A Case of (Legal) Email Wrangling with Novell Groupwise

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The Problem in Depth

Four years ago, when Whitelaw Twining migrated from Lotus Notes, it carried over about 5–7 gigabytes of data; that included what amounted to the firm’s entire email history. Since then, that amount of data has grown sevenfold. “That began to concern me,” says Whitelaw Twining’s IT director, Richard Giroux. A little investigation revealed the problem: “People had begun using … their email as a way of managing all communications with their clients.”

It made sense that attorneys had started using email rather than letters mailed the old-fashioned way to communicate with clients and people related to their cases. After all, the rest of the business world adopted email as a primary form of communication years ago. With thousands of active cases, though, the amount of sensitive legal information being stored on the Whitelaw Twining servers was becoming immense, even unmanageable. Then, Vancouver was hit with a 4-day power outage. While Whitelaw Twining was scrambling to get access to its data, the company realized all it really needed was its email.

This changed the way Giroux and the rest of the firm’s IT department looked at the problem they were trying to solve. It was clear that email was now the office’s lifeline and that everything else was secondary. An investigation into the world of Whitelaw Twining’s email storage uncovered three lawyers and some assistants who, mysteriously, didn’t seem to be acquiring email at exponential rates. Unlike everyone else at the firm, this group seemed to be virtually email-less—Giroux needed to figure out how this was happening.

As it turned out, a few tech-savvy employees had already realized how important access to and efficient storage of their emails had become. The attorneys and assistants had already come up with a free solution to their problem in Novell GroupWise, and they implemented it on a small scale. “When I went and looked at Novell’s product … I found out that GroupWise’s structure is extremely robust,” says Giroux. Now, it was his task to flesh it out and spread it across the company.

The Solution

When the IT department realized Whitelaw Twining had a problem with “exponentially adding data to our network,” it was lucky that a handful of employees had already taken the initiative to find a solution to the problems presented by sorting and storing legal communications in email form. “User-driven solutions are usually the best solutions,” says Giroux, who quickly realized Novell’s GroupWise could work for more than just a small segment of the firm’s employees.

Wendy Steinle, director of end-user computing solutions and product marketing at Novell, says, “GroupWise provides customers like Whitelaw Twining with flexible and cost-effective email and collaboration capabilities that can be customized to fit a firm’s particular needs. The law firm initially migrated to the GroupWise solution from Lotus Notes due to the rapid expansion of the company’s overall email system, which over the course of a few years grew by 700%. Whitelaw Twining also needed to find a better way to mitigate the firm’s overall transition from document-centric reporting to a fully automated email-centric environment—a trend that is playing out in law firms across the board.”

The way it works for Whitelaw Twining’s needs is pretty simple: Lawyers add a few data fields, such as “Case Number,” to each email they send regarding a case. These fields allow the system to automatically file each email. There is also a description line associated with each email that isn’t necessarily the “Re:” line, allowing for greater findability. However, Giroux says, “What we find is that people don’t have to search.”

Emails get filed automatically, and with easy-to-read descriptions, employees are able to find what they need without dredging through every email related to the case. If a user sends an email without completing any fields—say, because you’re just asking the guy down the hall what he wants to get for lunch—GroupWise assumes the email isn’t case-related and ignores it. If you didn’t fill out those fields simply because you forgot but the email does need to be filed, you can always go back and manually file it, which is what users were doing before IT got involved.

Once a case is closed, all of the related emails can be offloaded from Whitelaw Twining’s servers, burned to a CD, and put in a case file to be stored. This frees up vast amounts of space while also allowing the company to comply with regulations that require the storage of legal documents.

But GroupWise does more than just file emails. Steinle lists enhanced calendar features, threaded discussions, and an interactive home view that places Web 2.0 and traditional tools side-by-side among the product’s other features. She adds, “Integrated contact management allows users to embed relevant information like maps, photos, and personal details into the contact file, providing a single location to help track, manage, and build business relationships.”

GroupWise does this for relatively little cost. In fact, the GroupWise client is free.

However, it will run you $143 per server license. Still, with such a small cost, one might expect the solution to be, well, skimpy. Giroux says you’d be wrong if you made that assumption, though. “We presently have 15,000 open cases; this is not a small solution.”

The Outcome

Whitelaw Twining found the GroupWise solution to be so robust that the firm discovered it was not using all the product’s tools. In order to customize the GroupWise client and all it offered to Whitelaw Twining’s needs, Giroux did some work to expand the product. As he puts it: “I provided solutions to the places where it had weaknesses.”

By reusing features already built into GroupWise, Giroux was able to really customize the tool to work for his firm’s needs. Giroux added a free application called Save Mail, which allows users to offload related emails into a single folder. Whitelaw Twining also added a Copy Email function that allowed lawyers who were taking over cases from other attorneys to respond to email chains they had not started. Finally, he designed a plug-in using FormDesigner to provide a custom email form that triggers the system to specially file it. Giroux says his team also wrote a manual for Whitelaw Twining’s particular incarnation of GroupWise.

Things seem to have gone swimmingly so far. Steinle says, “Since implementing GroupWise, the law firm has been able to eliminate the need for additional investments in a content and document management solution. With GroupWise, the firm has had zero downtime to date, and users have the flexibility to access email from any location.”

Giroux echoes these sentiments. One of the biggest changes that GroupWise has enabled at the firm, from his point of view, is the amount of time it takes to transfer cases from one attorney to another. When a lawyer leaves the firm, it’s necessary to provide all the case information to the new lawyer. He says that in the old days, transferring an average of about 17,000 emails from a lawyer’s old files could take about 20 hours of IT involvement. Now, he says, it takes about 15 minutes to show a lawyer how to get access to the folders he or she needs in the shareable email files.

Perhaps more importantly, employees at the firm have accepted GroupWise. “Buy-in” has not been a problem at Whitelaw Twining, part of which Giroux attributes to the fact that it started as a “homegrown solution.”

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