Canada: From Chrysalis to Butterfly: An I.T. Metamorphosis

Last Updated: December 20 2001
Article by Paul Knapp

This article was originally published in Law Technology News in August 2001.

Over the past 15 months, Aird & Berlis LLP has been busy overhauling and largely replacing its entire I.T. infrastructure. We’ve installed a new communications platform; network and desktop operating systems; and new servers, PCs and notebook computers. We introduced Web portal technology to allow staff and client access to documents.

Aird & Berlis LLP, located in Toronto, was created with the 1974 merger of two firms: Zimmerman, Grant, Hugo, Paddon, Worley & Bennett (founded in 1919); and Edison, Aird & Berlis (founded in 1953). Today, Aird & Berlis LLP is a full-service Canadian firm, with a diversified national and international practice. The firm has approximately 120 lawyers and 265 support staff. With more than 15 practice and industry groups, we represent some of the world’s largest corporations, as well as a wide array of entrepreneurial businesses, associations, government agencies and individuals.

Global Trends

Before getting started with our I.T. metamorphosis, under the guidance of executive director Gary Torgis, we looked at global industry trends in communication technology. Based on this research, we conducted an assessment of the firm’s need for a "fully integrated" information communication infrastructure. We focused on electronic messaging in all its forms, regarding voice as just another form of data (like e-mail and fax.)

Improving lawyer/client communications was our underlying motivation. Today’s clients demand a professional document management service and the ability to communicate swiftly and effectively on various electronic levels.

No matter how satisfied a client may be with the knowledge and service of their legal representative, if the firm lacks the technological capability to communicate efficiently, and to allow for easy and secure access and collaboration, many clients will simply walk away.

We needed to execute an I.T. transformation to carry our firm into the next decade, and give us a technological advantage over our competition. As you can imagine, this was no small task.

Good Intentions

When it comes to a major I.T. overhaul, good intentions would only carry us so far. To proceed with our intended revolution, we sought the cooperation of the entire firm, beginning with senior management. Once we had the "buy in" from the executive committee, the next step was to sell the proposed new system to the firm’s lawyers, clerks, assistants and administration staff. Fortunately, we were met with open acceptance and valuable feedback, after holding open information sessions for the entire firm.

Because document production and management is the backbone of a law firm, one of our objectives was to personalize the type of access for each client, allowing them to obtain information that relates specifically to them. We chose the Hummingbird EIP Portal, which offers a customizable, Internet-accessible window into our internal document management system. It includes collaborative "whiteboard"-style access to their documents; querying of selective billing and financial data; and industry news that is pertinent to each client.

Another major focus was improved client communication. We investigated what other law firms in both Canada and the United States were considering; and explored both the Nortel Networks and Lucent Technologies unified messaging systems.

We selected the Definity Business Communications System from Lucent, along with Octel UM component from Avaya.

The unified messaging system integrates the voice mailbox into Microsoft Exchange 5.5, which is our current e-mail platform (soon to be Exchange 2000).

All voicemails are processed by the messaging system server and stored in the Exchange server’s recipient inbox, thus recipients can recover voice and e-mail messages from the same source.

Special text-to-voice synthesizing technology allows the user to listen to e-mail messages over the phone.

Our lawyers, whether in the office, at home, or on the road, can use their telephone or computer to pick up, listen to and respond to voice and e-mail messages, and to redirect faxes.

Hardware & Software

We upgraded hardware and software throughout the firm. After looking at the major players (including Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett Packard Corp. and IBM), we chose HP for all hardware platforms. We purchased network servers (LH3000R and LH6000R); ePCs for desktops; OmniBook 6000 notebooks; and HP gigabit switch technologies for the network infrastructure.

As for software, we installed Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 2000 Advanced Server for our network operating system; Windows 2000 Professional on our desktops and notebooks; and Exchange for our e-mail platform.

Integrators

During the installation process, we worked with Accord Communications and AMH Communications-two local system integrators. Accord was the lead integrator on the new phone switch and UM installation/configurations; AMH is our main systems integrator on all of our network hardware and software products.

The payoffs from this IT makeover are becoming more and more evident every day. Our lawyers are using the unified messaging environment in creative ways that free up more of their time and make them more responsive to their clients’ needs.

For example, one of our lawyers saved the day in a dispute by playing back a critical voice message to his client!

Under the previous system, the vital voice message would have been deleted from the system.

So, after many months of effort, Aird & Berlis LLP is emerging from its technology cocoon. The journey is far from over and there will be many future enhancements.

But our butterfly is taking flight with a new sense of enthusiasm and professional pride based on new technologies for delivering quality legal services. Paul Knapp is director of information technologies at Aird & Berlis LLP.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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