Helping Legal World Stay on Top of Cases

Law firms; Elite, Plumtree platforms meld portal, document management approaches.

Elite Information Systems Inc. and Plumtree Software Inc. are each readying platforms for the legal world that combine portal and document management technologies.

Document management has long been a key IT tool for law firms, which typically produce mountains of documents. But even with document management software, giving broad access to those documents on a timely basis has not been easy.

The idea behind Elites Encompass software, which will be announced this week, and Plumtrees Collaboration Server, due next quarter, is to provide an electronic space for viewing and managing these documents.

The Plumtree Collaboration Server is an add-on to the companys namesake portal technology. It will be targeted for use by law firms and other professional services organizations whose work is centered on projects.

Elites Encompass is built on Microsoft Corp.s SharePoint Portal Server and provides Web-based access to individuals within and outside a firm.

Elite has used SharePoints document management, search and collaboration functions as the basis for Encompass and added a user interface, as well as hooks into Elites own suite of business applications, according to officials at Elite, in Los Angeles. Using Web Parts, bits of code that provide additional features to SharePoint, Elite also provides Web-based access to the financial records in its time and billing application for law firms.

As a portal, Encompass acts as a central repository for the myriad documents created for each case a firm handles. Once the files receive metadata tags, they can be stored, searched and manipulated online and offline.

A SmartProps feature lets IT departments designate a target (such as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or an Oracle Corp. database) and capture and filter changed data using Object Database Connectivity.

Encompass lets users subscribe to a particular case file or search category, which sends a visual queue or an e-mail alert whenever the information in that file is changed or relevant information is added to the category.

The softwares Deal Room feature is a secure extranet that lets clients or co-counsel from outside firms access documents relevant to cases they are involved with. Third-party access to a Deal Room is provided through a log-in ID and password.

Deal Room also supports subscriptions to data that resides on external Web sites.

Bonne, Bridges, Mueller, OKeefe and Nichols PC, a Los Angeles-based law firm, expects to use Encompass Deal Room to give the lawyers working in each of its seven offices access to documents created in all the various locations, said Jeff Moffat, the firms chief operating officer.

Moffat hopes to use Deal Room as a place to electronically store briefs created by his firms attorneys. That way, other lawyers in the firm will be able to search for and find briefs that cover matters similar to the ones they are working on.

"There will be less downtime finding a file," Moffat said.

The amount of time saved could be substantial, considering that Bonne, Bridges 200 employees produce tens of thousands of documents a year, Moffat said.

One selling point for Encompass is the price. The software costs $295 per user, plus a SharePoint license fee. Because many of the firms that might buy it already have Microsoft site licenses, they are already paying the SharePoint fee, Elite officials said.

Encompass uses security features in the financial applications already installed at a firm. For document management, Encompass provides only directory-level security, due to limitations in SharePoint, Moffat said. But he expects a future version to add file-level security.

Moffat acknowledged that his firm wasnt initially looking for a portal but simply wanted document management. But given that the Elite system provided the same document management capabilities as other systems he considered, as well as a platform for an intranet, he went with Encompass.

"We think we will have an easier time providing documents internally and externally because of the Web architecture," Moffat said. "It will give us an instant intranet."

Installation of Encompass at Bonne, Bridges has not gone off without some minor hitches. Since the firm uses some non-Microsoft technologies—it has a Novell Inc. network backbone and uses WordPerfect for word processing—Moffats group needed to do some extra integration with SharePoint. It took about one more week than it otherwise would have, Moffat said.

Meanwhile, Plumtrees Collaboration Server provides a forum for document management, electronic discussions, task management and workflow. With it, users will be able to create new projects, set missions, view milestones and add content for any given project, according to Plumtree officials in San Francisco.

As with other collaboration software, it will not always be easy to nail down an exact return on investment for legal portals.

"I hope it will improve our bottom line," Moffat said. "Thats what it is all about."