There's something about new technologies that makes
people give them awkward and contrived labels. Extranets
are no exception. First, there was the Internet, a reasonable
enough name for a wonderful basket of technologies.
Then came Intranets as a play on the Internet name.
An Intranet is like a small private Internet living
within the confines of an organization. Employee manuals,
access to accounting and a variety of similar internal
matters are all now frequently entrusted to a company's
However, when early adapters began giving selected
outsiders access to parts of their Intranets and creating
private online communications tools for visitors, customers
and clients, some Intranets stopped looking all that,
well, intra. Inevitably, someone coined the word "Extranet"
to describe these new tools and techniques, and the
Big deal. Just another addition to the opaque jargon
of the computer world. True, but if you dig into the
concept a bit, there emerges a promising idea of real
utility to law firms: the reduction or elimination of
barriers between clients and lawyers, or in other words
– the ability to communicate better with clients
with much less effort. Where time is increasingly at
a premium, it only makes sense for lawyers to learn
a little something about what Extranets can do for their
Extranets: the Basics
So here’s the first thing to understand. Extranets
are not really a thing so much as they are a service—the
service of creating novel and effective ways of communicating
and sharing information with a client.
At its most basic an Extranet is a means of networking
two or more entities so they can securely share information.
In some cases an Extranet is simply an extension of
a law firm's Intranet to include a connection to a client.
In other cases an Extranet makes use of the public Internet
combined with security features to create a new, more
Extranets generally have the following features:
- The use of Internet technologies and standards.
These include the standardized techniques for transmitting
and sharing information and the methods for encrypting
and storing information, otherwise known as the Internet
Protocol, or IP.
- The use of Web browsers. Users
access Extranet information using a web browser like
Microsoft Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator or,
more recently, Mozilla’s Firefox. Browser software
uses relatively small amounts of memory and resources
on a computer. The great thing about browsers is that
an application written for a browser can be read on
almost any computer without regard to operating system
or manufacturer. That makes an application developed
for a browser a snap to deploy. A browser on a user’s
machine is all the software he or she needs to take
full advantage of the Extranet application. No messy
and confounding installation disks; fewer clogged
- Security. By their very nature,
Extranets are embroiled in concerns about security.
To protect the privacy of the information that is
being transmitted, most Extranets use either secure
communication lines or proven security and encryption
technologies that have been developed for the Internet.
- Central Server/Repository. Extranets
usually have a central server where documents or data
reside. Members can access this information from any
computer that has Internet access.
While these are the broad attributes shared by most
Extranets, Extranets vary dramatically in their design
and implementation. They can be employed in a wide variety
of environments and for very different purposes, like:
- Sharing case information
- Sharing of case-related documents—many Extranets
contain document repositories that can be searched
and viewed by both lawyer and client on-line
- Calendaring—key dates and scheduling of hearings
and trials can be shared on-line
- Providing firm contact information
- Acting as a “work flow engine” for
- Providing access to firm resources remotely
- Sharing time and expense information
Is there a point?
Extranets have a high risk/reward factor. A successfully
implemented Extranet can result in significant expansion
in clientele and profitability for a law firm. An Extranet
that is poorly designed or badly executed can be an
endless headache. The failure to implement or join an
Extranet can also have a negative impact on a law firm
if it means that a more willing, entrepreneurial or
adventurous competitor gains a significant advantage.
Let’s look at some of reasons why Extranets
matter to lawyers:
Improved communications. The most
common reason for building an Extranet is improved communication
between lawyer and client. An Extranet can eliminate
telephone tag, or worse, the failure of a lawyer to
respond to calls and the delays involved with traditional
correspondence. An Extranet is available 24 hours a
day; both lawyers and clients can update or review information
whenever it is convenient for them to do so. This can
greatly reduce the friction between lawyers and clients
and make life easier for both.
From the client’s perspective, an Extranet can
make the arduous task of monitoring and following up
with a roster of law firms much easier. Many clients
decry the deeply frustrating process of chasing law
firms for status information on the matters assigned
to them. Extranets liberate the status information (“where
are you on the Bloggs matter?”) from the physical
file (a memo on the correspondence spike confirming
that discoveries are scheduled for next Friday) by making
that information open to review by the client online
at any time.
Client retention and integration.
High on the list of law firm motives for participating
in or creating an Extranet is the desire to retain clients.
Many law firms will create an Extranet around a key
client or practice area where they have a significant
volume of work. In an effort to enhance and solidify
the relationship, an Extranet can build and reinforce
deep links between the lawyer and client. Taken to the
extreme, an Extranet can make it hard to tell where
the law firm ends and the client begins.
Client marketing. Extranets can attract
new clients or gain additional business from existing
clients. A law firm that builds an Extranet can differentiate
itself from those that don’t. What you are saying
to the client is: "Not only do we provide excellent
legal services and advice, but we do so in a way that
makes it much more convenient for you to use, consume
and monitor those services". And never underestimate
the “wow” reaction that technology creates:
the simple viewing of a computer screen with all of
their file information available at a point and a click
can seduce even the most cynical of clients.
Improved workflow management. Many
legal matters involve a complex series of steps that
must be completed in a specific order to get a file
done properly. Some steps must be completed by the lawyer;
other steps by the client or third parties. These steps
can often be defined by a series of rules often referred
to as the "workflow". An Extranet can be designed
to incorporate and manage the workflow for handling
a wide variety of legal matters. If properly designed,
the workflow management built into an Extranet can be
a boon to all parties. Done poorly, it can become a
rigid straightjacket that does not conform to the realities
of legal practice. Flexibility must be an inherent part
of the design.
Higher quality. Implementation of
an Extranet can significantly raise the level of quality
control within an organization. Extranets can be built
with real-time status reporting on the progress of matters.
In other cases, information from the client's or law
firm's core systems can be transferred automatically
into the Extranet, eliminating the error-prone task
of transcribing information or re-keying data. It all
adds up to better product.
Community building. Something quite
interesting happens when a well-designed Extranet gets
properly implemented. In a very real sense, you have
just built a new kind of community, a community where
a shared set of values and purposes is given a new forum.
The members of the Extranet community normally include
the client but can include other law firms, suppliers,
government offices or the courts. Rather than each of
these community members working through or around each
other with the benefit of only partial or third hand
instructions, they can all be brought into the same
circle and work toward the common goal by the very structure
of the Extranet itself.
The Client wants it so. Some clients
mandate participation in an Extranet as the cost of
doing business with them. For this reason alone, it
behooves the law firm to familiarize itself with the
technology and to indicate a willingness to participate.
Remarkably, many law firms, when confronted by a client
who wants to introduce an Extranet, will raise objections
and complain loudly about the costs of doing so. These
objections often ignore the benefits that can accrue
to the client and pessimistically ignore potential savings
and benefits to the law firm. All talk of savings and
benefits aside, if a client wants an Extranet, then
a client will have an Extranet. The law firm that drags
its heals will quickly lose that client.
Build or Buy
Extranets are still novel tools. So most law firms
approach the world of Extranets gingerly and do so primarily
at the behest of clients. Increasingly, however, leading
law firms are taking steps to get in front of these
things and have begun considering whether to build or
buy their own Extranet applications.
If you or your firm are heading in this direction,
the first task is to research whether there are existing
Extranets that meet your requirements. It may be that
the vendor or service provider for an Extranet could
tailor an Extranet to meet your needs. Here are some
things to keep in mind as you go through your planning.
Buy. If there is an existing application
that meets most of your requirements and it can be customized
with a modest amount of effort, you will be hard pressed
not to choose this option. Here is why buying is generally
considered the most effective solution:
- An existing application may be far less expensive
than designing your own. The vendor will likely have
developed a series of Extranets using tools that it
has developed specifically for that purpose. It can
license the application on a one-time or periodic
charge. The vendor can spread the development costs
over a greater number of users, meaning the cost is
lower for each user.
- The vendor may host the solution on their web servers
so that you do not have to build and maintain the
hardware/software infrastructure internally.
- Where an Extranet is developed by a third party
or on behalf of more than one law firm/one client,
the features developed by or at the request of one
company can benefit all users of the Extranet.
- Law firms specialize in practicing law and, generally
speaking, not developing software. So it may make
most sense to work with an organization that specializes
in Extranet development and implementation.
Build. On the other hand, you may
not find what you are looking for on the open market
and so may have no choice but to construct your own
tools. This has some real benefits:
- You can specify the application to precisely meet
your needs. You can accommodate the wishes of the
law firm and client and the solution can have a unique
look and feel.
- You would have free reign over subsequent changes
or modifications to meet the needs of users. You are
not dependent on a third party's willingness to update
- You have the ability to support the application
internally, meaning you can determine the level of
support and training required.
- You can show your client something proprietary
that other law firms cannot offer.
And some real disadvantages:
- It’s generally quite costly, even with the
contemporary design tools that have gone a great distance
to simplify the job.
- If you don’t have the resources and expertise
internally, you may have to hire them or contract
with a third party to provide them.
- If you do not have existing web servers you will
have to invest in additional hardware and software.
- If you host it yourself, then you alone are responsible
for all security issues and the risk of any breaches.
- It may also take a substantial amount of time to
construct your own Extranet from scratch.
There is usually a considerable learning curve associated
with creating an Extranet. It takes time to assemble
the hardware and resources. If you are doing a custom
"design and build" it will take time to develop
the web pages and features and test them thoroughly.
Usually, there is a pilot phase where users test and
provide feedback. It may take months before the application
is ready for full implementation.
Whether you build or buy, those firms that have taken
an aggressive approach to Extranet development and deployment
are beginning to see some reward for their efforts.
What is clear is that Extranets are not a passing technological
fancy. They matter and, increasingly, clients want them.
Note: this article was adopted from
Guide to Extranets, by Mark Tamminga &
Doug Simpson. © 2003 by the American Bar Association.
Reprinted by Permission.
Mark Tamminga is a Partner at Gowling
Lafleur Henderson LLP in Hamilton, Canada. He is past
Chair of ABA TECHSHOW and co-author of The
Lawyer's Guide to Extranets: Breaking Down Walls,
Building Client Connections. (ABA 2004)