MIS@ Holland & Hart L.L.P.
Using Extranets to Build Client Relationships
How we started, and eventually spun off, our firm's technology consulting business.
By John C. Tredennick Jr.
TWO YEARS AGO, during a noon run down the Platte-River Greenway in Denver, my law firm partner, Brian Mumaugh, asked me to help one of his clients with a technical problem. The client -- Albertsons' -- was a large supermarket chain based in Boise, and we did their labor work in this region.
The problem was that its legal department was having a devil of a time keeping track of and managing its labor cases -- grievances, EEOC, NLRB, and the like. (Turns out that if you are in the supermarket business, no matter how hard you try, you are going to have lots of labor matters.)
Actually, the real problem was the legal department couldn't get corporate information services staff to give it the time of day, let alone build a simple Access database to help manage its caseload.
The next day I met with Chris Yost, the company's assistant general counsel for labor relations, who was in town for an arbitration. I explained that we had been building Access databases for years, and had built case management and docketing databases for the firm. After showing him our work, I said we would be pleased to build him a labor tracking database to help solve his problem.
Chris was excited, to say the least; and he couldn't wait to get started. Before he left, however, I gave him one warning. "Chris," I said, "I know you are excited about this and I feel sure your GC will be excited too. But sooner or later your IS department will hear about it. And they are going to kill it. Just, mark my words." He looked at me quizzically, but said no more. I wished him good travel on his westward trip home.
About two weeks later, Chris called. "John, you're a genius." I laughed, thinking I'm no genius but Chris went on. "They killed it. We were ready to get started but IS killed it. 'We can't support a database built by someone else; it might have viruses; our system will go down; you can't do it.' How could you know they would kill it?"
I wanted to say, "Because that's what all IS departments do to good ideas," but I resisted. (It is good to have at least one person think you are a genius.) Instead, hearing the disappointment in Chris' voice, I raised an alternative. "You know," I said, drawing out my thought, "there is another way we could do this."
"What do you mean?" he responded before I could finish. Undaunted, I jumped back in. "You guys have a fast connection to the Internet, don't you? And a browser?" I asked, knowing the answer already. "Why don't we build a Web front-end on your labor case management system and host it here? That way the IS folks would have nothing to complain about. The program wouldn't be running over their system."
That really was the beginning of a whole new approach to building client relationships for the firm. I grabbed one of our programmers and (working nights and weekends) we built our first client labor management database.
The system tracks grievance proceedings, NLRB cases and EEOC complaints. It keeps information about status, filing date, store, case type, bargaining unit, and contract provision.
It provides e-mail reminders about key deadlines and links to contract documents. It allows reports of almost any type. Most important, it is run entirely by the client's employees, although it lives on our server. All we do is keep the system backed up, and running.
The fun part of all this is we charged our client to develop and host this database, making it a true win/win situation. The client got its problem solved for a reasonable fee. At the same time, we covered the cost of maintaining a staff of developers as well as the high cost of purchasing and running our Extranet and database servers.
I soon realized that other clients might need our kind of help as well. We represent one of the largest retailers in the United States, handling its intellectual property, trademark and regional litigation matters. During a visit to pitch our services, I showed the general counsel our Extranet technology and offered to help automate her legal department activities. We started with its advertising review process.
Like most companies, the client followed a mostly manual, and paper-based process for reviewing ads. A business department representative typically would fax the ad to the legal department for review. In turn, because much of the work was done by outside counsel, the legal department administrator would fax or overnight the ad to the outside reviewer. Assuming the reviewer could read the fax, his or her job would be to make sure that factual claims had proper substantiation. You do this by tracking down a copy of the product manual, a study, journal, or what not and making sure there is support for the claim. The end process after all this running around was a return fax with markings on the ad and maybe a CYA letter.
Using Web technology, I proposed a different approach, one combining a database, Acrobat imaging technology and an Extranet. With our new system, once the ad was prepared, the agency was asked to generate an electronic copy in the Adobe Acrobat "PDF" format. This resulting copy, which would be a perfect color image of the ad, is then transmitted by e-mail to the legal department with a request for review. Substantiation materials relating to claims in the ad would also be transmitted in PDF format if not already in the system, or could be scanned into electronic format.
The legal department administrator then logs into our secure Extranet site to initiate the ad review process. He or she fills out an ad profile sheet with information relating to the review (nature of ad, date review requested, reviewer, etc.). He or she then uploads the ad and any new substantiation materials to the system.
Once the review process is initiated, the Extranet system generates an e-mail request to the reviewer (whether internal or outside counsel). Once notified, the reviewer can log onto the system, read the profile information and view the related ad and its substantiation. The reviewer can then input comments regarding the ad or annotate it and upload the annotation to the system to be viewed by the client.
This Web-based process provided several advantages over the paper-based, manual system. First, it moves quickly, with images replacing paper/faxes and e-mails pushing faxes, phones and overnight services aside.
Second, the client can track the entire process, checking to make sure the reviews are timely and that claims are properly substantiated.
Third, and this won't make law firms happy, the client realized the efficiency gains by bringing more of this work in-house. (Since we weren't doing this work, it didn't bother us too much.)
We have made the same pitch to other clients, who are increasingly receptive to this new approach to case/matter management. For example, we recently delivered a system to a business client who puts together complex investment programs for high-net-worth individuals. Each deal, and the client might do a hundred at a time, requires a mountain of paper (security documents, etc.) which must be shared among three to four law firms, accountants, banks, the investors, and others. Each also comes with a series of deadlines and resulting tasks, which have to be done in order by the proper people.
Using an Extranet-based system, we automated the process. Each professional logs into our Web site and can see a status listing of deals and related tasks. Documents relating to each deal are stored on the server as well in PDF format. When a new investor joins, the client representative can initiate the process by logging onto the site and filling out a profile sheet. Once you hit the submit button, the server generates the appropriate investor documents and you are off to the races.
These kinds of systems help cement our relationships with clients. Not only do we provide excellent legal representation, but we build systems to help them get their work done and even host their critical data on our secure Extranet servers. I realize there are lots of ways to build client loyalty, but find that this way works even better than monthly golf outings or theatre tickets.
We use a number of off-the-shelf tools to build these Web-enabled databases. The trick is to make them all work together.
Cold Fusion. We like a middleware product from Allaire, www.allaire.com, called Cold Fusion and have been using it since 1997. Its job is to connect your Web browser to an ODBC compliant database. In simple terms, Cold Fusion takes information from a database and presents it to your browser in HTML format, allowing you to view it in any fashion you might imagine. If you want to edit or add to the data, Cold Fusion translates your request into database language and passes it back to the database server. In turn, it takes any response from the database and returns it to you.
You can do the same things with a number of other programs, most notably Active Server Pages, the Microsoft alternative. The strongest point for using Active Server Pages is that it uses the free Internet Information Server, and thus you do not have to shell out $900 for the Cold Fusion software. It uses a "visual basic"-like programming language, which makes it the first choice for a VB shop. In contrast, Cold Fusion uses its own scripting language and tags, which we find a bit easier to teach and use. (Plus, when we started using Cold Fusion there weren't any alternatives.)
For open source advocates, you can do all of this with Linux, PHP, and MySql. Look for someone with a good Perl background before jumping into these waters.
The Database. One of the great strengths of a Web-enabled database is that you can use the simplest desktop database for a multi-user application. About three years ago we built a firm-wide docketing system using Microsoft's desktop database, Access. We linked it to the Web using Cold Fusion and rolled it out to our 10 offices overnight. Suddenly the firm had an easy but effective docketing system that connected all of our users and our offices. The system has been running ever since with no maintenance required.
People rightly criticize Access because it does not handle multiple users and bogs down with too many records. With Cold Fusion in the middle, that is not the case. Cold Fusion acts as the single client for the Access database, so there are no multi-user problems to address. And, since everything happens on the two servers, you can add RAM and processors to the boxes as needed in contrast to running Access directly with processing being done on each desktop machine.
These days we do all of our work in MS SQL, which handles any size record set and could accommodate multiple users as well. If the project demanded it, you could use Oracle, IBM's DB2 or any other ODBC compliant database.
The Search Engine. We have been a Verity shop since 1996, www.verity.com, and recommend its search engine products and their new PortalOne products highly. One of Verity's strengths has been its smart search agents which we are using for data mining purposes and electronic media discovery. The other thing we like is PortalOne's security features. It works with NT's log in database (or an LDAP one) and allows us to determine any user's security rights down to the individual document level. In other words, you can run a search on the database/document collection but if you do not have rights to a responsive document you will never know it exists.
The Browser. While we can spec our projects for either major browser (Netscape or Internet Explorer 4.x or higher) we have found making these systems cross browser compatible to be more trouble that it is worth. Putting aside cyber-politics and the love/hate relationship many have with Bill Gates, we feel the Netscape browser has fallen behind the times and it has caused us hours of programming time to get it to do what IE does naturally. If you build these systems yourself, we recommend building for one browser if possible. When Netscape finally releases its 6.0 version, our recommendation may change.
The Data Center. The minute you start hosting for clients or even internal users, you are into data center land. Clients expect these applications to run 24/7 which means staffing, high-end equipment, bandwidth, and redundancy. You can easily find yourself with a $500,000 investment before you get very far.
We bit the bullet and have an expensive array of equipment housed at a major data center. Rather than a PC, we store all files on a NetworkAppliance device, www.netapp.com. This is a UNIX box whose sole function is storage and retrieval of files. You can plug in a terabyte of hard drive storage (Raid 5, hot-swappable) and it makes a snapshot of its data files four times a day with a nightly backup. Figure on spending about $250,000 for one of these devices with sufficient storage for your data needs.
We buy Dell rack-mounted servers for our SQL server, our Verity index and search servers, and our Cold Fusion boxes. The rack mounted boxes cost extra but fit in a data center locker which is a must because space is at a premium. We recommend at least dual processor boxes for proper performance.
While we have hosted applications at Holland & Hart, and despite our T-3 connection, we have decided to move our servers to the Level (3) data center. A data center offers redundancy which translates to reliability. It is fed by three separate power stations, has a vault of batteries, and a locomotive-sized generator. The center has Pentagon-like security and perfect climate. Most important of all, it has five separate fiber pipelines coming from the likes of Qwest, Level (3), Sprint, etc. This means you are functioning at incredibly high bandwidth even if one of the major providers has a melt down.
We ensure security through three separate technologies: Log-in and password; SSL encryption; and a firewall to protect the data. Before a user can access files or other data, s/he must enter at least one user name and password. We typically use a second log-in for extra security and to determine the user's rights. So long as the password information is not given out to others, this provides a reasonably safe means to keep out unauthorized users.
We encrypt transmissions between the user and our Web server through a technology called SSL for "secure sockets layer." In practical terms this means that even if a transmission were intercepted, which is highly unlikely, the unauthorized recipient would not be able to decipher it (at least without a couple of hundred super computers). Only the original user has the necessary key to render it intelligible.
We store documents, data and images on dedicated file servers behind a fire wall. Users from any part of the world can access the documents by logging onto the Internet and pointing their browsers to the our Internet server. That server is located outside the fire wall but it is highly secure. Access can only be obtained if the user has the appropriate name/password combination. All services, ftp, telnet, etc. are disabled. All of the programming files on it are encrypted and it is the only computer that can communicate with its parallel server inside the firewall.
To make all of this work, you will need a bunch of very talented programmers, network, and Web gurus. Unfortunately, good people are in very high demand (they make more than associates and soon junior partners). Convincing your management committee to hire these folks to get your program up and running is quite a trick. Convincing them to allow them to wear T-shirts, shorts, and to bring their dogs is an even bigger trick. Good luck.
When you start looking, recognize that you need applications programmers, not simple Web site developers. These applications are far more complicated to build than the typical Web site, they need scalability, security, and a whole lot more work on the user interface than you might imagine. Consider hiring outside help but make sure they have the knowledge you need to build these kinds of tools.
About a year ago I realized that the costs of equipping a data center were too high to support just a few client systems.
I also discovered that you cannot recruit the kind of talent you need to build these systems without offering profit sharing and options. The only way to keep the initiative going -- i.e. to offer these kinds of services to our clients -- was to convince my partners to let me spin this off into a separate entity.
I approached my partners with this hare-brained idea of creating a new affiliate with much trepidation. After all, these are lawyers we are talking about, not wild-eyed entrepreneurs.
The last time I had made such a proposal (in 1996), my ethics partner jumped up, gave me a doleful look and announced with all the gravity she could muster: "The law is a learned profession." Which was her way of saying she wanted no part of these new business ideas. Back then, my partners seemed inclined to agree.
This time I found a whole new attitude about the idea of creating an affiliate. My management committee endorsed the idea wholeheartedly, realizing maybe that this was the only way we could afford to keep offering these kinds of services to our clients.
From there we moved on to the hard part -- I had to write a business plan and convince two-thirds of my partners that this really made sense. We had ethics subcommittees, organization subcommittees, marketing subcommittees, and subcommittee subcommittees. But somehow, through all the bureaucracy and long weekends writing the plan, I made it. We got the approval to form CaseShare Systems this past spring.
As I write this CaseShare is off and running. Along with our paperless workflow systems, we provide case management and other litigation support systems, complex case Extranets, document database and repository services and regional counsel systems as all Internet-based PaperlessPractice systems.
While jumping for a 20-year trial practice has had its scary moments, I can tell you that building a business is great fun; every day is more exciting than the last. And, I don't miss the time sheets one bit.
John Tredennick Jr.. is a member of the LTN editorial advisory board; a partner at Holland & Hart L.L.P.; and CEO of CaseShare Systems L.L.C.