Increasingly, corporate in-house clients want access to online collaboration tools to make communication with their law firms easier.
By example, Michael Weber, general counsel of JV Driver Group, had reached a point where he needed a means to centralize access to the industrial construction company’s minute books.
JV Driver is based in Edmonton, but also has locations in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Newfoundland, Texas, Arizona and abroad.
“For us to be so diffused, we need a system to keep us organized,” says Weber.
In the past, the legal department had used the syndicated law approach with a law firm in every jurisdiction the company operated. “I could count the number of places that held our minute books on about four hands,” says Weber. “So eventually, because we grew so large so quickly and because we have so many subsidiaries, it became very unwieldy to run the sophisticated type of deals we were running.”
He decided to run a process to choose a national law firm. In identifying the benefits of going with one national firm, a particular factor that seemed obvious was one that would provide ease of administration.
“We have over 100 companies, so just from a corporate administrative framework, it is very difficult to manage when our minute books are all over the place. If I need to pick up a phone to call a paralegal in Edmonton, Calgary, Newfoundland — that costs money — we needed access to this information. It was pitched to us by Bennett Jones that ‘We can solve a problem you have by creating a centralized database for all your corporate records.’”
To achieve that, Bennett Jones LLP recently rolled out a branded collaboration portal built on the HighQ platform technology to help serve clients around the world. The tool serves law firms and corporate legal departments.
Weber uses the tool mainly for the company's minute books and closing books.
"We're on it all the time. I have a bookmark for it and it's up to date and they tell me when the minute books are updated — each Friday, there is a news function on here, a database of people at Bennett Jones and their contact information. Having this at my fingertips is really nice," he says.
The firm is not charging JV Driver for the use of the tool but Weber notes they are a large client of the firm which built it "to order" for JV Driver.
"We have an arrangement on minute book and record keeping, this part of that arrangement," he says. "The realities of cross-jurisdictions mean when a document gets sent it is updated as soon as they can."
A copy of the company's organizational chart is also posted to the system to assist Bennett Jones.
"This system is as helpful for us as it is for them," says Weber. "When we have lots of files with them on M&A, finance, construction, commercial — I just tell them to go to HighQ and pull it from there as they have access to our stuff as well, which cuts down on a lot of work, we don't have to send them anything."
Another use for the platform is when JV Driver is during audit and normally the auditor has to go to every law firm to look at the minute books or the company has to send them. Now, all they have to do is give them access and it saves them time and saves them money.
"The legal department is constantly getting asked for information on officers, directors, share structure. It would add hours if not days to every request. We kept it in an Excel spreadsheet and so having the person processing resolutions access on the back end avoids risk of manual data entry," says Weber. "We live in such a real time world and have so much work — for us to wait doesn't make sense."
Acquiring the software as a service and providing it to clients is about addressing changing client demands, says Kate Simpson, national director of knowledge management at Bennett Jones.
“I think the nature of service delivery is changing and I think using online transparent sites like these are going to help the relationship, as well as using much more efficient ways of communicating with our clients and providing them with the documents they need all in one place,” says Simpson.
According to HighQ’s vice president of global marketing, Beau Wysong, there are eight Canadian-based law firms using HighQ including Bennett Jones, Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP and Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, as well as global law firms that have a Canadian footprint such as Dentons and Gowling WLG and lus Laboris (Mathews Dinsdale).
HighQ announced in May it had opened two data centres in Canada in Markham and Mississauga, Ont. to address security and compliance needs for Canadian clients. It also has data centre locations in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Germany, United Arab Emirates and Channel Islands.
Osler’s national innovation leader Michael Fekete says the firm selected HighQ because it provides integrated functionality to collaborate — both with clients and within the firm — on a new level.
“A great example is our Emerging and High Growth Companies Group using HighQ to organize all key documents, including deal documents and closing books, in a single location that can be accessed by the client or Osler 7x24,” Fekete says.
Another example is using HighQ to have clients complete interactive forms that feed into auto-generated reports.
“The end result is a significant time savings,” he says.
The platform allows for secure file sharing, virtual data rooms, knowledge management, project management and document management.
Simpson says while Microsoft’s collaborative platform SharePoint is prevalent across many law firms and in-house teams, and many have invested significantly in developing it for their use, Bennett Jones wasn’t using SharePoint.
“We were not so incumbered by a legacy system nobody wanted to get rid of,” she says.
HighQ set up a server in Canada and during its pilot with Bennett Jones, used the company’s U.K. servers, not ones located in the U.S. for privacy reasons.
“Everything is processed in that private cloud on the Canadian servers now but at rest, all of our documents are within the Bennett Jones firewall,” she says.
Simpson knew of HighQ and brought them in for consideration along with a few other extranet solution providers form the U.S. She had worked with HighQ’s chief product and strategy officer, Stuart Barr, at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP in the knowledge management department.
“It [HighQ] is targeted specifically at legal work and the people designing and building it have been working with lawyers for 20 years and it shows in the easy plug in modules they have created,” she says.
HighQ is live but not fully rolled out at Bennett Jones. “We had a couple of very early excited partners who had a client need or realized it would work for their clients and worked to build a site to support that,” she says. “HighQ is a platform which means it’s not a one size fits all — people can use it in different ways — as an alternative to a virtual deal room, for example.”
Bennett Jones isn’t offering it as a virtual deal room but Simpson says because the tool has “phenomenal document storage and enterprise security” there are a number of examples where lawyers could use it as a precedent sharing system.
“A few institutional clients want one place where all the precedents they or our lawyers use in specific matters and deals are all kept in one place,” she says. “The lawyers on the file know exactly where to go for the latest drafting and the in-house counsel also know where they can pull the signed off template for them to use internally.”
Firms can also set up a client relationship tool that allows monitoring — more like a financial dashboard costs can be tracked.
“Because the modules are so flexible you can create quite a different kind of experience depending on the type of law being practiced or type of industry and type of need,” says Simpson.
In January Bennett Jones is kicking off a more formal roadshow across the firm. Meanwhile Simpson says with almost no internal training or awareness they already have a number of clients using the platform.
“It is selling itself. We just haven’t put a formal adoption cycle around it,” she says. “We haven’t built out a full project management dashboard for our clients. One of the things with technology at big firms is the integration that has to happen with the rest of our tech stack. So being able to put financials on a dashboard on HighQ really means we have to connect our time and billing system to HighQ which is a huge amount of internal development work that will need to happen. So instead of emailing out our weekly status updates with clients we post that information in a slightly more pleasing and user-friendly format on their client site.”
The firm is not currently charging clients a fee charged for the service.
“At the moment we see it as a value add but one of the things about HighQ is the sheer level of security they provide which you really do have to pay for — we have hybrid storage here — it is all held on our servers and for a small site that’s fine but if we were going to build minute book libraries for example on behalf of clients with 132 different companies that could get quite expensive,” says Simpson.
“I think how we’re treating it is ‘Do you see the value in it? Do you think it’s worth paying for, so you can take more advantage of what it offers and modules we haven’t added yet. I think it’s more of a watch and wait for now. We would never charge for email, so it doesn’t make sense for some of it to be seen as a chargeable expense.”
She adds she can see a time when the firm is using a virtual platform for highly networked and virtual teams where it becomes a working platform and is quite different than an email replacement service.
“I have no plans on charging any of our clients in the initial stages, but it could be a significant overhead for the firm in the long term if it goes as well as it seems to be going. It’s a product of its own success,” says Simpson.