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Commentary: A close look at SaaS Highrise

A few months ago I wrote about cloud computing and the emerging field of software-as-a-service (SaaS).

Highrise from 37 Signals is a SaaS offering that can help a busy law office coordinate efforts and communication for ongoing matters. It’s a multi-tenant, multi-user tool that allows you and your colleagues to share case information, assign work and track progress. It’s also a great way to get some hands-on experience with SaaS.

At first glance, Highrise resembles a client relationship management system, but it’s more than that. It lets you tie contacts, cases and tasks together, which makes it easy to get work done.

Chicago attorney Mazyer Hedayat has been using Highrise for a couple of years in his practice. He appreciates its simple, straight-forward nature. “It’s very user-oriented. It’s as if [the developers] were building it for themselves.”

For Hedayat, Highrise was a stepping stone into SaaS. After growing frustrated with proprietary desktop practice management software, he adopted Highrise as a replacement. He still uses Highrise daily, and has incorporated it into other SaaS and collaboration tools.

A brief look

Highrise uses “cases” to manage work and information for a project. When you create a new case, you provide basic background information and then add related contacts (companies and people).

Once you’ve created a case and contacts, you can start adding tasks to the case and assign those to team members. The system will send a daily e-mail with a summary of tasks due that day, and will also send an e-mail to you when a task is due. You can set up notifications to send reminders to you via text messages on your mobile phone.

Highrise supports iCalendar, so you can subscribe to your Highrise calendar using Outlook, Mozilla or other scheduling programs. Your tasks will show up in the calendar that’s created when you add the calendar feed to your scheduling program.

Adding progress notes is easy — just select that person or case and type in your notes. When you add a note, you can also create a task for that note. This is really handy when you’ve just gotten off the phone and want to record the conversation and any tasks arising from the conversation. You can also attach that note to a contact so you can track conversations and correspondence by contact, and attach files to a note. For example, if you’ve just finished a draft of a document related to a case, you can add a note to the case describing the contents and attach the file. Team members can then access that file, make changes and add updated versions. The basic plan comes with five GB of file storage.

Highrise also provides “dropboxes” — these are e-mail addresses you can add to an e-mail to automate tasks. All you need to do is include the appropriate dropbox address as a CC or BCC in an outgoing e-mail. Highrise will take care of the rest.

Highrise opens up some pretty intriguing opportunities for collaboration with not only the people within your firm, but also with others who have a role in a matter. In order to facilitate the security that you’ll need to do that, Highrise allows you to restrict access to cases, notes and contacts to specific users or groups of users. This allows you to give exactly as much access to users as they need and no more. You can use this, for example, to allow a client or paralegal to upload files and collaborate on the case in cyberspace.

Highrise offers pretty good integration with your smartphone through third-party vendors. Bungalow for the iPhone provides a scaled-down Highrise interface for working on the road ($1.99 from the AppStore). A subscription based offering from Metova (currently in beta) promises remote access and synchronization for Blackberry users.

Subscriptions

Highrise is sold on a monthly subscription basis. There are a number of plan levels, each affording a different number of contacts, cases, users and storage space. Plans start at $24 per month per plan and range to $149 per month per plan. There is also a free plan that is not terribly useful for real work. 37 Signals offers a free 30 day trial on any plan, and you can upgrade your plan when you outgrow it.

More information is available at www.37signals.com.

Ron Phillips is a self-described attorney-computer nerd with over fifteen years of experience as a software architect and technology entrepreneur. He has helped to design and build enterprise systems for large and mid-size corporations, developed commercial software products and authored several books and articles concerning software development, applications and technology. He enjoys helping fellow attorneys with their technology questions one-on-one and on the Practice 411 forum, and looks forward to sharing his technology perspectives in this column. You can reach Ron at ronp@attorneyronphillips.com

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