Extranets for Law Firm and Client Collaboration – Moving Beyond Email

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One of the problems with collaboration between law firms and their clients is that too much of it happens through email. Email is fast, allows you to send the same message to lots of people, and is inexpensive.

But it is still a set of messages sent back and forth, much like the Pony Express. To figure out what is going on you need to comb through the messages and hope that you end up looking at the latest message. Since email is so fast and so inexpensive, you often end up with a barrage of short ineffective messages.

With email, the message ends up in a different place for the sender and recipient. If I send the email, it is in my sent items and it ends up in the inbox for the recipient. Each recipient may do something different with that email once it’s in their email in-box. Some may pile it on top of the thousands of other emails in their inbox, some may file it in another email folder, some may print and delete, and some may just delete.

There has been talk for years of using extranets to change the way law firms and their clients communicate. Unfortunately, it seems there has been more talking than there have been successful extranets.

The trouble with deploying a successful extranet is finding both an attorney team and a client team that want to share information by using an extranet.

The most common extranet for a legal team is the document war room seen in larger acquisition transactions. There is a great benefit to having the documents in one place, typically with some great security. But they lack the communications tools needed to move it beyond being merely an online fileroom.

An extranet can be poorly organized and messy, making the relevant information hard to find. But organizing the information in a meaningful way can save lots of time and money for both the law firm and the client.

One of challenges for using an extranet platform is deciding which one to use. Should it be sponsored by the law firm or the client? If it is sponsored by the law firm, a few issues arise. One, the law firm will have to allow access to the client’s other law firms working on similar matters or the client will have to work with a different extranet for each of its different law firms. If the client sponsors the extranet, then the client bears the expense and maintenance burden of the extranet platform. There also will be the expense and resources spent on showing the law firm how to use the extranet platform.

One barrier to overcome is that there are a broad variety of possible extranet platforms that operate very differently and provide information in very different ways. Some of the newer 2.0 tools show how the web can be better used as a collaboration space. They also break down some of the barriers to using an extranet. Perhaps the next generation of extranets will be more effective. The answer may be SharePoint. Microsoft is pushing its SharePoint platform causing it to become more pervasive and bringing some of the concepts of Enterprise 2.0 into many business environments. By having a common platform, you could break down some of the barriers to extranet adoption.

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