|Oregon State Bar Bulletin NOVEMBER 2010|
Riding the Wave:
Can We Collaborate?
What Today's Collaboration Tools Can Do for You and Your Clients
By Sheila Blackford
There is a paradigm shift in collaboration among lawyers, which is being driven by technology that is easy, accessible and affordable. Want to take your collaboration up a notch or two? In the emerging “wiki” office, lawyers collaborate with lawyers down the hall and across the states with easy-to-use, fancy but affordable, solutions like PBworks (www.pbworks.com), Cisco’s WebEx (www. webex.com), Adobe Connect and Connect Now(www.adobe.com/products/acrobat connectpro) and Microsoft SharePoint 2010 (www.microsoft.com/sharepoint).Such programs can launch web conferencing for collaboration teams of four or 40.
The idea of lawyers working together jointly on projects isn’t new. Technology has brought improvements to how lawyers can more effectively and easily collaborate with web-based tools such as blogs and wikis 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Lawyers can harness the synergistic power of collaboration for better client service and greater professional development as we learn the most from each other.
When looking at collaboration solutions, the most used features are: document sharing for collaborative document preparation; web conferencing to get everyone on the same page; and ability to share your computer screen — whether a window, an application or an entire desktop.
Document Sharing for Collaborative Document Preparation
The old style of collaborating on document preparation was to send a photocopy of the document around for editing comments with a routing slip. This not only took a long time, but also resulted in many a sheepish attorney finding the missing document in the bottom of the attorney’s work inbox.
A big improvement on this is to send the document in its native form, such as Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect, with the Track Changes and the Comments or Balloons features available in the Review tab or menu turned on, so that collaborating editors can see suggestions along with comments. This was fine but invariably someone would have trouble with the Track Changes feature and would do the edits without enabling it.
With Adobe Acrobat, a PDF document can be created that can be commented on using the free Adobe Reader 9. This keeps the edits from becoming part of the document until all collaborators have had their chance to wield their blue pencils.
Tools like Google Docs enable the document to be shared on the web, and savvy collaborators enjoy making their edits and comments color-coded by collaborator. Since this is a free application if one already has a free Gmail account, many find it a quick way to get a document out there to be shared among the collaborators. What is nice about Google docs is that they are then stored on the individual’s personal Google docs and displayed in the familiar listing of Gmail. Access is controlled by the person who circulates the document, issuing other collaborators an invitation by e-mail. Order is easy to impose by setting up folders to keep track of various collaboration projects. The newest improvement to Google Docs is real-time collaborative highlighting in documents, which lets co-collaborators see what text is being highlighted before it is changed or deleted.
If the idea of watching text become highlighted and deleted leaves you queasy, PBworks has a complete history and audit trail of every change made to a workspace so that you can see who changed what when. Don’t like what has been changed? Edits are easy to reverse with a couple of clicks.
Most attorneys have likely attended a web conference, whether an Oregon State Bar online CLE or a free webinar from any number of organizations, companies and consultants. Usually you sign up and are later provided a link that you will click on to launch the visual program, along with a toll-free call-in number to access the audio after entering the meeting code and password. Other options include using the speakers on your computer if the sound is adequate. Usually these web conferences have been very large. Think smaller scale and you can imagine web conferencing for your intended collaboration team.
If you are trying to collaborate to create a document, you will need to manage your group’s timeline and tasks in your calendar system. Generally, after a collaboration session, someone sends e-mails with task assignments. Someone then needs to monitor whether work is being done according to the agreed timeline. Inevitably, someone needs to follow up with reminders of due dates and missed deadline notices. This is usually not a favorite assigned duty within a collaboration group. Scheduling collaboration meetings or events can be done by using the Invite Attendees feature in Microsoft Outlook’s Calendar and by notating the tasks and deadlines in the space provided in the New Appointment window. When the meeting or event is accepted, it is automatically placed onto that person’s calendar. Project Management is a big component of the PBworks system and these monitoring tasks are automated.
Here are four of my favorite tools to get your collaborative practice up and running:
Adobe Connect and ConnectNow (www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnectpro) Adobe Connect is web conferencing software that lets you launch and share presentations and multimedia from your desktop to a great number of participants using a web browser and the free Adobe Flash Player that is likely already on your computer. If you only have three people, you can use a free version — Acrobat.com Free ConnectNow — for sharing your screen, using chat, notes and whiteboard along with your computer’s microphone and speakers to conduct a collaboration session. For up to five participants, you need to upgrade to the Premium Basic for $14.99/month or $149/year. Have more collaborators? There is a Premium Plus to extend meeting size to 20 participants at a cost of $39/month or $390/year. All three of these versions allow collaborators to visit cross-platform so that Microsoft Windows based PCs can collaborate with iMacs because the sessions are hosted by Adobe. There is a greatly expanded product called Adobe Connect, which adds these additional enhancements: meeting recordings, customizable layouts, multiple meeting rooms per user, reporting and administration, polling of participants, uploading of rich media in FLV and MP3 formats, a central content library, courses and curriculum learning management, event management, API (application programming interface), Collaboration Builder SDK (software development kit) and additional compliance features. This roll-out of options can be hosted or on-premise or provided as a managed service. Contact Adobe directly for their licensing plan.
Cisco’s WebEx (www.webex.com). Chances are you’ve attended a webinar recently that was hosted in WebEx. Many CLEs are being hosted on the web instead of in person. The same features that make it easy to attend an online seminar make it easy to collaborate. You can communicate pretty close to “face-to-face;” some lawyers use their computer’s built-in web cam or attach a plug-in web cam to see each other. You can even access WebEx from your smart phone if you are away from your computer. For $49/month, WebEx provides the ability to meet with up to 25 people at a time, get free mobile access, voice conferencing and online recording for those who miss the collaboration session. This application lets collaborators easily share documents, presentations and applications. The Cisco WebEx Meeting Center facilitates collaboration by bringing teams together online to review project plans and tasks together. Whatever you can do in a well planned in-person meeting you can pretty much do online with WebEx. Collaboration meetings can be scheduled in advance and started as needed — just like a conference call. Secure online meetings with WebEx are a fast way to bring firm members who are in various locations together in real time without costly travel and facility arrangements. This can be extremely helpful when you have a far-flung team that you would like to pull together for a client meeting. Try WebEx for a 14-day trial for free.
Microsoft SharePoint 2010 (www.microsoft.com/sharepoint) is Microsoft’s business collaboration platform. With it, law firms can set up websites to share information with others inside and outside their organization, aid in management of documents from start to finish, and facilitate publishing reports to ensure that everyone on the team makes better decisions. As in all good collaboration, people can share their ideas and professional expertise to create solutions to problems encountered within the firm or at the client’s office. Firms that are spread out across the state benefit from using the platform for delivering training and keeping maintenance costs manageable while enabling colleagues to work collaboratively. Because it is Microsoft, it interfaces seamlessly with a law firm’s Microsoft Exchange Server as well as Microsoft Office which is used in the majority of Oregon law firms. If you have adopted Office 2007 or 2010, you are familiar with the Ribbon that pulls all the application features together as needed. The SharePoint Ribbon carries this menu approach so that users are able to find and use relevant features to make SharePoint 2010 more user-friendly.
To take full advantage of SharePoint 2010’s functions, users need the latest versions of other Microsoft products such as Windows Server 2008 R2 and Microsoft Office 2010. If you are looking for a software platform from which to do collaboration, file sharing and web publishing and want to keep a unified user’s dashboard consistent with Microsoft’s other software, then SharePoint 2010 can be downloaded as a free trial before buying. SharePoint 2010 will support your firm’s intranet, extranet, and Internet application from a single integrated platform at a price that is determined by what SharePoint capabilities will be used, how the service will be deployed by your firm and where the system is hosted.
The Microsoft SharePoint 2010 website has a detailed comparison of editions as well as extensive information for evaluating what your firm’s licensing needs will be. Turn this evaluation over to your firm’s IT professional to work with an authorized Microsoft Gold Certified Partner in Oregon, listed on the website under the Partner tab, to assess your firm’s needs. To speak to a Microsoft representative in the United States you can call (800) 426-9400.
PBworks: (www.pbworks.com) does everything from enabling users to set up an enterprise-grade secured platform for creating documents, managing projects, sharing files or doing “real-time collaborating” with instant conference calls generated within PBworks with colleagues and clients. PBworks has grown to be the world’s largest provider of hosted collaboration solutions for businesses and organizations because of attracting an impressive client base such as FedEx, the FDA and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as well as smaller businesses and boutique law firms. PBworks claims that users can set up their collaboration workspace in 60 seconds. They can. This is a very comprehensive collaboration support solution, encompassing many useful features that are easy to use. Newest if not greatest, PBworks offers a “real-time collaboration” voice collaboration feature so that you can start an instant conference call by having PBworks dial the desired participants. You can add new participants at any time, and each conference call is recorded and stored for later review. No dial-in numbers or meeting codes to remember, and this works with regular phones. There is an Integrated Presence/IM/Chat feature that allows you to see who else in your organization is logged into PBworks and send them instant messages from within the product. Live Editing enables other users viewing the page to see the edits appear in real-time. Couple Live Editing with Voice Collaboration and you can eliminate the need for any additional special web conferencing tools such as WebEx. PBworks Business Edition costs $20 per user per month. PBworks Legal Edition costs $50 per attorney per month. Staff and clients get free use. PBworks offers a free 14 day trial with 200 minutes of voice collaboration for unlimited users and workspace.
All this new technology isn’t an end in itself. Getting the work done, serving the client is the driver behind all this collaboration. Clients benefit when lawyers are able to be more responsive to their needs. The client really doesn’t care if the lawyer works more efficiently. The bottom line is of concern to the lawyer; the end result is of concern to the client — has the problem been fixed? With a collaborative approach to legal services, using technology to support your collaborative practice can yield much success.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sheila Blackford is an attorney working as a practice management adviser for the PLF. She is a member of the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s Council and serves on its magazine’s editorial board as well as the section’s State and Local Bar Outreach Committee.
© 2010 Sheila Blackford