Understanding Methods of Establishing Electronic Client Communications                      By: Dave B. Cunningham and Bra...
timely delivery is vital. Therefore, while this method can be quite effective for communicatingwith a small number of clie...
Finding a Common Ground for Electronic Communications       The industry trend of moving from centralized, proprietary sys...
would with a manual file transfer, but without the need for human intervention to perform thetransfer since the file would...
As a result of the charges associated with these services, a firm may find that it is morecost–effective to establish a di...
To address the issues of security and document control, alternatives to the use of electronicmail for document exchange ar...
communications is a valuable tool for providing effective information sharing among law firms andtheir clients.           ...
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Law technology product news understanding methods of establishing electronic communications by dave cunningham and brad robbins 2006

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Law technology product news understanding methods of establishing electronic communications by dave cunningham and brad robbins 2006

  1. 1. Understanding Methods of Establishing Electronic Client Communications By: Dave B. Cunningham and Brad W. Robbins Baker Robbins & Company Communication has always been a critical element of the practice of law. Over the pastfew years, the requirement for direct, immediate, inexpensive exchange of written information —messages and documents — has become a paramount service issue for law firms and their clients.During this time, technology related to electronic data communications has evolved and become aviable tool to support these requirements. Unfortunately, difficulties in implementing thesecapabilities in a usable and supportable manner has slowed their general acceptance. By betterunderstanding the alternatives available, firms can provide systems that meet their clientscommunications requirements. Electronic communications with clients can generally be categorized into three areasdocument exchange, electronic mail messages and electronic faxing. All three technologies aregrowing in use and acceptance within firms, but offer enough alternatives and issues to make theimplementation of an effective system troublesome. Because the increased need for document andelectronic mail exchange is rapidly being driven by clients, this article focuses on the setup ofsystems to support these two technologies.Document Exchange through Manual File Transfers A basic system used to transfer documents between a law firm and its clients is a PCequipped with a modem and communication software. To work, the sending and receivingsystems must be configured to communicate with each other. This often involves a fair amount oftrial and error on both ends before the connection settings are established. Once established,transferring the documents is a manual process; it requires a person to be involved on each side ofthe communication. For this method of communication to work, not only are personnel required tobe available, they are required to be available at the same time — else there will be delays when 1
  2. 2. timely delivery is vital. Therefore, while this method can be quite effective for communicatingwith a small number of clients, it is a less attractive solution as the number of possible clientconnections increase. As connections to more clients are needed, PC–with–modem systems become difficult tomanage as each client will probably have unique system requirements requiring different software,different settings, and possibly different equipment at the firm to establish a connection. Furthercompounding the complexity, is the ever-evolving technology and as the clients systems change, alaw firm will have to make changes to their own systems over time to maintain the ability toconnect to their clients. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, this type of system is common. It is arelatively "low–tech" approach that does not require a substantial investment in hardware orsoftware.Electronic Bulletin Boards One step up from this level of communication is an electronic bulletin board service (BBS). A bulletin board is simply a designated place on the firms computer system where attorneys copyrelevant documents for their clients. To maintain security, clients only have access to their accounton the bulletin board; they cannot access the firms computer system or the accounts of other clients. The primary benefit to this method of communication is the ability for attorneys and clients to sendand retrieve documents at any time. The process does not need to be manually attended bypersonnel on both sides of the transfer. 2
  3. 3. Finding a Common Ground for Electronic Communications The industry trend of moving from centralized, proprietary systems to PC–based networkshas been a tremendous advantage in establishing communication links between lawyers and theirclients. The more open standards of PC-based networks are making the exchange of informationmuch easier. But even today, if a lawyer wants to use a product such as Symantecs pcAnywhere tosend a document to a client, the transaction will occur more smoothly if the receiving end also usespcAnywhere. The words "standards" and "open" are used frequently in the technology arena, butin practice there are usually too many standards and not enough openness. To resolve theseincompatibilities, firms must find a "common ground" between their systems and those of its clientsto exchange information.Electronic Mail as a Tool The use of electronic mail (e–mail) can provide common ground. Electronic mailpackages, such as Lotus cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail or WordPerfects Office package, are commonlyused by law firms to exchange internal messages. They can also be used to exchange messagesremotely to clients. While these brands of electronic mail software are themselves only slightlymore compatible than the previously described communications software, these incompatibilitiescan be overcome through the use of gateways — software that converts data from one format toanother. For example, cc:Mail and Microsoft Mail cannot directly communicate with one another,but they both offer gateways that allow them to exchange mail messages directly. To use this typeof communication solution, gateway software is installed on a PC that would automatically connectto a clients system and transfer information on a periodic or as needed basis. One tremendous advantage to this method of communicating is that messages and documents arereceived in the same manner as internal e-mail messages; no additional systems must be checked.Likewise, the clients electronic address would be shown along with the usernames of other users onthe firms network. In effect, the transfer of a file technically would happen much the same way it 3
  4. 4. would with a manual file transfer, but without the need for human intervention to perform thetransfer since the file would be attached to an electronic mail message.Public Electronic Mail Services A gateway to a specific electronic mail package such as cc:Mail would also providecommunications with other clients who use cc:Mail, but not those who use other electronic mailpackages. To avoid installing gateways to each mail application supported by the firms clients, thefirm could install one gateway to a national electronic mail service such as CompuServe, MCI Mail,AT&T EasyLink or Lexis Counsel Connect. These services are computer networks that carrymessages and files between individuals in different organizations for a fee. The Internet is anational, public network originally established to provide communication and access to researchamong educational institutions and the government. This network will now carry your messagesand files at no cost (although charges are being considered), but as it is costly to have a directelectronic mail connection and somewhat complex to initially establish the connection, it isnormally subscribed to through an intermediary service for a small connection or membership fee.As these networks also provide other services, the selection of a service is usually based on ease ofuse, access to bulletin boards and other information sources, message transfer to other services,services used by clients and cost. Each of these services can provide a link to any client who subscribes to a similar service.When an individual or organization applies for connection, they are given a unique address.Using the Internet as an example, an attorney Ken Potter at the law firm Jones & Jones may beassigned the address KPOTTER@JONES.COM, which contains his user name, the firms assignedname and the extension COM to differentiate it as a company rather than an educational institution(EDU). Once the attorney and his/her client obtain addresses, they can exchange messages andfiles with each other. The only drawback to this type of service is that unless the service isintegrated with the firms internal electronic mail the attorney will need to check a different servicefor client messages. Therefore, this integration is becoming more common. 4
  5. 5. As a result of the charges associated with these services, a firm may find that it is morecost–effective to establish a direct gateway connection to those clients who have the largest volumeof electronic information to share, and use public services for all others.Electronic Document Exchange Issues Exchanging drafts of documents with clients electronically can minimize the delivery timeand provide the client with copies of relevant documents as well as reduce the charges for facsimiletransmissions. However, firms should be aware of three issues regarding electronic documenttransfers across public electronic links — document format compatibility, security and documentmanagement. First, although electronic mail gateways and services provide the ability to exchangeword processing documents, they do not convert the document from one word processing format toanother. The firm will need to ensure their word processor has the capability to convert theirdocuments to the format needed by their client and read those received. Second, a firm should investigate the security policies and system maintenance proceduresfollowed by public electronic mail services to ensure they provide adequate protection for theelectronic mail messages and documents that will be transmitted. In connection with this issue, itwould be a good time for the firm to review its own policies for protecting the confidentiality ofelectronically transmitted information. Third, sending documents to clients for their review and possible modification places anadditional significance on the firms control of documents and their versions. The firm shouldconsider its requirements for maintaining editorial control of its work product. The ability for ajunior attorney to send a document in an editable form directly to a client carries a number ofimplications which the firm must consider. While document management applications such as PCDOCS, SoftSolutions and Saros offer exceptional management of documents used internally in thefirm, they cannot track documents sent to clients in the same manner.Other Methods of Document Exchange 5
  6. 6. To address the issues of security and document control, alternatives to the use of electronicmail for document exchange are available. Lotus Notes software has positioned itself at theforefront of "replication" technology by providing the ability to automatically copy and updateinformation at several locations. Applications which take advantage of Notes provide the clientthe ability to have access to the same information as the firms attorneys. Based on the setupdetermined by the firm, a collection of information (documents, notes, etc.) used by the attorneyswould be copied periodically to the clients system for their use. With electronic mail the attorneymust send a document to a client, but with a Notes–based application, the client would have theability to search for and retrieve documents on their own. All information is tracked andmaintained in a controlled manner, but security issues related to clients having access to so muchinformation must be addressed in the application design and the firms procedures.Establishing a Plan for Electronic Communications If immediate access is needed to an electronic mail service, an individual account onCompuServe or America On-Line may be considered. However, an evaluation of the bestconnection method(s) for the firm as a whole should be conducted. A first step in determining how a firm should establish an effective communications systemis to evaluate the needs and current communications technology of its clients. Clients should beevaluated not just on their amount of business with the firm, but with their needs for electroniccommunications. For example, a large litigation case may have substantial fees but benefit lessfrom electronic communications than a smaller contract negotiation in the Business area. Indetermining client needs, be sure to note the computer systems and electronic mail gateways orservices currently being used. Compare the communication needs with the functionality and costsof the alternative methods of providing communications. For example, sending documents acrossthe Internet has no direct charge, but setup may be more difficult than with MCI Mail, which doescharge for document transfers. Whichever method is selected, the use of electronic 6
  7. 7. communications is a valuable tool for providing effective information sharing among law firms andtheir clients. 7

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