The Extranet Trend: More Firms Sharing with More Clients
by Cary Griffith
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Although these days it is safe to believe most private lawyers are familiar with extranets, anecdotal interviews with several attorneys resulted in many who were unfamiliar with the term or the technology. For example, when one legal administrator at a mid-sized law firm was asked if his firm used an extranet, his response was by no means isolated: "What's an extranet?" he asked.
Perhaps one of the best ways to understand extranets is by placing them in context. The firm's Internet site, intranets, and extranets (if the firm has one), are all powered via Web technologies. Almost everyone is familiar with the typical law firm Internet site. They are as ubiquitous as business cards and used for much the same purposes—marketing and advertising.
Intranets use Web technologies to create enterprise-wide private Internets for the conveyance of information within a legal organization. Good examples of law office intranet uses include the conveyance of policies and procedures, standard forms, biographical and organizational information, work product databases, and collaborative project management.
While firm websites are set up to acquaint the public with a law firm's areas of practice, expertise, lawyers, and related information, the intranet site is only viewed and used by its employees.
Extranets are the latest Web-technology hybrid, combining the powers of the Internet with the promise of increased client communication. Extranets are password-protected websites that can be used to convey a variety of different types of information between law firm attorneys and their clients—typically the outside businesspeople and corporate counsel they support.
Some of the characteristics that define an extranet include:
Accessible via a logon link on the law firm's website.
Customizable so only certain users have access to certain content.
Portals to a variety of applications and content, not just static information.
Responsible for increased efficiencies, speed, and the overall quality of attorney-client communications.
Five years of extranet growth hasn't changed the basic reasons for using the hybrid Web technology. In 2001 Jerry Lawson, author of The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (ABA: 1999), cited several basic reasons the new tool should be used. In an llrx.com article, he mentioned some of the following:
Judicious use of the technology can save clients time and money.
Increased quality of service.
Increased client communication—quantity, type, and speed.
Decreased importance of geographic distance and different time zones.
"We have built extranets for specific client requirements and find that they are not only efficient for conducting business, but also demonstrate client service with every use," explains Greg Wolsky, Chief Marketing Officer for Lindquist & Vennum, a large national law firm. Wolsky's comments illustrate a recurring theme of extranet value and one of the reasons more law firms are considering adding the technology—clients.
A good illustration of a relatively simple use of a law firm extranet is a case or legal-document repository. For instance, one large law firm interviewed for this article uses its extranet for a variety of purposes, including as a repository for real estate closing documents. Commercial real estate closings often involve more than 50 different closing documents. Today, using an extranet document repository, electronic copies of all signed transaction documents are made available to this firm's clients on a password-protected virtual space. In the past, those documents were bound and provided to all parties of the transaction—involving significant expense and time. More recently, those documents were pressed into a CD that was provided to all parties. Using an extranet, the final documents can simply be posted, and anyone with the proper access can log on and download the documents and capture them in electronic form, leave them on the extranet repository, or generate their own printed volume of closing documents.
While document repositories are one of the first efficient uses of an extranet, more technologically savvy and experienced firms are using the technology to provide clients with more sophisticated, real-time access to other types of information.
"Pretty much whatever a law firm client can think of, we can build," comments Debra Kamys, President of Inherent, Inc., a legal technology vendor with plenty of experience building law firm extranets. Some extranet applications Inherent has been involved with include OWL, a sophisticated immigration law database, various types of case-management applications, and subject-specific news portals (where clients can view news from a variety of sources on particular topics). But "we haven't yet had a firm who wants their billing online," she notes, "though I believe it's coming."
The OWL application was built for Gibney, Anthony & Flaherty, a New York City law office with approximately 35 attorneys, a dozen of whom practice immigration law. OWL stands for Outside Web Link, but Stephen Maltby, a partner with the firm, notes they like to refer to the application as "a complete management tool, or a virtual paralegal. We call it OWL because it's awake at night."
OWL performs a variety of tasks and has a variety of access levels. Two of its most important functions are acting as a "trip wire" and an extremely efficient, non-time zone sensitive communication vehicle. With OWL, upcoming important events are monitored and whenever one approaches—a new visa application, renewal, or some similar time-driven event—OWL automatically sends out the appropriate reminders to the appropriate parties. Perhaps just as important, OWL is a constant communication tool, so that firm clients in remote parts of the world can log on to OWL at any time and view the status of their files, the firms' daily activities, or the status of all immigration matters being managed by the firm.
OWL has "revolutionized my practice," explains Maltby. "I think our clients are happy too, because it gives real transparency to them so they can see where we're at with their case."
According to the "2005 In-House Tech Survey" produced by Law.com, the use of extranets in private law offices is higher than in their corporate legal counterparts. The survey found that "nearly three-quarters of the companies polled said their law firms have set up extranets for in-house counsel," while less than a third have reciprocated. In more detailed terms, 74 percent of law firm respondents had established extranets for use by their law office clients, while only 30 percent of legal departments established extranets for their outside counsel.
Compared with our anecdotal comments, the 74-percent law firm extranet participation rate sounds high. But remember, this survey was of in-house counsel and those who represent them. If the entire outside law firm population was polled, regardless of size or the nature of each practice, extranet use numbers would likely be lower. Nonetheless, extranet awareness and use is clearly on the rise.
While extranet use is growing, law offices, according to Kamys, are still cautious. They seem to be taking an "I'll believe it when I see it being used by others" attitude, she notes. Having noted the preceding, Kamys also observes that "a year ago, I couldn't get anyone interested in extranets. Now, almost everyone I speak with is asking me about them."
Kamys' experience is echoed by others. Expect the remainder of the first decade of the 21st century to be a watershed period for this latest Web-technology tool.
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