A Little Something Extra for Your Practice - Extranets for the Small Firm & Solo Attorney - Part 1

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by Mark Rosch & Carole Levitt, JD, MLS

Loosely defined, an "extranet" is a secure location online where firms can collaborate and communicate with clients, co-counsel or between members of the firm.

Information shared on the extranet can range from case strategy and timelines, to calendars, updates and other information. You also can incorporate bulletin boards, e-mail or instant messaging to discuss the client’s matter. This connection can be made via the public Internet or through a direct connection between two computers (Virtual Private Network [VPN]). Extranet technology gives parties the ability to review all of this material as their schedule allows — from any computer equipped with an Internet connection. The documents themselves might be housed on a computer at your office or at a remote location on a computer maintained by a vendor. Wherever they are housed, the sites must be protected by password and with other security measures to block them from anyone who isn’t approved to see their contents.

While extranets once might have been the domain of large firms handling complex litigation matters, technology advances have made the benefits of the extranet available to small firms.

“We’ve had clients that have increased their bottom lines significantly through the use of technology, and extranets are one way they do it,” said law firm Internet/extranet consultant Dale Tincher.

There are a variety of options available to small firms and solo attorneys looking to launch an extranet. Regardless of whether you go with a do-it-yourself solution or a high-end, out-sourced model, a well thought-out and implemented extranet can save you time and money and help foster better communication with your clients.

Simple extranets can be similar to the Web sites you use every day, except they are private. Each client matter would get its own Web site, and you decide who has access to what information. This way you can keep client information confidential, as well as maintain the wall between attorneys working on a specific matter and those who are not.

Extranets can serve a number of purposes:

  • Organize and manage large volumes of documents
  • Access documents from any location via the Internet
  • Share documents among attorneys in your office or co-counsel
  • Update clients about their cases.

Extranets can reduce time and expense for the attorney and client by cutting down on photocopying, filing, faxing, courier/overnight delivery services, long-distance phone calls and lag time in client response due to delivery delays. “The biggest savings for attorneys [with an extranet] generally is in their time,” said Tincher, president of the Raleigh, N.C.-based ConsultWebs (www.consultwebs.com) technology consulting firm. “Publications don’t have to be printed and updated and mailed; documents and case information are all there,” he added.

“Physically making copies, [and] mailing documents out is incredibly time-consuming,” said Los Angeles-based solo attorney Yvonne Renfrew. “I am so much more efficient now … everything is fast.” Even faxing, with its near-instant delivery can slow down the process when a long document is involved. Electronic documents can be accessed instantly via an extranet.

What Solution is Right for You? There is a wide range of complexity and cost levels when developing an extranet, but it doesn’t have to be complex or costly to be effective. Adding documents to the extranet doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. Out-of-pocket costs can range from free (see “Extranet Resource” on Page 60) to thousands of dollars, depending on what options you choose.

“A small firm that does a simple extranet … might see it pay for itself in as little as six to 10 months,” Tincher said. Therefore, you should consider the cost as an investment in client development rather than an expense. Extranets Foster Greater Collaboration

“The firms that [are developing extranets] are gaining great benefits — they are locking in their clients and providing better client service. And they’re simply going to grow,” Tincher explained.

This increased collaboration can be extremely useful to expedite approval of your work product by the client. Client access to draft versions of documents also helps keep clients informed of progress. “My clients love it,” said Renfrew, describing her practice of making documents available to clients via an extranet. “They [clients] become working members of the team,” added Renfrew whose civil litigation and appellate practice specializes in anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) motions and “SLAPP Backs” (malicious prosecution following a successful defense of a SLAPP suit). In these ways, an extranet can be a key component of overall client satisfaction, which can lead to client retention, repeat business and referrals.

Law firm management consultant Edward Poll observed in his newly revised “Attorney and Law Firm Guide to the Business of Law” (2002, 2nd Edition, ABA Publishing): “When a firm offers an extranet to a client, the firm is saying the client is important enough for the firm to create a virtual office exclusively for this matter; and as if that weren’t enough, it is also giving the client a virtual key to that office to come and go as he or she pleases.”

“In terms of client relations, it’s great,” Renfrew agreed. “I had one case where I had clients in Maine and Texas and I was in such close collaboration with those people — all made possible by [the extranet] that I could get immediate feedback on anything.” Based on a June 2001 study conducted by the consulting firm Hilton Farnkopf & Hobson, the State Bar of California concluded solo practitioners and small firm attorneys “often find themselves so overworked that they … fail to communicate with clients.” The Bar also cited this lack of communication as a leading cause of complaints against those lawyers, based on the report’s statement that nearly one-fourth of all the complaints, some 23 percent, concerned allegations of failure to communicate adequately. Fostering “virtual communications” through an extranet might help attorneys avoid such problems.

In Part 2:

  • Information you Should Include
  • Formatting Documents for the Extranet
  • Building Your Own Extranet
  • Working With a Consultant
  • Turnkey Solutions

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