication. Many firm leaders are only now coming to grips with the realities of today's demanding technology. Many technology departments can only support the day-to-day internal needs of their firm.
Individual lawyers will make promises to clients without checking the availability of resources and the viability of a projects success with their technology staff. This problem is expanded when multiple attorneys make multiple requests.
4. Law firm technology departments are client service driven.
While many law firm technology departments are understaffed, most all understand who their internal and external clients are, and are self-motivated to deliver service. Corporate law departments should know that why constraints may limit the ability of law firm technologists to respond. The desire to work effectively with corporate clients is a high priority.
5. Set realistic deadlines.
Deadlines that are communicated to law firm technology people are usually one of near-immediate implementation. Communicating directly with law firm technology staff will help identify the real due dates. Law firm technologists often have rushed ahead, only to find that the corporate law department's deadline is weeks away.
6. Communicate required hardware and software needs.
Knowing the hardware and software required for the project is critical. This sound like a no-brainer, but understanding the requirements with sufficient lead-time to order, receive and configure hardware and software is a key element for success. Remember equipment may be backordered and immediate delivery may not be possible.
7. Discuss electronic connection and communication options.
T1, ISDN, X.400, Notes and the Internet are just some of the options available to allow parties to connect and communicate. Far too often the word that reaches the law firm staff is that the client requires a "xyz" connection. Sometimes this is true, but often there are multiple ways to connect and/or communicate that are acceptable to everyone involved.
8. Don't force your law firm to bypass your corporate IT department.
Corporate law departments can be at the bottom of their in-house technology food chain, receiving reduced help from the corporate IT department. It's only natural that corporate technology departments are focused on the revenue generating side of the business.
However, don't ask law firm staff to by-pass corporate IT. Eventually, law firm technology staff will have to coordinate with them, and not doing so up-front only makes this important relationship more difficult to nurture.
Moving beyond the "do's and don'ts" of establishing an effective working relationship, the panelists also discussed the use of Web technologies to improve communications between law firms and their clients, and for the delivery of new types of electronic-based legal services such as legal FAQ subscription sites.
Suggestions from the audience included insight from Pamela Cottier, a systems liaison from DuPont's legal department.
She discussed DuPont's efforts to increase communication between DuPont technical staff and its law firms.
In the mid-'90s, DuPont reduced the number of outside counsel firms from about 350 to 40. This past year, members of the technology staffs from those 40 firms met with DuPont technology people for a one and a half day meeting to review existing processes and future plans. This mini-conference included topics such as trial exhibits, a VPN rollout, litigation support technologies and other applications. This formal technology meeting has allowed DuPont and its outside counsels to work more effectively together as a team.
Keep these key steps in mind when discussing your next technology project. Corporate departments and their law firm counterparts share the same pressures to reduce costs, improve efficiency, deliver service quickly and improve results. Establishing effective communications among all of the appropriate parties and looking at alternatives will take the pressure off of what can become a pressure-cooker.
Doug Caddell is CIO of Foley & Lardner, based in Milwaukee.