E-Commerce technology: keeping up with the clients
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In the dotcom age, the challenge for law firms is to meet the ever-growing needs and desires of clients through technology. From a technical standpoint, major corporate clients can be demanding. They are generally quite sophisticated in IT matters, and thus expect sophistication from their professional services providers. They have fixed protocols, complex security systems, legacy applications, and often a bureaucratic and inflexible approach to IT administration. Although many law firms have neither the expertise nor the inclination to integrate their systems with those of their clients, the few that do add real value to the relationship and to the client business processes in which they are involved.
Such firms may spend a great deal of time and energy devising sophisticated software applications and interfaces, and considerable time 'fitting in' so that conflicts with the existing regime can be avoided. Using Microsoft Outlook when the company standard is Lotus Notes can be a major irritant. In the end, if a law firm is willing to devote enough effort and technical firepower, a workable solution usually can be found.
Emerging companies tend to have different demands. They are less interested in bells and whistles, and more concerned that their counsel are contactable and prepared to work at a moment's notice They want convenience and immediate responsiveness. A few examples of solutions will illustrate the point.
Every growing concern needs a system for maintaining its organic documentation. A technology start-up has particular needs, because its ownership and financing documents are constantly being renegotiated and modified.
The solution: post the documents on an extranet - equity tables, option plans, licence and reseller agreements, the entire array of legal instruments that define the organisation. The corporate officers of an emerging technology company doubtless have 24-hour, seven-day-a-week internet access, and thus they are but a few keystrokes away from their core documentation. The technical solution is simple to construct, and it serves an important need - the chief financial officer (CFO) never needs to wonder whether the file on the C-drive is the latest version.
Managing an initial public offering online
No project is more critical to a start-up than taking the company public. Technology that makes the process run more smoothly tends to earn great accolades.
In the past few months Shaw Pittman has handled several initial public offerings online. The entire process has been managed by posting documents in a Notes database shared through an extranet, so that all involved parties can retrieve them at any time.
Notes' access control allows a firm to determine precisely who has what rights to different documents. Clients, accountants, underwriters, underwriters' counsel, and others all can view documents, and depending on preset controls on their rights, they can create, edit, or comment on them. Indeed, the registration statement itself is posted on the extranet and managed online. The process has materially reduced the time demands and strain of an already exhausting process.
High-tech business people care deeply whether their lawyers 'get it' - shorthand for understanding their culture, matching their pace, being networked with other entrepreneurs, and displaying complete comfort with technology. Little things matter to them - whether counsel know how to use the higher-end 'revision marking' features of Microsoft Word, for example.
They are commonly addicted to Palm or Palm-type personal digital assistants (PDAs) and exchange business contact information with infrared Palm handshakes.
Lawyers who can beam the names of venture capitalists from their PDAs are part of the club; those who do not are regarded as belonging to another world.
Constant connectivity is important in its own right, not just as a badge of 'getting it'. Frequent checking of emails becomes a platform for serious knowledge management, in turn an essential foundation for efficiency.
The advent of wireless modems means that lawyers who are travelling or at their homes are in effect networked and able to exchange documents and opinions at any hour from almost any location.
They can communicate with clients working through the evening, or they can respond to inquiries from colleagues working on deals in Melbourne or Johannesburg and share their judgements and experiences almost instantaneously. The result is better work product, produced more quickly, and informed by the opinions of lawyers scattered all over the world.
These, then, are the tools of the modern trade: genuine conversancy with basic software applications, the ability to work remotely, the know-how to use a PDA, and caffeinated substances to keep the mind alert at all hours. It's a different world, often exhausting, but never dull.
Paul Mickey is junior managing partner at US firm Shaw Pittman.