Tech Audit

Computerized Conversations

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About five years ago, Cisco Systems Inc. started selling the idea that law firms and other business­es could use Internet equipment to run their phone systems. But firms discovered that the technol­ogy just didn’t live up to the hype. The same problems that caused Web pages to crash led to dropped calls, static or weird echo effects.

Law firms like Seattle-based Preston Gates & Ellis con­sidered using Internet Protocol, or IP, telephony to replace their phones then, but decided it just wouldn’t work in a legal environment. “The attorneys never would have stood for the quality,” says Kimberly Church, chief technology officer.

But, in the last few years, a number of large law firms have switched all or most of their office phone systems to Internet systems, including Preston Gates, which took a second look a year and a half ago. “We started off skeptically, but it had all the features we wanted,” says Church. “The phones are really neat pieces of equipment, and the voice quality has been great.”

Internet telephony allows a firm to replace a traditional telephone wiring closet and analog phones with computer equipment and IP phones. The telephones look and act like normal phone sets, though they tend to have interactive screens, which allow users to edit their contact lists and address books as if they were using the computer. Software can tie the phone to a lawyer’s computer and whatever digital address books and applications the lawyer uses.

And there are considerable cost savings in both hardware and phone service. Hagens Berman, with offices in Seattle, Boston, Phoenix and Los Angeles, claims to be one of the first law firms to make the switch, completed 21⁄2 years ago. Initially, the firm had problems with a data line that dropped calls. But once that problem was cleared up, things have worked well.

“I don’t think the lawyers realize what’s going on behind the scenes,” says John Paris, information technology director for the Hagens Berman office in Seattle. Paris describes colleagues’ typical reactions as, “Does the phone work? Can I talk? OK, great.”

A Money Saver

Perhaps the main reason for using IP is that one set of hard­ware runs both data and phone systems. “We were considering a move to a new location, which gave us a chance to do our whole system from scratch,” says Ali Sha­hidi, chief information officer with Alschuler Gross­man Stein & Kahan in Santa Monica, Calif. “We built a Cisco network and by default you have [Internet telephony] capability.

If you can take two systems out and replace them with one, why not do that? In addition to reducing infrastructure, firms can save money. Paris says that because phone traffic is carried be­tween offices on the firm’s own Internet pipeline, such calls are billed as local, halving its long distance bill. Cisco and Avaya, two leading makers of such technology, say building an Inter­net telephony system from scratch would cost about as much as a traditional phone system.

But aside from cost, Internet telephony offers the legal world new applications. An incoming call can be routed to a cell phone when a staffer is out of the office. Voice­mail can be tied to other messaging systems, such as e-mail. And law firms are likely to save money on conference calling because each phone can create its own conference bridge.

Though the technology is best suited for midsize to large offices, equipment makers say that it can also work for smaller firms. “We did a case study on one system for 10 people in a library,” says Lawrence Byrd, convergence strat­egist with Avaya.

Internet telephony isn’t yet the kind of technology that makes older phone systems instantly ob­solete. But for a firm looking to replace its phone system or looking for a way to give its small or remote offices more sophisticated phone systems, it’s become a sensible choice.

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