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Holy Billable Hour

Bryan Cave is using the latest information technology to alter the way it practices law.

By William Poe

Stroll the halls of any law firm and you’ll hear the universal language of the trade: “plaintiff,” “defendant,” “venue,” “deposition,” “tort,” “writ,” “voir dire,” “ipso facto” and, of course, the attorney’s favorite phrase, “billable hour.” Wander the corridors of Bryan Cave LLP, and, surely, you’ll hear all of that, too. But your ears will also pick up some surprising vernacular: “Internet,” “intranet,” “extranet,” “eCave,” “knowledge worker,” and more.

The influential St. Louis-based law firm is putting technology to work for clients and, in doing so, doing nothing less than reinventing itself and perhaps other law firms as well. To Bryan Cave, it’s a “prima facie” case based on a “preponderance of evidence.” Bryan Cave says its use of technology is “sine qua non.” Just ask Walter L. Metcalfe, Jr., chairman.

“For 600 years, law was practiced the same way. We counseled, advised and shared our knowledge to help keep people on solid legal ground. Then technological innovations such as typewriters, computers, faxes and the like increased speed tremendously, and we were no longer counseling, advising and imparting knowledge. We were reacting to events. Valuable portions of the profession were lost. Now we’re embracing technology to restore our professionalism; to get back to the fundamentals of law.”

And, e-gad, Bryan Cave’s foray into the world of e-business might have a victim everyone loves to hate: the billable hour.

“No one really likes the billable hour,” Metcalfe says, one of the city’s most prominent corporate lawyers and dealmakers. “Clients think there is no incentive for efficiency, and attorneys don’t like the pressure of billable hours. Clients want predictability in billings, and we need to know we’re just not selling time. Our services should be value-based, not time-based.”

As part of Metcalfe’s vow to “push our knowledge out the door; not keep it locked up,” Bryan Cave, among the country’s largest law firms with 600 attorneys and 1,400 employees in 17 offices worldwide, recently began selling some of its legal advice in a novel form at a fixed cost.

The advice currently takes the form of proprietary interactive Internet information channels covering the areas of international trade law and harassment law. Bryan Cave’s “NoZone” and “TradeZone” are the first extranet components of “eCave,” which the firm contends will revolutionize the way it delivers legal services.

“NoZone” is intended to help client employers avoid costly harassment claims by employees. The program trains workplace supervisors in harassment avoidance, tests supervisor knowledge of pertinent law and policy and tracks corporate compliance. Client supervisors have ongoing access to the tool and may periodically receive e-mails that will alert supervisors to new developments and the need to retrain and retest. Because the service is web-based, Bryan Cave attorneys can update the program as the law changes.

“TradeZone” is a legal decision support service for non-lawyer executives or in-house counsel to address complex international trade questions.

TradeZone walks clients through a series of detailed questions about its trading partner, the goods to be shipped and other trade-related details. If the client’s answers indicate that the transaction is likely to run into international trade snags, TradeZone flashes a red light similar to a red traffic signal. When clients hit a red light, they can immediately link to in-house counsel or a Bryan Cave attorney for further information or assistance. The firm’s international trade lawyers take turns staffing the site.

In both cases, the idea is to advise clients and help them avoid problems that would require attorney representation on the back end.

“We decided to help protect companies in a way that minimizes lawsuits,” Metcalfe says.

Bryan Cave’s web-based services are part of a concerted effort to use technology to advance clients’ interests in a variety of areas. To support litigation, for instance, Bryan Cave has case management software that permits access from multiple locations (including the client’s office; routinely files briefs and motions electronically, and sometimes supports depositions and testimony with video clips that are filed with courts on CD-ROM.

Spearheading the high-tech applications is John I. Alber, an attorney and the firm’s technology partner who is leading the firm’s development of a long-term information technology strategy. Alber realizes that, if knowledge is power, then Bryan Cave’s harnessing of power through IT can only be beneficial to clients. He adds, moreover, that the technology itself is changing the client-lawyer relationship.

“Technology has given us the opportunity to look at our business from scratch,” Alber says. “These things are transforming the client relationship.”

In fact, Metcalfe says Bryan Cave is offering “a new value equation” whereby clients pay fixed fees for ongoing access to routine, up-to-the-minute legal information and advice that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and that is custom-tailored to meet individual and corporate needs. Fewer variable rate hours would be expended only in those areas demanding the unique talents and individual application of the knowledge of an attorney.

Metcalfe envisions clients who are better informed of the law, ask more meaningful questions of the attorney and anticipate problems before they occur. He says that “NoZone” and “TradeZone” do just that.

So how do clients like the changes?

“Our clients are embracing it.”

William V. Poe is principal of Poe Communications, a St. Louis advertising and marketing communications firm.



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The Voice That Carries

Peter Tao and Helen Lee
Principals at Tao & Lee

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