Extranets:The Client Disconnect? #ILTA12

Session Title: Beyond Extranets! What Clients Really Want.
Speakers; Scott Rechtschaffen (CKO, Littler Mendelson), Lynn Simpson (Knowledge Manager & Six Sigma Master Black Belt, DuPont), Meredith Williams (Chief Knowledge Management Officer, Baker Donelson).
[These are my notes from the International Legal Technology Association’s 2012 Conference 2012. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]

NOTES:
As always, Meredith Williams and Scott Rechtschaffen made strong presentations of their innovative client facing offerings. (To see more details on their presentations, see my tweetstream or the general ILTA12 tweetstream.) And then, Lynn Simpson stood up and said that she was going to “throw a bomb” into the room. Her message was clear and concise:

  • We don’t want you to send us poorly targeted, irrelevant marketing or legal updates. We consider that material to be the equivalent of spam.
  • It’s great that you have all these interesting extranets, but we don’t want to have to go to each firm’s special environment to find the materials we need to work. We want our external clients to come to our environment — the place where we, the client, are most comfortable working.

Lynn’s comments confirmed something I wrote about earlier regarding extranets and law firm client updates. That’s great. But I found myself wondering how many members of the audience were left puzzled at the seeming discrepancy between the two law firm success stories and the very different client experience. While I wasn’t able to put this question to the panel, that didn’t stop me from thinking further about this. Here are my preliminary conclusions

  • The DuPont Rule. A law firm would be wise to consider Lynn Simpson’s advice as the primary operating rule UNLESS your firm can fit into either the Baker Donelson exception or the Littler exception.
  • Baker Donelson Exception. If you can develop a product or service that so impresses your client that your client moves all of its business to you, then you become your client’s only external law firm and your extranet the only environment your client needs.
  • Littler Exception. If you are advising in an area in which the client desperately needs constant external advice, and you can provide an easy to use, accurate, tailored and timely resource, your extranet will become the go to place for your client.

The bottom line is that a garden variety extranet will not impress your client or move you into the territory of one of the exceptions mentioned above. You and your firm will have to develop a very special offering to entice the client away from the client’s own environment. If you stopped to think about this, it makes perfect sense. So why do so many law firms continue to ignore the DuPont rule?

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Dino, Dodo, Extranet

We all know that dinosaurs and dodo birds are extinct. What about extranets? I know we’ve got them, but for how long?

With the increasing pressure from clients to have access to the wealth of knowledge generated by law firms, some firms have tried to lance the wound by offering a small collection of their content on password protected extranets. The problem with this approach is that it puts the burden on the client. For example, the client (and in this instance I mean every member of the client’s law department) must (i) know the extranet exists, (ii) figure out its design quirks and how it works, (iii) have some sense of its collection, and (iv) remember the unique password every time they want to consult that archive. Multiply this across the sites of various law firms and you’ve got a major challenge.

I know that a great driver of this approach is to provide access without compromising security and confidentiality, but does it really work for clients? We’ve heard in-house counsel express the desire for law firm content without having to hunt for it. They would like it in an environment of their own choosing and design. So instead of providing content access tools like extranets, should law firms be thinking harder about better content delivery tools?

Imagine a virtual umbilical cord stretching from a law firm to its client’s knowledge management system, providing a regular supply of helpful resources? Imagine being an in-house lawyer who doesn’t have to go to a thousand places on the internet to find information, but rather can simply surf a single familiar internal platform? Imagine that in-house lawyer’s delight when they can find easily the information appropriate to the decision at hand, and can identify and follow-up with the lawyer and firm that made the retrieval so pain free? Imagine the impact of these experiences on the relationship between that law firm and its client?

This isn’t farfetched. As more and more law firms and law departments move to a SharePoint platform, we will approach a common technical vocabulary for making content available.  Next, we need to push this further to see how to provide that content outside the law firm firewall safely.  This could be a wonderful opportunity to provide exactly the level of law firm transparency and support that clients have been asking for.

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If you’d like to learn more about new ways of using extranets (before they become extinct!), read Are Law Firms Ready for Transparency?

[Photo Credit:  Kevin Zim]

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