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Bridging the gap: Small firms use technology to collaborate across miles

By: Jane Pribek//April 25, 2012

Bridging the gap: Small firms use technology to collaborate across miles

By: Jane Pribek//April 25, 2012

Most days, Jim Troupis doesn’t know what faces he’ll see when he walks through the door of his Middleton-based firm, Troupis Law Office LLC.

Seven of the firm’s staff members live, and do sizeable amounts of work, from Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Massachusetts and northern Wisconsin. Only Troupis and one other lawyer with the firm live in the Middleton area.

Although he doesn’t always see his fellow employees face to face, Troupis and his staff members are making their practice work through telecommuting.

Troupis said telecommuting is very common in the biotech industry, one of the industries his firm frequently serves. So they’ve just taken a page out of biotech’s playbook.

“What I’ve argued for a long time is that the incredible overhead some law firms have is just a dinosaur,” Troupis said.

“It doesn’t make any sense in today’s environment.”

Collaboration, combined with low overhead, is a central focus of the boutique business model, which helps smaller firms compete with their large-firm counterparts.

“If you’d asked me 25 years ago if this were possible, I would’ve said, ‘No way,’” said Pete Albrecht, who teamed up with Milwaukee attorney Brad Backer three years ago to form Albrecht Backer Labor & Employment Law SC, Madison. “But we didn’t think of the distance as an impediment at all once we started planning our firm.”

The colleagues collaborate through today’s improved technology and are finding many ways to make it work, he said.

The technology

Although neither firm completely has gone paperless, both created electronic systems for organizing and storing every document related to every case. That way anyone with a secure login can have immediate access to the entire file, from anywhere.

Albrecht and Backer also use iCloud, Albrecht said.

“It makes it easier for us to collaborate on documents,” he said. “Instead of emailing versions of the document back and forth to each other, the latest version can be accessed on the Cloud.”

Using iCloud also helps the law partners stay in synch, Albrecht said.

“In terms of client contacts, calendars and the like, with iCloud they sync automatically,” he said. “If Brad is at a meeting and he schedules a follow-up meeting with his iPhone, it’s on the Cloud and it’s all synced, so he doesn’t need to plug in his phone when he gets back to the office.”

High-end scanners also help keep the partners connected. Albrecht programmed the firm’s Savin copier/scanner in the Madison office, which automatically scans multipage documents, to automatically email Backer notice of the files that have been scanned and entered into the system. This keeps Backer on top of new developments with the Madison-based cases.

At  Troupis Law, all of the attorneys have HP 8500 scanners at their remote offices. In the main office, they often rely on vendors for major scanning, Troupis said, such as Alphagraphics in the Madison area.

A quality telecommunications system also was important to making the firm work, Troupis said. Troupis Law uses 8×8 voice-over-Internet protocol technology business phone service, so clients typically call the central phone line in the 608 area code and calls are routed to the individual attorney’s extension, wherever he or she might be.

In addition, 8×8 provides high-quality, call-in teleconferencing. There are no conference calls where someone cuts out every third word, Troupis said, and the number of participants in the conversation is unlimited.

Albrecht and Backer use a Nortel Networks system phone with multiple lines. Backer has his own phone number and line that can ring directly into his Milwaukee office or can be forwarded to Madison, his home or his mobile. This frees him to work from home or a coffee shop, while still being able to handle client calls with minimal reliance on voicemail.

Protocols and people

At  Troupis Law, members of the firm created a system for labeling documents within electronic files, so it’s clear who created every document and when. This ensures that a draft isn’t accidentally sent to opposing counsel, for example.

They also agreed upon rules for confidentiality and document retention or destruction.

Members of the firm also learned early on that they need to check-in regularly with each other regarding use of the same programs to ensure a smooth interface. That means nine lawyers in five states must all use the latest version of Word, for example.

Another critical policy consideration is compensation. Backer said they designated a “working attorney” on every case, who got the bulk of the profits. If Backer originated and works a case entirely on his own, he gets 100 percent, and vice versa. If Albrecht originated the representation and Backer is the working attorney, they use a 20/80 split.

The partners also determined in advance and in detail how they’d split administrative costs, including staff and online legal research.

That upfront clarity, plus a lot of trust built over 25 years of friendship, went a long way toward eliminating unproductive and uncomfortable conversations, Albrecht said.

But a little good old-fashioned face-time, even if it’s infrequent, serves both firms well.

Backer and Albrecht see each other about once every three weeks, while Troupis said it usually was big cases that brought all nine of them together, and that typically happened quarterly.

Work dominates their get-togethers, but they always make sure there’s some time devoted to maintaining the collegiality that’s so important for successful collaboration.


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