Thursday, January 27, 2005

Desktop search gains momentum

E-mail has become a most unwieldy tool. Much has been made about this in various blog postings, legal technology conferences and within the hallways of most law firms. Firms worry about e-mail retention and due to the popularity of e-mail, many firms find themselves exceeding Microsoft's long standing limit of 2GB per mailbox. More pressure is being put on lawyers to clean up their mailbox. But, part of the problem is that Outlook's built-in searching is very weak and makes it hard for lawyers to quickly find e-mails and then move them to folders outside of the Inbox, Sent/Deleted Items.

To address this glaring problem, Microsoft purchased a company called, Lookout Software, who built a really nice (free) plug-in for Outlook that makes searching a breeze. Most of us have heard of Google's desktop search product, you can download for free. In their salvo, Yahoo recently announced their partnership with X1, to provide a 'lite' version of their desktop search product for free.

Having evaluated all three, there is a real upside to these products and they will be greatly welcomed by your firm.
  • Lookout's newest version makes it easy to deploy in large environments and while it lacks some of the slick features of X1, if you're on a tight budget, this will be a huge leap forward for your users.
  • When I downloaded Google's product, it seemed very interested in wanting to 'monitor' my activity. While this feature could be disabled, I was weary of what Google's real intent was with their product. I uninstalled it after a couple days of using it.
  • I did not evaluate the Yahoo branded X1 product, but their full featured version which is not free, at $79/user (retail) but also had the most functionality. They have very innovative technology which instantly begins to return search results with every letter you type. The system also has hit-highlighting and a preview pane. In addition to full-text search, you can quickly search on e-mail fields. X1 also seems to be moving towards other enterprise products as well.

With the evergrowing amount of e-mail, these tools will certainly become a necessity. I recently traveled to another office without my laptop and when confronted with life sans my desktop search tool, I felt almost crippled and went through a brief period of withdrawals. It's probably the next-most addictive thing to the Blackberry!

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Project Management, why aren't more law firm IT departments doing it?

A while back I attended a webinar titled "How to Create a Successful Project Management Environment". The webinar was hosted by Sally Hatchett, the Director of Project Management for Bingham McCutchen. Project Management (PM) has been an effective tool for many years, and thankfully is now slowly making its way into law firm IT departments. It couldn't be coming any sooner, as PM has been a glaring hole in most law firm IT Departments. The need for PM is even more important as IT moves from 'plumbing' related projects, the level of sophistication rises and as with most firms the department is asked to juggle more projects without increasing staff.

The upcoming LegalTech NY Conference will hold another session on project management, sponsored by ILTA (formerly known as LawNet), as part of their Advanced CIO track. While the LegalTech conference sessions cost a few hundred dollars, ILTA members can attend this Advanced CIO track for free.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Extranets help separate firms, for now

It looks as though collaboration tools, such as extranets, are not only on the cusp of becoming an integral part of how law firms work with their clients, but also as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors.

If you've ever looked at the 'pitches books' law firms put together for prospective clients, it's no wonder something like an extranet can help set them apart. Most often a law firm's proposal boasts of a blue-chip roster of clients, touts the pedigree of their lawyers, trumpets the many successful cases/deals won for their clients and talks about their commitment to excellent client service. Virtually every law firm still in business can tell similar tales to one another, especially larger full-service firms who typically compete with other full-service firms. There's very little that helps a law firm set themselves apart when employing this standard RFP response. To that end, I once heard a client tell a group of lawyers that something as basic as publishing their rates in a proposal would be considered avant-garde.

While some are impressed with such basic things, more and more corporate legal departments are raising their expectations of what their outside counsel offer. Just ask Laura Owen, Director of Worldwide Legal Services, at Cisco Systems. Her recent article The Tech Evolution: Change or Die highlights several key trends:

  • Commoditize routine legal transactions
  • Create consortia to share needed work
  • Move your legal work to low cost firms located in other regions away from high cost centers
  • Use technology, not lawyers, to perform legal work
  • Move 80 percent of your fees to a non-billable hour basis

While her thoughts are progressive, it certainly will only be a matter of time before more and more consumers of legal services start to see the wisdom in her approach. This is especially true if her concept of consortium for shared legal work takes off. Can you imagine the buying power large companies like Cisco, Ford, 3-M, Dupont, etc. could exert if they were to band together for joint RFPs?

If you analyze her points in detail, most of them are addressed through collaboration tools and technology. Firms that are currently able to provide these tools set themselves apart, but if Ms. Owen has her way, it will only be a matter of time before we all have to answer the call to better client service.