There is plenty of confusion about using Extranets at law firms. Extranets seem to be perceived as some sort of "silver bullet" that can solve all kinds of challenges: a partner in project finance needs to collaborate real-time with co-counsel in Munich; a client wants an easy way to check the status of pending H1 visas; a marketing director is looking to cross-market intellectual property to a transactions client; a rainmaker needs a whiz-bang "leave-behind" for a big pitch.
For these challenges, Extranets can be the prescription. But too often, law firms are paralyzed when they try to put Extranets to practice.
Here's a strategy to help: Divide the legal Extranet world into two parts: "client-specific Extranets" and "project-specific Extranets." The two types of Extranets serve different purposes and are not mutually exclusive. "Client-specific Extranets" serve a marketing and client service function; "project-specific Extranets" serve as tools to manage specific projects or matters.
Client-specific Extranets market a firm's services and to tie a firm more closely to its clients. They brand the firm, serve up content to cross-market services, demonstrate the firm's technical savvy and create a dedicated information portal so a client can get to know a firm better.
Normally, client-specific Extranets are based on a single template that is customized for each client or prospect. Visitors can log into their own Extranet, using a form on the law firm's Web site. After they are authenticated, the Extranet's content is customized specifically for them. Visitors see their own firm's logo, the law firm's logo, and a feature set that might include:
- Biographies for the attorneys and staff working with the client.
- Biographies and for partners that the law firm believes may be interesting to the client.
- Billing information and bill review.
- Firm-generated publications, news and firm events customized to a client's interests.
- External news feeds tailored for the client.
- Links to project-specific Extranets.
- Online CLE programs or other training programs.
- Model forms or other basic documents
- Knowledge bases.
- Sales presentations or other presentations given to a client.
- Sign-up point for wireless services.
- Access to a firm's news feeds or in-house databases.
- Links to other Web-based resources that may be relevant to a client.
- "Did you know" messages that deepen a client's knowledge of the firm.
Client-specific Extranets are most often set up for high-value prospects (to support a sales pitch) or to supplement communication with existing clients of the firm. Potentially, law firms can set up a lot of client-specific Extranets -- one for each of the firm's most active clients or most promising prospective clients. This exposes more of a firm's service offering to and enhances the quality of traditional communication a firm has with its clients.
Caveats: Client-specific Extranets won't work unless they are easy to install, maintain and use. The best are designed so that non-technical users can set up and edit them. To minimize maintenance, Extranets should tie directly into the firm's data model and present relevant information customized to each client. Client-specific Extranets may be built by a firm's internal resources or by outside consultants.
Tip: Firms can learn a lot by monitoring Extranet traffic. It is possible to tell exactly when and who logs on to an Extranet. Tracking traffic is particularly powerful if an Extranet is used to support a pitch process -- you can tell exactly when a prospective client logs on and what information was viewed. Following up with a phone call to the right person at the right time can be a powerful sales tool.
Project-specific Extranets provide secure, Web-based collaborative platforms. Attorneys can use project-specific Extranets as digital workspaces for matters related to specific cases or engagements. Often they have a specific beginning and end that coincides with the lifecycle of a project. Used properly, Extranets can be a powerful tool to synch together a firm's resources and collaborate effectively with a client.
The best project-specific Extranets are incorporate strong security tools. Access is based on user names and passwords. For example, users may be members of the same firm, co-counsel, opposing counsel, clients or experts. Security, scalability, 24/7 user support and integration with the firm's existing data model are important points to consider when selecting a project-specific Extranet.
Project-specific Extranet features can include:
- Document exchange tools with version control.
- Project timeline and scheduling information.
- Case status updates.
- Billing information.
- Listservs and knowledge bases.
- Forms and model documents.
- Contact information for individuals involved in the project.
A number of off-the-shelf products are available to build matter-specific Extranets. Popular Extranet products include eRoom, from eRoom Technology Inc.; Enterprise Manager (Niku Corp.) and Intralinks (from Intralinks Inc.) to name a few.
Different strengths and weaknesses are associated with each product but the basic concept is the same: They allow attorneys to collaborate with their clients on the Web. Many legal document managers--including Hummingbird Ltd. and iManage Inc. -- are also working on Extranet efforts that integrate with document management systems.
No single off-the-shelf product seems to be emerging as the dominant project-specific Extranet.
There are lots of vendors and market remains very fragmented. Ultimately a law firm's clients will likely dictate what kind of Extranet is used. Volkswagen of America Inc. invites its law firms to join its own Extranet. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. is a strategic investor and customer of Intralinks. Ford Motor Co. is a strategic investor and customer of e-Room. Law firms will have to remain flexible -- a single matter-specific Extranet product will rarely satisfy every client.
Other firms opt to develop their own customized Extranets. Holland & Knight L.L.P.; Weil Gotschal & Manges L.L.P.; and Holland & Hart L.L.P. have built their own Extranet programs with in-house developers or their firm's consulting or technology divisions or spin-offs. Other firms use a mix of internal and external resources to build-to-order customized systems that fulfill a client's specific needs. In many cases these custom Extranets are for a firm's most valuable clients. For example, Weil Gotschal built an elaborate, data-rich Extranet at the request of General Electric Co., one of the firm's biggest clients.
Client-specific and project specific Extranets provide exciting opportunities for law firms to save money and build client satisfaction and loyalty. Firms that put Extranets to work effectively and publicize the results well will certainly improve their odds at winning new business and help keep existing clients happy.
Justin Szlasa is the executive vice president and co-founder of Hubbard One, a professional services consulting firm. He can be reached at 212.239.0000 or email@example.com
This article originally appeared in Law Technology News.