Technology

London Lawyers’ Web-based Paper Chase

Content and document management systems may hold the key to the Web's promise of increasing operating efficiency.
Joseph RadiganMay 9, 2001

(Editor’s Note: This is the second of three stories about content management in E-commerce and Web design. Today’s story focuses on how a London-based law firm is using the Web to distribute documents to more than a dozen offices on four continents.Click here to read Tuesday’s story about Best Buy.

Maybe the paperless office is nothing more than a pipe dream.

After all, the information age, instead of getting rid of paper, seems to have prompted an awful lot of workers to print E-mails and Web pages by the truckload.

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But Linklaters, a London-based corporate law firm with branch offices as far apart as Warsaw, Sao Paulo, and Singapore, is determined to avoid choking on the paper glut. Instead, it wants to use the Web to get legal documents in the hands of its lawyers and clients as quickly and as cleanly as possible.

Simon Thompson, the law firm’s associate director of IS and strategy, says he managed to do it.

In the last few weeks, Linklaters has completed the migration to Documentum’s 4i Web content management system. The firm had first installed the vendor’s EDMS 98, for enterprise document management system three years ago.

Thompson says his company made the upgrade to 4i in part to keep current with the vendor’s support program. But more important, a feature that was added for the latest version allows Linklaters to link the data repositories from its numerous data centers and present end users with a single unified view of legal documents regardless of the source.

In addition, the EDMS system didn’t allow for one person to manage files split among several databases to be managed centrally as if they were one document, says Mark Farlin, a product manager for Documentum, which is based in Pleasanton, Calif. The 4i system does.

Finally, 4i is more closely integrated with the Web than EDMS, and its security features allow a corporate user to control access although the data is being sent across the public Internet.

“It allows us to scale a single repository of documents across all of Linklaters’s operations,” Thompson says.

Linklaters is hardly the only firm that has expanded its use of Web- based content management systems. In fact, the company seems to be part of a trend that has quickly gathered force in the past year or so.

Robert Perry, a senior research analyst with the Boston-based market research firm, Yankee Group, says that from the mid-1990s until 18 months or two years ago, many companies were happy to let their Web operations run as almost separate entities. But that’s beginning to change.

More companies now view the Web as integral to their corporate strategy, and that change has been accompanied by a concerted interest in realizing a return on the investment, Perry says. The costs may not be huge — the systems will run from $250,000 or $500,000 into the low million dollar range — but they’re big enough to attract attention from executive management.

“When I talk to the buyers of content management systems, they are telling me that they’re being asked about the ROI,” Perry says. “In many cases it’s becoming more a corporate-level decision, and it’s something their CFOs are getting involved in.”

Documentum’s CFO, Robert Corey, says the use of content management systems cuts right to the heart of one of the basic building blocks of corporate finance and management.

“Being able to manage content on an enterprise level helps with operational efficiencies,” Corey says. “The ultimate impact is it lowers your costs.”

But even there, cost cutting is only one piece of the equation. Corey says we’re heading to a point where in a few years, all businesses, like it or not, will be in some form of E-business. “The concept of Web- based content will become pervasive, and content management is the process that will allow that to happen.”

The system’s initial installation in 1998 and 1999 coincided with a rollout of a thin-client architecture throughout the company’s offices on Microsoft Windows NT 4.0. By last year, the company had upgraded from NT to Windows 2000.

In both NT and 2000, Thompson says Linklaters made use of Microsoft’s Terminal Services to run Windows desktops as thin clients.

In practical terms, the set-up allows a legal document stored at a server at one of the firm’s four data centers to be read by a lawyer in any one of Linklaters’s offices.

The law firm has four data centers, a main one in Colchester, some 60 miles outside of London that also doubles as the regional data center for its European branch offices, a regional data center in London, an Asian data center in Hong Kong, and a fourth site in New York that services the company’s offices in North and South America.

Thompson says that for all practical purposes, its applications run exclusively at the data centers. Aside from print servers, there’s little processing done at the local offices, which are connected to the data centers via Cisco routers.

But getting the system up to snuff didn’t come cheap. Content management systems usually start in the $200,000 to $300,000 range. Thompson won’t say exactly what Linklaters spent on its implementation aside from describing an estimate of $5 million as being fair. The annual maintenance costs fall between $500,000 and $1 million, although he wouldn’t provide an exact figure for that sum.

By this stage of the game, the law firm believes it’s gotten its money’s worth out of the system, but it’s also determined to use it as more than just a Webified means of pushing paper.

Four years ago, Linklaters launched a service, called Blue Flag, which was a means of providing legal advice on the Internet. Thompson says paying customers can use it to get legal advice without consulting a lawyer.

Some of Linklaters’s financial-services clients have used it in conjunction with their sale of financial instruments in the global markets.

“If we can deliver commodity, routine stuff in an automated way, then our lawyers can free themselves up for more complicated advice,” Thompson says.

To some extent, Blue Flag has helped Linklaters drum up new business. But Thompson says the system also sports a transaction management feature that was introduced at the end of 2000 that helps clients monitor the fees they owe their lawyers and manage the workflow of producing legal documents.

Last year, the company expanded its corporate extranet with a new service called [email protected] that grew out of a pilot project with some customers.

“The key thing is that a client can get real-time information,” Thompson says. “If we’re doing a deal that involves a lot of contracts, clients can use the documents and collaborate with the lawyers in real time.”

It may not be a paperless office, but for Thompson, it will do.

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