One of the main topics of conversation in law firms today is marketing and McKenna & Co is no exception. We have a number of initiatives in place and one of our main objectives is to retain and develop our client base. To facilitate business, our lawyers and the information technology department are together exploring the options that electronic communications can provide.
We have been developing and installing email applications with the firm for a number of years, across our networks in London and via dial-up connections to our overseas offices. The IT department has also provided a US client with access to a large database by installing sophisticated remote lines. So when faced with the opportunity to develop these electronic links further, we felt that we had the right expertise and knowledge to do so.
One of our early opportunities to link up to one of our major clients occurred just over a year ago. Having established that we were running similar communication networks and the same email package, we were able to install an operationally secure link without much difficulty.
The link between our two organisations was forged by our client becoming a node on our network system – we treated them as one of our overseas offices and they used us as one of their UK sites. This link was so successful that for the first month they were able to send broadcasts across our email system telling all users that their network was "shutting down in one hour for maintenance". At the peak of this transaction nearly 50 messages were passed backwards and forwards in one day and we are still averaging nearly 15 messages a day.
Technically, the system works without problems. But our biggest difficulty is in administrating a large number of mailboxes which are outside our control and we find it difficult to convince our lawyers that they do not need every addressee name at the client and then convince the client's email administration to inform us of any changes to the addressee data.
Our next major link was a different set-up. The client had an extensive worldwide network and was highly security conscious. Our access was therefore constrained and we became a remote user of the client's system. The gateway was established without difficulties but our contacts were spread over a number of the client's European locations and as soon as any correspondence left our gateway its delivery was dependent upon the client's network which could take a number of node-to-node hops.
Depending on the route chosen, delivery to the final destination could take several hours and lawyers were quick to discover that an urgent correspondence could be faxed more quickly. There was a great deal of work to be done in setting lawyers' expectation levels so that they realised the strengths and weaknesses of email.
We have now provided a greater number of links to many of our clients. Some are used daily, some less frequently, some are automatic from desk to desk and some require manual onward posting where systems are incompatible. We have used a range of software packages and now run six different gateways on our network.
Our biggest problem is when an urgent email document is required but nobody knows what electronic communication the client operates. We have several options that enable us to establish a link as quickly as possible and in the majority of cases we succeed. There is, however, still the odd occasion when a courier proves to be the most cost-effective route.
Learning from experience, the main points to mention are: first, the need to educate lawyers so that they recognise the opportunities where electronic links can provide business opportunities and understand the issues involved; second, that administration becomes a major task in its own right; third, that all users are aware of the security implications when transferring documents across networks; and finally, that standards are set between organisations prior to sending documents.
Ed Dean is director of communications and IT at City firm McKenna & Co.