Computer Counselor - September 1998
How One Firm Built an Intranet That Is Good for Business
It can be done: forms, data, and news, all up-to-date and searchable
Rebecca Thompson Nagel
Rebecca Thompson Nagel is the managing editor of Law Office Computing, a bimonthly magazine devoted to legal technology.
In November 1996 Jeffrey S. Rovner had a problem. He had recently left a partnership at Morrison & Foerster to become the first director of practice development for Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison's business and technology group. "The B & T group recognized that they had a lot of unmet needs. They had a need to train people and keep them trained, and a need to create form documents, and a need to share information, and no matter how much people wanted to do this in their spare time, there never was any," Rovner says, explaining the creation of his unique position.
Rovner, with a 15-year legal career and a love of technology driving him, dived into the job, visiting all eight of the firm's U.S. offices to conduct face-to-face interviews with every lawyer in his group. He was determined to find out what each needed and what each could contribute. After compiling a database full of suggestions, requests, and comments, Rovner knew exactly what he needed to do-share the collective know-how of more than 124 experienced partners, associates, and of counsel, and to do so in a way that would break down office barriers and help to bring the entire group together.
Paper communications had already been tried and were not going to work. Even with Rovner's extensive technical background, he could not see a clear way to use technology to make his vision come to life.
The Intranet Solution
Martin Metz was hired by Brobeck in late 1996 to head the firm's information technology group. Before that, Metz had served as director of information systems at Bogle & Gates, where, among other projects, he had supervised the creation and installation of one of the first large-scale legal intranets.
Metz showed Rovner how an intranet could accomplish everything Rovner envisioned. "The ingredients were jelling," says Metz of that time. "Jeff felt that there were boundaries between offices, a lack of shared infomation, a lack of teamwork, and redundant forms and processes throughout. He thought that a database was the way to go and forged ahead trying to do one on his own. [Then] Jeff and I decided together that [a database] was the more difficult approach, and that we would use his practice group as a model in building our intranet."
BrobeckNet, as the intranet was called, previewed at a partners meeting in March 1997-"a smashing success," says Metz. "Jeff was extraordinary in demonstrating how lawyers could use this technology to improve how they access, share, and collaborate with one another." When the completed version debuted firmwide in July 1997, the response was just as enthusiastic. Metz and Rovner, as well as their respective teams in San Francisco and Orange Counties, had created what other firms wished for but did not have.
The content of the intranet-especially within Rovner's business and technology section-is staggering. Every form or document that any business and technology lawyer may need is maintained as a template, and each template boasts fill-in-the-blank boxes and detailed annotations so that even an attorney unfamiliar with a form can complete it correctly. An attorney in the group who is experienced with a given document supervises the template version of that document on the intranet, so its content is current and accurate. Once filled out by an attorney, the intranet's form and document templates are automatically saved as specific documents in the document management system.
The intranet also features a transaction database containing every recent transaction the group has performed, so that attorneys can quickly find information about whom to call for suggestions or examples. "Let's say you're doing a merger transaction," Rovner explains. "You could do a search and bring up a list of all the merger deals. The first thing you see is the lawyer's name and the paralegal's name for every deal-you know immediately who to call. And if you want to make sure it is really the type of deal you are working on, you can click on a link to bring up all the information about the deal. This is also useful for marketing," he continues. "If we want to know how many IPOs worth more than 20 million we've done over the past few years, the information is just a couple of clicks away."
The intranet also features an official expertise locator. "Let's say we want to make a call on a biotech company and we want to know who to bring with us on that call," Rovner says. "Click on our expertise locator and all the industries are listed down the left-hand side. You just click on biotech, and you have a list of all the people in the offices, sorted by partner and associate, who claim special expertise in this area."
Rovner also recognized the importance of ease of use and incorporated certain features to promote daily usage. For example, Rovner lists everything he adds to the site by date on the group's main home page so that attorneys who have not logged on for a while do not have to search to find new content. News articles and Internet sites relevant to all the business and technology group's attorneys are also listed on the home page.
All the firm's attorneys-no matter what their practice group or location-are taken to a main BrobeckNet page each morning when they first log onto their computers. This page features news affecting the entire firm, a list of new employees, a link to the firm's external Web site, and links to all the firm's practice areas and office's home pages. Other features available to attorneys firmwide include a biography database (with pictures) of the firm's employees as well as a bulletin board system on which people can post recommendations for outside vendors and services, such as printers or expert witnesses.
Greg Williams, a partner in the business and technology group, says that BrobeckNet has allowed him to become a better lawyer. "It allows you to think more about issue-spotting" rather than the details of being organized. He adds, "You have a lot more time to devote to the creative side of lawyering."
Williams says the system has also improved the speed at which he can work. "We were negotiating something the other day where I was convinced that a firm was asking for something that wasn't market," he explains. "Because Brobeck's deals are now on the intranet, I was able to pull up a couple of opinions that Brobeck did recently…[and] I could say, 'Well, we didn't give that here.' This was all done while I was on the phone. In the old days, you had to call around, and if someone wasn't there they call you back.…In the meantime, you've lost all the strategic benefit of telling them right there that this is not something they should be negotiating for."
Williams also says the database of SEC comment letters on the site have become essential for the way he works. "These are extremely important…because a lot of this is subjective. Now, we have a central location for all the comment letters and all the responses, so we can do a quick search to see how [the SEC] commented on certain issues…and how other attorneys have responded." Williams says that he cannot imagine practicing without BrobeckNet, and at the firm he is not alone in his opinion.
Rovner warns other firms attempting this project not to leave it to their information services staff alone, nor to just anyone in the firm. "The reason things like this almost always fail in law firms-even before there were ever intranets, using things like form banks and databases-is that a firm's lawyers are usually too busy being lawyers, and the project is given to someone who is either inexperienced or not a lawyer," he says. "While that person may produce a lot of content, if that content isn't trustworthy, it won't be used; if it's not used, it won't be updated; and if it's not updated, it will die."
Metz agrees, saying, "Without buy-in and participation, you are doomed to failure. Yes, you can put a shell together, but the proof will be in the depth of information. Get [the lawyers] involved at all costs."
Technical Specs for BrobeckNet
Firm Size: 472 attorneys (164 partners) and 1,125 nonlawyers in eight offices in the United States and one in the United Kingdom.
Practice Areas: Nine, including the business and technology group.
Terminals Connected to Intranet: More than 1,400.
Network: WAN using ATM technology and Cisco equipment, running Microsoft IIS, SQL Server databases, Intranet Explorer, and Front Page.
Connections: Most offices have T-1s with redundant T-1s as necessary; smaller offices use frame relay connections with as much bandwidth as needed.
Staff: Two people are assigned to matters of content for the business and technology group, and three are dedicated to information services. One person specifically handles the design and another the maintenance of databases. Numerous attorneys in all practice areas and others in the information services group also contribute.
Estimated Cost: Roughly $500,000 for servers, programming, integration, extranets, security, and time spent producing and maintaining system and content.