Extranets for Law Firm and Client Collaboration – Moving Beyond Email


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.

, ,

24 Responses to Extranets for Law Firm and Client Collaboration – Moving Beyond Email

  1. Shy Alter April 6, 2009 at 9:49 am #

    Doug, for all the reasons you’ve mentioned above, the focus of an Extranet should threfore be narrow and focused on very specific business processes that affects the firm and its clients. Deal rooms is a good example. An Extranet focusing on sharing billing information could be another. General matter management, as you mentioned in your post, is a challenge. Blue-sky: firms could provide their clients with the firm’s ‘web part’. This way, the client ‘plugs’ it into their own SharePoint portal, not having to interact with multiple law firm interfaces.

  2. Doug Cornelius April 6, 2009 at 10:48 am #

    Shy –

    I agree. Many requests are for an “extranet” with no thought about what to do with it. On the other hand, the default is to send the information by email with no thought on what to do with it.

    I think lawyers (especially transactional/corporate lawyers) should look closer at how they can better integrate themselves into their clients’ business processes.

  3. eli April 6, 2009 at 3:37 pm #

    I am considering implementing some sort of private wiki for each client which will act as a central hub for all documents and communications.

    but i have not yet found the right company.

    take a look at my site: elplawfirm.com.

  4. Doug Cornelius April 6, 2009 at 3:47 pm #

    Eli –

    I have used PBwiki for many wikis. I find it easy to use. Thought Farmer has a nice product also.

  5. Luis Suarez April 6, 2009 at 7:57 pm #

    Hi Doug! Great and thought-provoking blog post on a subject I get to touch base on multiple times, although perhaps not in the context of Law, but certainly in a space where multiple clients may want to collaborate or share information with the company I work as well as myself, which seems rather close to what you are discussing above.

    I am glad (my) “A World Without Email” has inspired you to put together such thoughtful approach on how it could work and I am thinking that you may want to stay tuned tomorrow, because the company I work for (heh) is going to announce a new offering, following the SaaS model, called LotusLive, with a bunch of functionalities and capabilities and from what you describe it could well serve as that specific Extranet you are talking about.

    If you decide to give it a try, do let me know and I would be more than delighted to invite you over to check it out and see if it would fit within that vision of that collaborative Extranet you are after. (I think it will, but let’s wait till tomorrow…)

    Thanks again for the great post! Appreciated the references to the no-email approach at work and with clients. Good stuff!

    PS. Oh, btw, LotusLive can be accessed over here, but, like I said, you may need to wait till tomorrow to see all of the updates …

    • Doug Cornelius April 6, 2009 at 8:24 pm #

      Luis –

      As you have pointed out over the years, there is no reason to think that email is either the zenith or the endpoint for the way we communicate. As much as there are challenges in enterprise 2.0 trying to get people within an organization to use different ways to communicate, the challenges are even greater across organizations.

      If LotusLive is useful for bridging this communications gap, I would love to take a look. Somehow I guess that we may be hearing more about it from you.

      • Luis Suarez April 6, 2009 at 8:37 pm #

        Hi Doug! I surely agree with your point on the first paragraph, and what I think is most important is how these bridges are going to become more and more prominent and mainly because of one single reasons: customers smartening up quite a bit and wanting / demanding for businesses to go out there and collaborate and share knowledge with them through a co-creation process where they themselves feel they can contribute in equal or semi equal terms. At this point in time, and with Enterprise 2.0 already well under way, I don’t think we would have a choice to neglect that, and I am more than happy we don’t have that choice. We need to be both in and out there where our customers need us to be. And happy Enterprise 2.0 is going to help facilitate that.

        RE: LotusLive, I will be blogging about it, but from a different perspective; not yet tomorrow though, I think, but I will still go ahead and invite you over to take a look… Will reach out to you tomorrow through Twitter… Thanks again for the great follow up comment!

  6. Gil Yehuda April 6, 2009 at 9:01 pm #

    The pattern you describe comes up with many organizations I speak to as well. Some go with Awareness, Box.net, Huddle.net, Pbwiki, ThoughtFarmer, or one of a number of such tools. Some push back and indicate they need something that has much more “industrial strength”, and then start listing lots of edge-condition requirements that would protect the IP in all sorts of scenarios that compromise a simple collaboration (i.e. someone is fired, the company merges, the laptop is stolen etc.). For those cases I always think of Groove – which seems to address many of these more difficult issues. Would Groove fit the needs of the law firms you are talking about? (Microsoft provides capability to integrate SharePoint and Groove together.)

    • Doug Cornelius April 6, 2009 at 9:40 pm #

      Gil –

      I will profess my Groove ignorance. The key is creating something that is as easy to use and as easy to access as email. That means 5 minutes of training for the basics and access through a mobile device.

      I also defer to the rule that I heard from Dion Hinchcliffe. The new tool has to be at least ten times better than the existing tool. http://kmspace.blogspot.com/2007/06/e20-conference-intro-to-social.html

      If Luis is excited about LotusLive, then so am I.

      • Gil Yehuda April 6, 2009 at 9:56 pm #

        Groove’s roots are Lotus, but Microsoft acquired it. It’s now part of the Microsoft Office suite. http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/groove/FX100487641033.aspx Groove supports peer-to-peer file sharing. If I put a file in my Groove folder A, then anyone in group A will get that file. It has a bunch of special features to handle many off-line, real time, and security concerns. I found it easy to use. But I have a high tolerance.

        I agree, Luis’s excitement is not to be ignored.

  7. Gil Yehuda April 6, 2009 at 9:05 pm #

    Arggg. Luis, I’m now sitting on the edge of my seat wondering about LotusLive. I can’t wait till tomorrow. Now I won’t be able to sleep. Will Lotus “take back” Groove? ;-)

    • Luis Suarez April 7, 2009 at 2:08 pm #

      Hi Gil! Yes, indeed, you were not the only one who couldn’t get some sleep last night! Plenty of excitement going around the announcements from today. too bad *real* work has gotten in the way and have been offline for most of the day, but re-surfacing now… So if you guys want to check out LotusLive, let me know about your e-mail addresses through a private DM in Twitter and I will invite you both over… Then after you play a little bit with it, perhaps we could get together and I could walk you around on potential scenarios on how the application could be used for this Extranet use cases …

      I will reach out to you both on Twitter as well to get things going …

      PS. Oh, long long time ago I used to be a big fan from Groove as well; thought the potential was amazing; but perhaps too bad at the time many businesses were not into P2P collaboration and why I have moved forward from there. Perhaps time to revisit again?

  8. Sri Chilukuri April 17, 2009 at 6:06 pm #

    Great article. But I doubt any purely web-based centralized extranet solution, including SharePoint, will work well unless all participants in the collaboration projects strictly adhere to a rigorous file upload/download discipline i.e., upload a file after it changed and download a file before changing to/from the centralized location. This requirement is by far the biggest reason why people stop using these systems even if they have access to one. Another reason, of course, is the need for all participants in a project to agree on a common extranet solution, and most importantly, be willing to share all of their confidential documents on that extranet solution. Lastly, the cost of setting and maintaining these systems can be very expensive as well.

    Instead, I think what you need a solution that:
    1) does not require the rigorous file upload/download discipline.
    2) does not require everyone to put their confidential documents outside their firewalls.
    3) allows them to work on their documents on their own desktops with their own desktop applications such as Word and Excel.
    4) is quick to setup, absolutely secure, and can be used on a pay-per-use basis.

    This is the exact problem Content Circles solved. Content Circles is a content management software-as-a-service (SaaS) for distributed team collaboration. Unlike other players in the market who use a pure web-based approach, Content Circles uses a hybrid web/p2p approach to address this need. The hybrid web/p2p approach makes Content Circles the most cost-effective, secure, and easy-to-use solution on the market today, and guarantees that all members of a distributed team are always on the same page. It eliminates all file size, storage and bandwidth limitations common to pure web-based solutions.

    Please give Content Circles a try (www.contentcircles.com) and let us know what you think.

    Content Circles, Inc.

    • Doug Cornelius April 17, 2009 at 6:30 pm #

      Sri –

      You point out a few things that are a challenge to extranets. In moving beyond email, that means you also need to move past attachments. Those word documents need to be converted to wikis so everyone can edit and add to the content.

      We are still in a Microsoft Office world, so SharePoint’s integration with the Office desktop applications is very enticing. It also makes it more complicated.

      I am not familiar with your product and offer no endorsement. I normally delete sales pitches like this in the comments, but you started off with some interesting discussion points.

      • Sri Chilukuri May 11, 2009 at 10:15 pm #


        I didn’t mean to be a sales person. I really thought you brought up some very interesting issues which we have grappled with in the past. We put all of our experience into building Content Circles and I thought you should try it. I’m more interested in your feedback on the product than you buying it (of course, we don’t mind if you buy it as well).

        I hope you Content Circles a try. You can download and try it out for free at http://www.contentcircles.com.


  9. Clayton Turner June 15, 2010 at 4:59 pm #

    This is a very good thread. Now almost one year later – It would be interesting to hear your take on the current crop of companies and services and offerings. We already use SharePoint via Rackspace and collaborate there pretty well but wondering if we need to be utilizing a more extensive service provider.

    • Doug Cornelius June 15, 2010 at 8:24 pm #

      Clayton –

      I have not seen much movement. The biggest and most innovative product seems to be the private ramps on Legal OnRamp. In particular, Cisco is doing some interesting things to manage the needs of its own legal department. I have not seen anything interesting offered by law firms.

      As for SharePoint, I got the sense that many people held back on SP2007 and were waiting for SP 2010,

  10. Ken Jones November 3, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

    There is an interesting educational article in the November 2010 issue of InsideCounsel which might be a worthwhile read for those interested in this topic. The article URL is



  1. Compliance Building · Martindale-Hubbell’s Counsel to Counsel Forum - April 8, 2009

    […] of the ways to build a better legal team is to build better ways to communicate. My earlier post on Extranets for Law Firm and Client Collaboration – Moving Beyond Email embodied most of my points. As Jessica Lipnack taught me, I tried to get around the room and have […]

  2. Compliance Building · Corresponding with Cornelius - a new series of blog posts - April 10, 2009

    […] A follow up to my earlier post on Extranets for law Firm and Client Collaboration […]

  3. Corresponding with Cornelius | Compliance Building - April 17, 2009

    […] Gary looks at some of the ways law firm client information is moving into the cloud, including my post on extranets. […]

  4. From the NEBA Conference: Of “Social” Media, Cloud Computing & The Future of the Law | BizBuzz - October 30, 2010

    […] the end of the day, as Doug said, the “Pony express” lasted just 18 months. Changes to technology will always take place and the current wave of social media is just taking […]

  5. Catch the Wave: Client Data is Becoming Cloud-Bound | blogwranglers.com - November 19, 2010

    […] few days later, in the blog Compliance Building, Doug Cornelius wrote a post entitled “Extranets for Law Firm and Client Collaboration […]

  6. Catch the Wave: Client Data is Becoming Cloud-Bound | Two Step Software, Inc. - December 17, 2010

    […] few days later, in the blog Compliance Building, Doug Cornelius wrote a post entitled “Extranets for Law Firm and Client Collaboration […]