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No. 16, December 2000  

ASPs Approach Legal Applications

While computer industry pundits are doing their best to push toward an Application Service Provider ("ASP") model, in which companies "lease" software that resides on a web server rather than purchasing it to run in-house, there are a number of unresolved issues, in particular for the legal industry. Our skeptical piece "ASPs May Carry Lethal Sting" (No. 14, Summer 2000) met with the widest response of any of our newsletters. 

Nevertheless, virtually every major software maker is rushing to develop (or at least announce) web versions of their software. It is worth examining the models available and how existing software makers are approaching this issue. There are three basic models for ASP use:

  • Create an entirely new application from scratch.
  • "Web enable" existing software
  • A hybrid approach in which some features of a given software are available on the web, but there is no direct link to the primary data that resides on a company's in-house servers.

Entirely New Applications

From the point of view of software programmers, writing entirely new web-based software has many attractions. You do not have to worry about going through contortions to reproduce the "look and feel" of existing software, nor do you have to worry about matching existing functionality in a web-based application.

There are two main downsides to this approach. The first is that many of the providers that are springing up today will fail, leaving their customers high and dry. This year marked the beginning of a shakeout in the dot-com industry. Between January and September 2000, 109 dot-coms failed in the US and Britain, or about 12 per month. In October 21 failed and in November failures were averaging well over 1 per day (22 in the first half of November). You can expect a similar shakeout to take place in the ASP market about a year or two from now as startups run out of their initial capital. Thus going with a "from the ground up" company carries substantial risk with it. To date, in addition to Pets.com and its sock puppet, perhaps the most notable failure is Red Gorilla, whose clients for its time tracking and expense modules included Adobe Systems, NBCi, and OfficeMax. Red Gorilla closed down in October and by the end of November customers' data had still not been transferred to another provider. A recent article in Forbes magazine estimates that up to 90% of all ASP startups will fail. There is no guarantee you will pick one of the "winning" 10%.

The other downside lies with the functionality and general usability of these applications. Thus the "Editor's Choice" of a recent PC Magazine review (August 30), hotoffice.com, presents a complete rolodex/ calendaring/scheduling application online. This can be extremely useful if you have a widely dispersed workforce, or people who are constantly traveling. However, the programs themselves are somewhat kludgy-looking and slow. [Note that less than a week after this article was written, hotoffice announced that it was going out of business!] The functionality of these programs may not be all you have come to expect from a desktop either: for example, most of these programs will not synchronize information with a Palm Pilot/Visor (fusionOne is a rare exception). While DSL connections are rapidly popping up in business-class hotels, response time is still a major problem here. For reviews of other products see http://www.zdnet.com/pcmag/stories/reviews/0,6755,2619206,00.html. At the higher end of the scale, the New York firm of Shearman and Sterling has recently licensed similar software from niku.com for its some 1500 users.

Other vendors trying to make major inroads into this market include think-free.com and 1stlegal.com. Both offer an entire suite over the Internet. Thinkfree comes with an advertising supported free version (imaging having to look at advertising while composing a brief: distracting to say the least!), but for a fee the advertising can be removed. Both are extremely slow and clumsy to use. I wouldn't even try it on less than a DSL line - my ISDN line would be impossible to use on a regular basis.

Web-Enabled Software

The second approach is to "web-enable" existing software. Probably the granddaddy of these applications is GroupWise, which has had an Internet interface module since 1995. The Java-based Internet version of GroupWise has gradually improved over time until it offers almost all of the functionality of the PC version. You log in through two sets of passwords: first to the GroupWise Web server, and secondly to your GroupWise account. Data is encrypted during transmission, providing additional security.

Document Management vendors such as PCDocs, iManage and Worldox also offer some sort of Web solution. Worldox has one of the better versions, since it not only allows a user full access, but can be configured so that a particular client can see only some or all of the documents relating to that client. Worldox even lets you create entirely new documents and use the Internet connection to add them to your data store. iManage is also trying to break into the web suite application market with its QuickTeam.com.

Other software that is taking this path includes Time Matters, which staged a very impressive prototype demonstration at NY Legal Tech in September. However, it is likely to be some time before its Java-based Web version is ready to be released.

Software that is taking a less ambitious approach includes ProLaw, which has an HTML-only "Web Portal" approach to its case management suite. As was clear during the NY Legal Tech demonstration, this approach cannot hold a candle to Java-based types of applications: clunky, slow and with limited functionality. In addition, the ProLaw version is read-only, so that you can get your data but not add new data.

Hybrids

A number of companies, in particular firms dealing with accounting software, are offering partial approaches. This is understandable, since if law firms are extremely concerned about the security of client data, they are doubly paranoid about their accounting information.

PCLaw is unveiling a web version of its popular legal accounting package which will enable authenticated users to access some (but not all) of the firm's data, and enter some new data. The level of access permitted can be defined within the software, so that companies are not stuck with a "one size fits all" version. PCLaw will host its own data access site, thus avoiding third-party vendor issues.

Much further down the line, applications such as TimeSlips provide a web data-entry module, but no real access to the firm's data. Any time entered on the Web must be manually "swept" and imported into the firm's TimeSlips data. This is merely another form of remote entry and really doesn't qualify as a "web version" of the software. It remains to be seen how the TimeSlips link with Peachtree will pan out.

Amicus Attorney, one of the leading case management programs for small firms, has a "Remote Update" function that can work across the Internet, but no actual Internet version. As with other companies that don't have actual solutions, Amicus no doubt has a version "in the works," but at present this is vaporware.

Litigation Support software fits the ASP model very well: you have a large data store that you want to grant a number of co-counsel, clients, etc. access to across the web. Instead of sending out CDs or using a slow dialup connection, the Internet would seem to be an ideal solution. Litigation support is an area in which the ASP model is likely to have significant success.

Summation's iBlaze now allows firms to define an Internet repository for all or part of its data. This can be extremely useful in large class-action or similar cases with numerous co-counsel. However, it still requires that the data be manually uploaded to the web, and no real time access to the firm's actual database is provided.

Conclusions

A number of conclusions become apparent from the above:

  • First, many of the startup "written from scratch" companies will fail. When they do, your data may be in limbo for a significant period of time. If you choose one of these solutions, make sure you can get backups and that there are guarantees in case of failure (for example, that you will have at least 30 days to get your data out in the case of failure)
  • Second, different types of software may lend themselves to different models. You may want a different approach to litigation support software than to accounting software. This is definitely not a "one size fits all" situation.
  • Lastly, all the reservations expressed in our earlier article still apply. Even more than for an in-house network, you need to plan for disaster in the event your ASP fails or your connection is disrupted for other reasons.


Time Matters Service Release

Time Matters Case Management has just issued Service Release 3 for its Version 3.0. Although labeled a "Service Release," it virtually amounts to a version 3.1 given all the new and improved features:

  • Integration with Worldox such that all Worldox documents relating to a given client/matter appear both for the client ("contact" in Time Matters terms) and the matter. This can dramatically expand the utility of the conflict checking available from Time Matters, since Worldox documents are now also full-text searched when doing a conflict check. Previously, Time Matters could not search any external documents attached to Time Matters files.
  • The ability to see client balances from within Time Matters if you are using either PCLaw or TimeSlips, as well as new and/or improved links to Juris and Tabs III.
  • Full, bi-directional synchronization with Outlook calendar and contact lists, in addition to e-mail synchronization. This is unique within the industry (although some other programs, such as ProLaw simply use the calendar features of Outlook as their own).
  • An improved e-mail client from within Time Matters.
  • Supports multi-page Twain scanning.


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No.21 April 2002
Future of Case Management Programs
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Disaster Recovery Small and Medium Firms
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