Upgrade your Technology Infrastructure in a Down Economy with Web 2.0

Wondering how you'll find the funds to upgrade your technology infrastructure during the recession? The answer lies in a new generation of legal tools which increase productivity and work quality without requiring an up-front expenditure, new computer hardware, or hired IT consultants. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) collaboration tools can increase the productivity of your attorneys and support staff, and because they are hosted externally, these pay-as-you-go applications don't add to your already overwhelming workload.

While nobody likes an economic downturn, now is the perfect opportunity to invest some time in integrating some of the cutting edge "Web 2.0" technologies developed during the last boom. Even better, these tools are extremely affordable, and in many cases even free. The following covers a variety of tools such as hosted wiki applications, microblogging, and mobile applications which can dramatically improve the productivity of your practice. You can streamline document management, knowledge management, and case management with searchable, easy-to-use information repositories, and free up as many as 100 billable hours per attorney per year-without making extra work for your legal tech staff.

Hosted Wiki Collaboration

While information is critical to many professions, perhaps in no field is the exchange, analysis, and delivery of information as crucial and fundamental as in the profession of law. Thanks to the spread of technology, especially email, legal professionals must adapt even more quickly to increasingly overwhelming floods of information without sacrificing either the speed or accuracy of their work.

While undoubtedly a great boon to productivity when used as a communications tool, email is a giant productivity destroyer when used to archive information, manage workflows, or organize a case. Basex found that 28% of the average office worker's day is spent dealing with email and other messages. Meanwhile, according to a 2008 Lexis-Nexis survey of legal professionals, over 52% spent over an hour per day searching for old documents or files.

That's where hosted wiki collaboration comes to the rescue. By making it easier to collaborate on creating work product like production logs, as well as providing a better way to store and manage information and documents, services like PBwiki can have a major impact on the productivity of your practice. For example, Andrew (an attorney at the United States Patent and Trademark Office) uses PBwiki to help manage the huge volumes of reference information he receives in email. "With around 9,000 attorneys [in the USPTO], there's lots of room to lose things," he explains. Online collaboration provides a much quicker way to get extremely specific information to the employees.

Nor is hosted collaboration limited to simple email replacement. Wikis can also be used as a legal knowledgebase to capture organizational best practices. Because wikis tend to be easy-to-use and encourage broad participation within the firm, they provide an excellent way to record, store, and manage knowledge that traditionally remained within the minds of the various legal professionals. Whether being used to document the best ways to use legal databases such as Concordance or DocuMatrix, or as a "private Westlaw" to make partner-level insights into particular districts and judges available across the firm, a wiki-based collaboration solution can not only save time, but also improve the quality of lawyering. Imagine a senior partner leaving behind best practices and insights about specific cases handled during his or her years within the practice. It would serve as a bulletin board of winning tips which others could gain insight from and build upon by adding their own knowledge and case experience details.

Finally, hosted wiki collaboration can provide a better way to coordinate the efforts of a case team. Every litigator knows well the long hours spent combing through hundreds of thousands of pages in document review. The grueling effort culminates in painstakingly collected case facts that you use to secure victory for your client. The problem is that the typical tools used to collect these facts, Microsoft Word and Excel, are ill-suited for this purpose. Although Word is a wonderful method for creating pleadings and letters, such documents are meant to be edited once, twice, and then finalized. Collections of case facts, however, constantly change, update and expand until the very end of the case, and, most importantly, are shared between large groups of people with innumerable edits from start to finish.

Collaborative authoring is where wikis really shine. Just as Wikipedia uses wiki collaboration to produce the world's leading online encyclopedia, your team can use a private wiki to collaborate on collecting and organizing the facts you need to win your case. And because services (such as PBwiki) record every change and can even send change notifications to all of the team members, they do a better job of keeping everyone up to date.

Microblogging

When you hear the word blog, you probably think of a public forum for one person's opinions and visitor postings, not a tool to boost attorney productivity. Indeed, when law blogging does occur, it is usually for the purpose of promoting the brand of the attorney or firm, rather than helping prosecute a case. But the rise of microblogging has created an interesting opportunity to change that impression.

The most well-known microblogging platform is Twitter, which allows its users to post 140-character updates via the Web, SMS text messaging, or via special client software, and was created by Ev Williams, the founder of Blogger (now owned by Google). Twitter is used by consumers to keep their friends updated on their activities, and by businesses to better respond to consumer "Tweets" about their brands. Yet while this may seem like harmless entertainment, this microblogging can also serve a critical business purpose.

Yammer, another startup, takes Twitter's microblogging approach and makes it easy to form groups within companies. Then, rather than microblogging about one's lunch or dinner plans, attorneys can send quick updates throughout the day on what they're working on. Not only do these updates help keep teams coordinated, these bite-sized bits of content often trigger additional responses from other colleagues.

If you post that you're trying to find the best clause for your latest pleading, you may very well receive a reply from another person in the firm with exactly the answer you're looking for. And because microblogging is intended as a publishing medium, there is no expectation of a reply, enabling your team to process microposts far more rapidly than they would group emails.

Mobile

One thing that both hosted wiki collaboration and microblogging have in common is their ability to function as mobile applications. Given the increasingly ubiquitous usage by attorneys of Research In Motion's BlackBerry device for mobile email, both wiki collaboration and microblogging can provide significant benefits to mobile users.

Given the form factor and speed of mobile Internet devices, email overload is even more of an issue for mobile users. Searching for a particular email takes a lot longer when you're doing it on a 2" x 3" screen than on a full-sized computer monitor. And typing a reply takes a lot longer when your using your thumbs.

Providers like PBwiki, Twitter, and Yammer all provide ways for mobile users to improve their productivity. All three allow mobile users to get updates, much as email does, but PBwiki also allows mobile search of text and documents, while Twitter and Yammer allow you to send updates via mobile clients, or even by simply sending a 140-character text message.

And of course, it doesn't hurt to have the ability to convert commute time into billable hours!

Software-as-a-Service

Something else these new technologies have in common is their use of the Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model for service delivery. The traditional model for software deployment requires a major effort on the part of IT, including the provisioning and installation of new software and hardware, ongoing management of the application and infrastructure, and providing end-user support. Given the many demands on IT and legal tech, it's rare that you can deploy solutions quickly.

In contrast, SaaS solutions require zero hardware or other infrastructure, require zero ongoing management, and often provide superior end-user support. For example, PBwiki offers a complete collaboration solution, including 24/7/365 end-user support for $11/user/month (a lower-powered free product is also available). Yammer's solution is only $1/user/month, and Twitter is free.

Given the fact that average billing rates for attorneys are now well over $300/hour in major markets, it's not difficult to generate a rapid payback on $1/user/month, or even $11/user/month.

Conclusion: Can You Afford Not To Upgrade?

As we've seen, hosted collaboration technologies developed during the Web 2.0 boom offer law firms a great way to upgrade their technology infrastructure, even during the recession. These products can produce major productivity gains for your practice at a minimal cost. They may even allow you to replace existing solutions while simultaneously lowering the strain on your IT and legal tech resources, thanks to their SaaS model. Farsighted firms can take advantage of any slackening of the usual pace of business to adopt these new technologies and position themselves to be even more productive when prosperity returns.