Technology has opened up new worlds for corporate legal departments and law firms. Powerful, sophisticated ediscovery platforms have made it possible to achieve significant time and cost-efficiencies in managing large volumes of electronic information and quickly identifying the most relevant data. That’s hardly news to anyone following the industry these days.
But ediscovery is only part of the story in litigation technology. We are also seeing promising developments in the way that legal teams approach the more traditional work of practicing law – analyzing evidence, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a case, sharing and discussing insights with colleagues, working together to map out a legal strategy, and managing the various stages of a matter from the early stages of discovery to trial. This work requires regular and intensive collaboration among attorneys and their support staff.
Here’s the problem: As attorneys become increasingly mobile, and as more matters have global reach, it can be difficult to collaborate effectively using traditional means like printing and copying hard copies of documents and organizing them into binders. The attorneys assigned to a case may work in different offices, time zones and jurisdictions. They may be required to travel frequently and work at odd hours. When it comes to identifying and highlighting key passages in the evidence, sharing annotations and commentary, establishing links between related documents and passages, being able to quickly find the right materials when you need them – and performing these tasks in close collaboration with team members – paper-based methods are increasingly clumsy and inefficient.
Yes, there are technologies that can address at least some of these issues, but most represent only part of the problem.
Take email, for example. Say you send half a dozen key documents pertaining to a legal matter to four attorneys. The attorneys mark up those documents independently and email them back to their colleagues. It won’t be long before there are 24 marked-up documents in circulation, buried in a tangle of email threads. Which is the most current version of each original document? Have all the edits and annotations been accounted for and incorporated? Is your team organized and disciplined enough to keep all that straight? And how do you keep track of important relationships between passages within and among the various documents?
Another example is trial presentation software. While it may allow team members to view and organize files, it typically doesn’t accommodate full-text search. Document management products may allow for full-text searches of PDFs, but not emails. Mainstream file-sharing services like Dropbox are great for storing, syncing and organizing files in a cloud-based environment, but none offers the security or functionality designed specifically for collaboration in a legal setting.
Virtual workspaces for legal collaboration
Enter cloud-based collaboration tools for legal teams. These tools have been developed specifically for the purpose of establishing worldwide workspaces for legal teams, where all team members are present, regardless of their physical location, and all the pertinent documents and files – including key pieces of evidence, research, transcripts, depositions, pleadings, exhibits, sealed orders, declarations, testimony and more – are instantly available at the click of mouse. Everything is accessible and searchable in a single, easy-to-use interface. Attorney work product and analysis, such as timelines and skeleton arguments, can be saved and added to as necessary, or even reused for similar cases that emerge in subsequent months or years. And the workspace can be launched at any stage of litigation or arbitration, depending on the requirements of the case. This includes the discovery phase, where questioning strategies may focus on a few key documents that have been produced early in the litigation process.
Unlike other products and services developed for collaboration, virtual workspaces for legal collaboration offer specific functions for effective legal teamwork: mark-up tools to highlight and color-code text, tools for attaching notes and annotations to specific passages and to the commentary and insights of colleagues, and tools for quickly creating live hyperlinks between specific passages within a document or transcript or between passages which appear in various places within a set of documents.
Discoveries, notes and team assignments are all managed within the secure virtual workspace. Sharing of specific materials can be limited to designated subgroups of users, such as experts, co-counsel or paralegals. And users can send email notifications with a single click to alert specific groups of users to new annotations or insights, linking recipients directly to the notes and passages in question and inviting them to join in the discussion thread.
Cloud-based workspaces for legal teams often mimic more traditional forms of case work, but provide dramatic new efficiencies. For example, you can create as many customized virtual binders as you like – organized by category or chronology or custodian – without printing or copying a single file, and the same file can be accessed from as many binders as necessary. Do you still use highlighters and straight-edges to designate passages of testimony? That’s no longer necessary, nor do you need to hire third-party specialists to produce video clips that are synchronized with deposition transcripts. All that can be accomplished quickly and easily in the virtual workspace.
Managing diverse sets of documents and other materials in large, complicated cases can be a nightmare at trial. Collaborative legal workspaces are now being used to address that problem as well, providing electronic trial bundles that provide parties with instant access – right in the courtroom – to all the files to be presented, and with live hyperlinks between items like witness statements, expert reports and skeleton arguments and the underlying disclosed documents. No more desperate fumbling in piles of paper for the document you need. It’s all there at your fingertips. And the same holds true for depositions and negotiating sessions: Instead of printing out mountains of paper ahead of a session, team members can just log in to workspace on a laptop, and everyone has access to every file and all shared notes at the same time.
All of these features are accessible in a secure, private cloud environment via a simple log-in on the user’s PC, tablet or smartphone, and without installing software or a plug-in on the device. And the advantages of cloud technology are significant: ubiquitous computing without additional demands on local IT resources, quick setup of workspaces, flexible pricing models based on usage, and instant scalability depending on the particular demands of the legal matter at hand.
In today’s hypercompetitive environment, clients are looking for added value from the legal teams that represent them. Cloud-based legal collaboration is an important step in that direction, maximizing legal talent by offering every legal team member a dynamic, integrated overview of the entire litigation process as it plays out over time. Virtual workspaces streamline the intensively collaborative process of mastering evidence, sharing insights, developing an effective legal strategy and, ultimately, presenting persuasive arguments in negotiations and trial.
About the Author: Clare Foley has been involved with the litigation services market for more than 20 years. In her current role, Clare advises law firms and corporate clients on their cloud collaboration strategies, specifically around the deployment of the Opus 2 Magnum platform. Although originally from Ireland, Clare lives in the US and guides both US business strategies and international services for Opus 2.