MIS@ Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough L.L.P.
Traveling Without Bags Full of Devices
An Atlanta-based firm uses old-fashioned phones for full-service Internet connectivity.
By David Worth
LAWYERS now expect to connect to the Internet at any time and from any place to conduct the business of law. But the complexities and gadgets involved in providing Internet access to e-mail, appointments and contacts can make life more complicated, rather than simple, for both the traveling lawyer and IT department.
Just try instructing a lawyer, who has never dialed-in before, how to connect to the office from London. Connectivity is an ever-changing landscape, and adjusting can be difficult for all but the most techno-savvy lawyers.
Palm organizers, laptops, and two-way pagers can be helpful, but each device has its limitations and learning curves. Laptops need phone lines. Palms lack wireless coverage in all cities (for mail). Two-way pagers are only good for short e-mail messages. It generally requires a combination of these devices to conduct business away from the office.
Like many firms, we were looking for a better, easier, and more lightweight way for our lawyers to stay wired.
Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough L.L.P. is based in Atlanta. Founded in 1897, we now have 235 attorneys practicing in Atlanta; South Carolina (Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Charleston, Greenville); Charlotte, N.C.; and Munich, Germany. Our primary focus is litigation and corporate work, involving clients all over the country.
We have evolved into a Microsoft firm. Our current infrastructure consists of 40 NT servers and six Novell servers (the Novell servers are scheduled to be migrated later this year). Desktops are Windows 95. T1 lines connect all but Germany, which has a 128 frame.
Like many other firms, we took on the challenge of converting from WordPerfect to Word in 1997 and successfully made it through unscathed (give or take). We use Microsoft Word 97, Outlook 97, as well as PC-DOCS 3.72. We have spent the last couple of years adjusting to our new Microsoft life and felt like we had conquered that challenge.
Earlier this year, our technology committee began looking for its next challenge. An obvious goal: improving our lawyers' productivity away from the office. Telecommuting and accessing the office from anywhere became a major focus.
As it happened, some of our lawyers knew people at a local start-up company that had some really interesting software. The new application could streamline firm communications, including Internet access, using speech recognition and Microsoft Exchange 5.5, the company promised.
From the general description it seemed like something we should take 15 minutes to preview. We scheduled a meeting and began the demonstration of the Personal Virtual Assistant by Conita Technologies. The heart of this software is a telephony-based system, which uses speech recognition to interact with your Microsoft Exchange server for e-mail, contacts, appointments and conference calling.
Seven people showed up for the demo. Within five minutes, three of our lawyers were enraptured. The enthusiasm was palpable.
The software struck a major nerve with our lawyers. Questions abounded, discussions began and the possibilities poured out. I have to admit, I was equally impressed, and began to think of how immediate an impact this would have for the firm. Our technology chair, Kevin Hall, was so impressed he wanted to know if we could have a pilot installed at our firm.
At our next full technology committee meeting, we agreed to try out the software as a pilot project. We knew other products existed on the market but having a vendor a block away from you that was willing to make enhancements was hard to beat. We had nothing to lose, if it didn't work.
So four months ago, we installed the software for 15 test users. The system requires a separate server running Microsoft SQL and the proprietary Conita telephony software to handle the communication between our Exchange server and theirs.
The test has gone well so far; users continue to find new ways to use the system. For example, some lawyers call in and dictate messages to their secretaries for transcription. In fact, many lawyers insist this software has revolutionized their practices.
Why is this so revolutionary? First, no laptop, Palm organizer or two-way pager is required to check your e-mail, appointments or contacts when away from the office. All that is required is a regular or cell phone. What makes this system so effective is: 1) the speech recognition is very good; and 2) the voice commands are intuitive enough to learn in approximately five minutes. If you can dial a phone number, you can use this technology. No speech training is required. The PVA allows you to interact with the most common functions used every day via voice commands. Examples of voice commands include "read messages," "call contact," and "read my appointments."
It also acts as a receptionist, answering calls, allowing people to record messages and forwarding calls. The forwarding feature provides call screening, whereby you may choose to accept the call or send the caller to voice mail. Here's a brief example how one of our attorneys might use the PVA:
PVA: "What can I do for you?"
Lawyer: "Send a message."
PVA: "To whom would you like to send a message?"
Lawyer: "John Smith."
PVA: "John Smith -- is this correct?"
PVA: "Would you like to name another contact?"
PVA: "Would you like to include a subject?"
PVA: "Please record the subject after the tone?"
Lawyer: "Change in Plans"
PVA: "Now please record the body of your message after the tone.'
Lawyer: "John, there has been a change in plans, I need to meet with Susan at 2:00. I'll meet with you at 3:00."
PVA: Would you like to send the message, review the message, continue recording or hear all choices?"
Lawyer: "Send the message."
PVA: "Message sent."
Once we saw this software, we knew it would be a big hit with our staff. Just accessing the mail component alone is helpful. There's no PC to boot up, just use your mobile phone (great when you are on the golf course or in the car) and keep up with your business.
Another very popular feature is the conference calling. Most lawyers keep a paper list, store client's numbers on their cell phone/Palm or call their secretary for a number. This is no longer needed. Simply call the PVA and it performs the calling for you. What's makes this even better is that all calls actually are routed out of your own phone system which means you don't need a calling card to talk to clients or anyone else in your contact list.
This is probably one of the most powerful benefits to most of our users. You can call clients anytime and not have to keep up with reimbursements from your cell phone bills or long distance calls from your house. It simplifies the process for everyone.
After using this software for four months we are still very enthusiastic. However, like any software, we have discovered limitations:
* Sometimes the voice recognition does get tripped up, especially on less than perfect mobile connections. You are forced to repeat yourself several times to get it right.
* The conference calling feature has one limitation -- it relies on using your Microsoft Outlook contact list. If the user is not in your personal contact list it cannot make the call. In addition, it does not interface with any of the public folders which is where we keep most of our client information for general sharing purposes. You have to copy the contact list from the public folder into your contact list which is not ideal.
* When listening to an e-mail message the PVA talks to you in very computerized voice which can be hard at times to interpret. It takes a few times to adjust your ears to this voice.
But despite these minor irritants, the PVA has been a great help to our lawyers, and has certainly reduced the back strain on our traveling attorneys from lugging around countless devices. We expect to roll this software out to 100 users this year. If all goes well, we will give access to all lawyers and paralegals throughout the firm.
David Worth is the I.S. director at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough L.L.P., and is based in Atlanta.