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Law Firms Open Up

Traditionally secretive, law firms are using extranets to give clients access to documents and a window into their operations.

By Jean Consilvio
October 6, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Losing a client is one of the costliest mistakes a law firm can make. So a growing number of them are using extranets as a collaborative tool to offer their best clients the best service and keep them in the fold.
This is a big change in the world of law firms, which have tended to be low-tech and secretive. But now legal staffs and clients that are dispersed across the U.S. and overseas can work together by accessing documents on extranet-based knowledge management systems. Such extranets give clients a window into billing, transactions, calendaring, depositions and pleadings, for example.
Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP, an Atlanta-based firm with 350 lawyers, has built about 60 extranets, or data rooms, for 10 major corporations. "We just get so much enhanced value from the relationship with our clients" that Sutherland doesn't charge them for setting up and maintaining the extranet, says Kim Perret, director of marketing and communications. The firm saves money, too, because it doesn't have to rent space to store boxes of documents or bear the expense of sending people to oversee a document review or due diligence. There are also savings in travel costs, travel time and meals.
Now, a client traveling in a remote country needs only his laptop to view a document. "When he sends an e-mail that says, 'Love that extranet!' it's priceless," Perret says.
Big clients today want to be more involved in their cases than ever before. At the same time, cases are becoming more complex and require teams of lawyers from multiple disciplines, from intellectual property to litigation.
"Firms that are more team-oriented are doing very well, and that plays to what clients are looking for," says Michael Rynowecer, president of BTI Consulting Group Inc. in Boston.
Extranets are especially helpful when people from the business side, such as the employee-benefits team or the chief financial officer, are involved in a merger or an acquisition. With extranets, there's no need to search through boxes of documents; information can be found using Boolean, keyword or text searches.
San Francisco-based Pillsbury Winthrop LLC set up an extranet for the Los Angeles Unified School District to share documents and manage specific cases. The extranet runs on FirmConnect from Hubbard One in Chicago and is tied into Pillsbury's billing, CRM and docketing systems, as well as its document management system.
The school district pays 29 law firms $28 million in outside counsel fees for cases involving discrimination, civil rights, eminent domain and construction, says Harold Kwalwasser, former general counsel for the school district. It's a



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