Extranet Basics: Taking a Step Toward a Client-focused Practice – Article

[Note: This article, written in 2000, may have been the first place where I started to set out my notion of “client-driven technology.” I recently enjoyed a compliment from an extranet vendor about how he had pointed many people to this article over the years. Extranets may now be the easiest way for law firms to provide clients with something they really want by offering a helpful technology. As recent surveys show, extranets are still not used very often by law firms,]
Extranet Basics: Taking A Step Toward a Client-Focused Practice
When we think about technology, we usually focus on ways to make our practices more productive and our lives easier. These are important goals, but in this column I want to shift our usual focus away from ourselves to our clients. As the legal profession sees growing competition both internally and externally, retaining existing clients will become increasingly important to many firms’ survival.
An Internet application called an “extranet” may prove to be an excellent way for many law firms to use the Internet to improve the attorney-client dynamic and retain current clients.
Everyone is familiar with the Internet, the giant global network of computer networks. And nearly everyone has used an Internet browser, such as Internet Explorer or Netscape’s Navigator, to find helpful web sites. Some of you may even be familiar with “intranets,” or large internal web sites within a single firm. The former Latin students out there will not be surprised then to find that extranets refer to private web sites that are directed to one or more outside entities.
An extranet is a private, secure web site that, while available over Internet through a browser, can be used only by a limited audience to whom you have given the necessary permissions. Conceptually, there are two types of extranets. The first is a standard web site that has password-protected private areas of content and features. The second is a web site that gives password-protected access to limited portions of a firm’s intranet or internal computer network.
The key difference between an extranet and a web site is that an extranet is secure. No one gets access unless permitted.
A law firm can use an extranet to open access to a controlled number of outsiders, typically co-counsel and clients. An extranet also allows you to customize the levels of access and the amount and type of information made available. Since an extranet is programmed like a standard web site, you can have text, graphics, audio, video, message boards, chat sessions and any other Internet feature on your extranet. In other words, you can personalize an extranet specifically for your client, not unlike the My Yahoo web site.
A few examples are in order. On an extranet site, you might make sanitized versions of research memos and updates to articles available to clients only. You might make copies of all a client’s documents, including drafts in progress, available only to that client. In litigation, you might give a client access to deposition transcripts or even video of depositions, or share all case information with co-counsel. An extranet might provide a client with instant access to time and billing information, electronic bills, and message boards to leave comments for attorneys. Rather than preparing huge closing binders for real estate deals, a firm could instead give a client an electronic copy on an extranet. An extranet might provide clients with updates of legal developments and summaries of cases of interest.
The beauty of an extranet is that your clients require no technology other than a computer, an Internet connection and a browser. And they can access your extranet from any place they can access the Internet.
Extranets have become popular in the corporate setting and, as a result, law firms are getting pressure to offer extranets. As the Internet increasingly changes our expectations about customer service, lawyers must keep up with developments. For example, many consumer web sites show you how many units are in stock before you order and let you track your shipment with the click of a button. Why shouldn’t a client expect to click on a button and see current billings and work in process?
Extranets can be developed internally or “outsourced” to a company like LegalAnywhere that provides a packaged solution. As an extranet gets more complex, or ties into your computer network, you will need a higher degree of sophistication and programming, but standard approaches can serve you well as you get started.
Extranets require commitment. They must work flawlessly. They require that you pay attention to message boards and update content regularly. As you provide features and your clients use them, your clients will suggest new features and expect you to add them. Adding video, message boards, chat rooms or other features can place demands on your systems and your people.
Costs, not surprisingly, will vary, but your first extranet can serve as a template for many other clients.
While I believe that extranets offer a way for firms to innovate and even transform a practice, let me focus on the practical – cutting costs. There are two sides to this cost-cutting equation. With an extranet, you can readily find savings in paper, printing and copying costs, long distance, overnight shipping and postage costs, and travel costs. Moving to a form of electronic billing may help you be more efficient in billing and collecting from your clients.
More important, however, is to focus on the ways an extranet can save your clients money. Can you save them copying, printing, shipping, long distance and travel costs? What if you offer a discount for moving to electronic billing? What client will not like a lawyer suggesting ways to save money?
Extranets can also help you market to your clients. By keeping them informed and making them aware of all your services, you add value to the relationship. An extranet can tie a client to your firm, not just to the attorney with the personal relationship. If a client gets used to the benefits and conveniences of its customized extranet, the client will find it harder to go with a lawyer who is leaving your firm or to another firm without the same level of service.
Clients do not like it when they feel you are not paying enough attention to them. An extranet that keeps them up-to-date, provides them with news and developments and even allows them to collaborate on projects and documents will show your clients that you are paying attention.
If you get the underlying concept of extranets, you should already be generating some good ideas. Extranets are increasingly common in class action cases, multi-state complex litigation and general corporate representation. Extranets offer a way to move toward a more client-focused practice and should definitely be on your technology agenda.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2000 issue of The Indiana Lawyer.
[Originally posted on Dennis Kennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
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