A Little Something Extra for Your Practice - Extranets for the Small Firm & Solo Attorney - Part 2

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by Mark Rosch & Carole Levitt, JD, MLS

Information You Should Include

Your extranet can help build stronger relationships with clients and co-counsel and educate them without taking up valuable attorney time. The extranet provides resources to help the client get up to speed on the area of law involved in their matter and to keep them specifically informed about it.

Your extranet’s library might contain links to:

  • Relevant statutory or case law
  • Online articles
  • Legal search engines, dictionaries and encyclopedias
  • Answers to “Frequently Asked Questions” (before the client asks)
  • Current awareness/breaking news
  • Background information about the opposition or opposing counsel.

Specific matter-related material on your extranet could include:

  • Briefs and motions
  • Letters
  • Interrogatories
  • Replies from the opposition
  • Deposition transcripts
  • Photos of evidence
  • E-mail or instant message link for the client to contact you (and vice-versa)
  • Message board or online chat

Inside Intranets & Extranets

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Formatting Documents for the Extranet

As almost anyone who has ever received an e-mail attachment can attest, nothing is more frustrating than not being able to open an attached file — or worse, getting nothing but gibberish when it does open. This is usually due to the sender and receiver using different software to create or read the document. When you are adding documents to your extranet, it’s important to consider the software capabilities of those accessing the documents.

While Corel WordPerfect is popular among law offices, it’s more likely a client uses Microsoft Word. Incompatibilities between these (or other) word processing formats (or between different versions of the same program) can turn your extranet into an exercise in futility rather than a benefit to your practice. A low-tech solution would be to use the “Save As” feature that allows you and your client to save a document in the format of the other program.

A higher-tech solution to cut down on these incompatibilities is to invest in Adobe Acrobat software ($249; www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/main.html) to create Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of documents for your extranet. Most people using the Internet have already downloaded and installed the free Acrobat Reader that is necessary to read these files. Renfrew said she posts the majority of her extranet documents in PDF format.

An additional benefit of PDFs is they are usually smaller than the word processing documents from which they were created. This can make accessing the extranet significantly faster. Another advantage is the ability to build a full-text, searchable database of the entire collection of PDF documents. (On the Web, this option is only available for extranets hosted on Web servers running certain Microsoft Web server software.) Unlike a word processing document, PDFs can’t be altered unless the recipient has the paid version of the Acrobat software. If you want others to be able to make changes to PDF documents from the extranet, you should recommend they also purchase the Acrobat software.

Creating PDF versions of your own, or of the oppositions’ documents, doesn’t have to be a time-consuming task. Just about any file type you create on your own computer can be converted to PDF with the Distiller software that comes as part of the full Acrobat package. Documents received from others can be converted to PDF by scanning the document and using Acrobat’s “Paper Capture” option. “Scanning is the key,” Renfrew said. She said she researched numerous scanners before settling on one that offered an automatic document feeder that can handle 500 sheets, scan both sides of a document in a single pass and scan 90 to 100 pages per minute.

Building Your Own Extranet

If you are comfortable with basic Web page building, you can use an off-the-shelf HTML editor such as FrontPage (www.microsoft.com/catalog/) or Dreamweaver (www.macromedia.com/software/dreamweaver/) to create a simple extranet listing all of the documents in a protected directory and create links to view or download the documents. Small, free programs (File Transfer Protocol clients) make it simple to transfer your documents to an outside Web server where you and your client can access them.

Some business Web hosting providers allow you to create password-protected or secure areas for your site. It’s important to note that there is a difference between “password-protected” and “secure.”

For example, businesses with their Web sites hosted by EarthLink (www.earthlink.net/biz/hosting/) easily can create password-protected directories within their site. While files in those directories would only be accessible to someone with a password, they are not encrypted to prevent someone else from reading them during delivery from the Web server to your client’s computer. Since you will most likely be posting documents with sensitive or privileged information, security is of the utmost concern.

To ensure security, EarthLink offers business-hosting clients the ability to deliver Web pages via a “virtual secure server.” When connecting to a secure server, information transmitted between the user’s Web browser and the server is encrypted in transit and less likely to be intercepted. This allows you to post files in a protected area of your site. You could then set up separate private areas for different clients, each protected by their own user names and passwords, granting access to those involved in each specific matter. While using EarthLink’s secure server doesn’t cost anything more than the company’s regular business-hosting fees, you should purchase a “secure server certificate” so your clients’ browser validates the origin of the encrypted documents coming from your site. These security certificates range from $125 to $349 for the first year, depending on the source.

Working with a Consultant

As with any project, it can often be more cost-effective to outsource the development of your extranet to a consultant. A knowledgeable consultant specializing in servicing attorneys can help you through the process, often making suggestions you might not have considered. An experienced consultant also might help keep your costs down based on his or her previous experience. “If set up properly … it’s not a terribly expensive thing to do,” said consultant Dale Tincher of ConsultWebs, who has developed hundreds of Internet and extranet sites for attorneys. Tincher said he makes it easy for attorneys to add documents to the extranets he builds through point-and-click, browser-based applications. ConsultWebs can develop an easily managed extranet to post and share documents with clients. Price is determined on a per project basis depending on the complexity and features to be included.

Turnkey Solutions

A technologically adept solo attorney, or a small firm with a competent information technology consultant can host an extranet on a computer in the firm’s own office. On your own machine, you can allow clients to connect directly to the machine via VPN or through browser-based technology to access folders you have authorized them to see. While this will give you total control over your extranet, you will also have complete responsibility for maintaining it.

Having used outside vendors to create extranets since 1997, attorney Yvonne Renfrew is in the process of taking the entire extranet operation in-house. “I tried a number of online solutions,” Renfrew explained. The fact that two of those went out of business with little or no notice, was an important factor in Renfrew’s decision. While she did not lose any files in those situations, “How many times can I put my clients through this, not to mention myself?” asked Renfrew about having to shift from one provider to another to view documents. Renfrew chose the NetIntegrator Mark II server from Canada’s Net Integration Technologies Inc. to power her own extranet.

The NetIntegrator is a UNIX-based computer with numerous built-in capabilities right out of the box, including:

  • Web Server
  • VPN Connections
  • FTP Server (for large file downloads)
  • Firewall protection
  • File server to run your office network
  • E-mail server
  • Multiple high-capacity, removable disk drives.Prices for the NetIntegrator start around $4,999.

On-site installation and set-up are available at an additional cost. Application Service Providers (ASPs) offer “turnkey” extranets, maintaining all of the hardware and software at their location. ASPs rent you an extranet on a contractual basis, just as the phone company provides phone service, housing all of the major telecommunication hardware and software at their facilities. You just have to supply the documents and data.

Advantages to ASPs include:

  • 24-hour support/customer service
  • Training
  • Back-up plan in case their network is down
  • No direct hardware/software maintenance.

You will pay for these advantages. ASP prices vary greatly, often including a minimum set-up fee, with additional fees based on the number of users or documents. A few legal ASPs include LextraNet (www.lextranet.com), Elite (www.lawmanager.com), and West WorkSpace (http://products.findlaw.com/workspace.index.html) among others.

There is no limitation on the type or amount of information you put on the extranet. Also, there are free programs available, including IntraSmart by Mindbridge (see sidebar). However, if you need more than 10 authorized users, you have to move to the paid version of the program. Technical support for the product is available for free via e-mail and Instant Messaging for 30 days after download.

A practice of any size can benefit from implementing an extranet to better serve their clients. “Just like some banks that had their heads in the sand about providing online services … that are now having to scramble to remain competitive and offer these things. The firms that dig in [and implement an extranet] are the ones that are going to benefit,” Tincher concluded. The variety of options available in developing an extranet can help level the playing field between the solo attorney or small law firm and larger firms. Those who use an extranet will have an advantage when dealing with prospective clients.

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