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Network Lawyers Write About Extranet Best Practices
A national litigation team learned how to make its extranet live up to its full potential
W. Scott O'Connell and Leslie Arrington (Nixon Peabody)
Legal Times -- 06-19-2003
Defending multijurisdiction litigation presents unique, difficult and costly challenges for any legal team. Developing and implementing a coordinated strategy in multiple forums against multiple adversaries requires the litigation team to keep the constantly growing mass of information organized and accessible. Being well-organized is essential for a widespread team to efficiently conduct discovery productions, coordinate fact gathering and analysis, and identify and prepare experts and other witnesses, among other things.
The costs to clients in these types of cases can be considerable. Conventional wisdom says that maximizing coordination, efficiency and speed, on the one hand, and minimizing litigation costs, on the other, were mutually exclusive propositions. Sacrifices were considered inevitable if cost containment was a high priority. Fortunately, that's no longer the case, due to the changes the Internet has brought to storing, retrieving, and delivering information.
Several years ago, as national coordinating counsel for many types of companies (financial institutions, product manufacturers, service providers) became enmeshed in state and federal class actions around the country, we turned to the Internet for management solutions. The rapid growth of our firm, now with 14 U.S. offices, required that we devise better means and methods for our own attorneys to collaborate.
Later, we took the "best practices" developed from our intranet experience and transferred them to an extranet platform accessible to clients; regional and local counsel; and in certain circumstances, experts and adversaries.
Our experience in developing extranets to manage litigation -- from simple online docket postings to comprehensive document repositories, technical and scientific libraries, expert databases, and electronic production sets -- offers some useful examples of best practices and guiding principles.
THE EXTRANET BASICS
An extranet -- a private intranet site with access limited to permitted users -- can work like a "virtual office" accessible through the Internet from anywhere. A useful litigation support extranet has the following essential functions:
- An online workplace for the client and counsel to collaborate on all materials involved in the case.
- A repository for all pleadings, correspondence and work product.
- A central calendar and docket.
- A library of relevant documents.
- A database of relevant facts searchable by date, issue, or person.
- Information about opposing parties, counsel, and court.
- Internet research tools.
- Private area for client and counsel.
- Limited and controlled access to co-parties.
- Limited and controlled access to experts.
- Limited and controlled access to opposing parties and counsel.
In addition, the extranet can contain management tools accessible only to the client:
- Time and billing records for all timekeepers.
- Client reports on case activity.
- Risk analysis updated on a set schedule.
By centralizing the information management function, coordination between counsel in different locations is greatly simplified. Collaboration is direct and immediate because the entire legal team has ready access to a comprehensive collection of materials. The administrative burden of maintaining multiple sets of documents, pleadings, and correspondence disappears. All efforts are directed to building a single knowledge bank at the extranet site, rather than in separate and disparate silos. And quick retrieval further reduces administrative time and enhances productivity.
BEST PRACTICES: THE LESSONS LEARNED
A good start to the extranet is critical. For many clients and counsel, the migration from a paper to a digital medium is not easy. Confidence in the stability and functionality of the extranet is critical for a successful transition. Accordingly, take the time to fully debug your system before it is rolled out for use. Team members who lack confidence in the technology will revert to paper, thereby defeating the economies and efficiencies the extranet offers.
K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Smart, well-intentioned computer jocks (either attorneys or support personnel) sometimes get lost in the capabilities of the technology. The resulting extranet sometimes becomes a technological marvel that will never get used by anyone on the litigation team. When in doubt, simple is usually better than more complex.
Design a familiar interface. To ease the transition from paper, it helps if the extranet has a user interface that mirrors other, familiar programs. Because most of the business world has become increasingly reliant on e-mail, designing the extranet interface to look and feel like an e-mail software interface is a winning strategy.
Keep the extranet nimble and easy to navigate. Make sure your extranet is as easy to navigate as your favorite Web site. Functions on the site should be intuitive. Security protocols should not interfere with navigation once on the site. Also, it is important to make updating as easy as possible.
Provide appropriate levels of security. The power of what you can provide via an extranet is commensurate with the level of security you decide to provide. Public materials such as an electronic docket of pleadings require virtually no security. Work product, risk analysis and strategy materials, however, require the best security reasonably available. This is not an area in which to cut corners. Providing secure identification, intrusion protection, virus monitoring and related services is very important.
Develop a plan for keeping the extranet current. At the very outset, determine how, when, and who will update information. If team members retrieve inaccurate or unreliable information, they won't use the extranet.
Invest in appropriate training. Even though these tips will help make the interface easy to use, don't assume that team members will know how to use it. Taking the time to train people to correctly operate the site helps get members invested in the content and the knowledge management goals. Get participants invested immediately by having them put information into the site. Try to minimize efforts to work around the technology.
Have a backup plan to fix problems. This is not an excuse for the technically challenged to rely on a shadow paper file; it is a reminder to make sure that the extranet is regularly backed up. Because extranets often sit on isolated servers outside the firm's "fire wall," some have no backup protocol. Make sure your site is backed up at least once daily.
Don't ignore the cultural issues. Often, the benefits offered by a well-designed and well-maintained extranet site are diluted or destroyed because some team members have enormous difficulty working on any medium but paper. Changing habits can be hard -- and sometimes impossible. Confronting these cultural obstacles is necessary to minimize their effect on the overall project. Devise strategies for getting the "paper people" to contribute to the site. (There was a time, not so long ago, when many predicted that voice mail would never catch on with clients.)
Get attorneys involved in the design and population of the site. Because the benefits of the extranet depend on how much use it gets, involve attorneys in the design of the site. Making sure that the site contains useful information is one good way to increase traffic and investment.
Many clients require their law firms to have the technological capabilities to handle complex national matters. Creating extranets to help manage the litigation process enables firms to provide their clients with more affordable and effective service.
W. Scott O'Connell is the leader of Nixon Peabody's (www.nixonpeabody.com) financial services and securities litigation team, and also chairs the firm's litigation knowledge management and technology committee. He is a partner in the Manchester, N.H., office. Leslie Arrington is a partner in the D.C. office and a member of the business litigation group.