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Legal eagles take KM to the Net

As attorneys collaborate with far-flung clients and colleagues, the need to share knowledge is key

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

Attorneys spend an average of 6% to 9% of their revenues on technology, according to industry experts, which stacks up fairly well with other industries like pharmaceuticals, which spends about 5% on IT. But until recently, lawyers have focused their knowledge management efforts on in-house systems that have limited access to those outside of the organization. They have been extremely reluctant to embrace the Web for document and knowledge sharing.

But like all businesses, law firms are under intense pressure to increase billings, and deliver information to partners and clients around the clock in a convenient format. Sharing documents over secure Web sites—through extranets and other private networks--has become a cost-saving strategy for many litigators. Recently, some law firms have scrapped the document management systems they developed in-house in favor of more open systems to better address changes in the legal profession, document management needs and the needs of clients.

The vulnerability of those proprietary document management systems becomes increasingly evident when law firms merge—as many have done lately—or when several law firms work together on a class action suit or other litigation involving multiple attorneys, clients and expert witnesses. Add to those pressures the burgeoning use of e-mail—all of which much be archived and accessible as part of the documents associated with every case—and it's obvious that lawyers are relying more heavily than ever on superior knowledge management capabilities to win.

International law firm Dorsey & Whitney recently selected a Web-based document management solution to service its 2,000 users and 23 offices worldwide. With offices in United States, Canada, Europe and Asia, the firm faces the challenge of communicating and sharing documents across time zones and languages. Dorsey & Whitney selected NetDocuments, a Web-based document management and collaboration service for law firms, to help achieve its "One Firm" vision and client-driven strategy. NetDocuments is designed specifically as a global DMS system to support global law firms, similar to the way legacy DMS technology was designed to manage internal documents with libraries, searching indexes and databases administered for each office.

"As attorneys in the 21st century must focus on improving client services," says Curt Meltzer, CIO of Dorsey & Whitney, "a firm's IT infrastructure must also reach and service not only its internal constituents, but its clients, co-counsel and opposing parties more effectively and efficiently." NetDocuments was selected in part because of its ROI, global functionality, and collaboration and searching capabilities, according to Meltzer.

The Web-based solution hosted in a global data center enables attorneys to have a central point of collaboration, storage and management of their documents from the office, home or on the road. NetDocuments provides version control, audit trails, profiling, concurrency enforcement, searching, redlining and permissions enforcement, in the same way for externally shared documents as with internal documents. Attorneys have a single user interface for all offices and for all users—for their internal DMS and for any extranet and case management services.

Scalability a key concern

One reason that law firms outsource their document management needs is scalability. InfoEdge Technology specializes in professional litigation support services. By providing custom coding, digitization, recognition and precisely organized document collections, InfoEdge gives attorneys and paralegal staff access to critical information, organizing all of the documents relating to a case to enhance competitive advantage. The company uses Captiva Software's InputAccel.

"Our customers don't care how the job is done, they just want it done well and at the best price. Our job is to figure out how to do that," says Chris May, InfoEdge VP. Requirements change for each client as well as for each job. "We need to design specific work processes for each project. [We] can match processing resources to each project's unique needs," May says, adding that the workload also fluctuates, depending on the number of documents associated with each case and the number of cases being worked on at one time.

"In litigation support services," May says, "we may need to handle 100,000 pages one day, and none the next day. We may have 30 to 80 workstations in production at one time to handle peak load, and then none. The documents themselves are unpredictable. They can be anything. And they are anything but clean."

Image processing and recognition tasks can be distributed on a network to as many client workstations as necessary. In addition, InputAccel provides a robust workflow environment so that document handling can be precisely configured to meet the needs of each job.

"We are using technological advantages to do things we just could not do in the past," May says. "In the past, we had to manually move files around the network after they had gone through a certain process. Now we develop an automated process for each project in InputAccel and get rid of the headaches in the details. We can concentrate on the quality of the final product."

While outsourcing is popular among law firms looking to digitize documents, Cisco's (cisco.com) legal department has brought its scanning in-house for a $262,000 savings for the legal department over two years The department is using Xerox's (xerox.com) DocuShare document repository software and FlowPort image routing software integrated with multiple Document Centre products that print, copy, fax and scan.

Cisco was paying 37 cents per page with an outsourced service provider that scanned and stored images on CD to be uploaded to an Oracle database. With the new digital processes, contracts are scanned, saved and retrieved in document repositories, eliminating two extra copies per contract. Cisco is beginning to use similar Xerox solutions in its HR department to scan résumés. Because so many documents are no longer in paper form, many law firms are looking for knowledge management systems that can handle all forms of information—including e-mail, word documents and other digital documents. Coredge Software has released a new version of its Logik—My Edition, a tool to help users access information buried in e-mail, public folders, on hard drives and the Internet. V2.0 adds MS Office integration, document profiling, rich categorization and other features.

No matter the form of the document or the location, it is essential to be able to uncover the buried treasure when preparing a case.

Good news, bad news—law firm survey uncovers both

The UK/NYC-based consulting firm Curve Consulting surveyed nearly 3,700 lawyers and staff from the United States, United Kingdom and Australia between December 2001 and March 2002 on the subject of knowledge management and its application in their firms. The findings, abstracted here, show a clear good news/bad news dichotomy.

The good news:

  • Knowledge management is a key law firm business driver.;

  • The main knowledge management objectives are better client service and a more rewarding workplace.;

  • The typical law firm knowledge management vision is to achieve market differentiation through leveraging its knowledge.;

  • Participants place a strong emphasis on the relationship between knowledge management and client service delivery.;

The bad news:

  • Most participants lack full management support for knowledge management.;

  • Many firms provide knowledge management-related services to clients, though few generate revenue from knowledge management.;

  • Participants have not yet addressed cultural barriers to knowledge management.;

  • The law firm revenue model is based on hours billed and is the greatest barrier to knowledge management.;

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a free-lance writer, 732-636-3612, e-mail kimzim2764@yahoo.com.

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