When Rich Terapak, a law partner with Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur, needs to meet with a colleague in one of the firms out-of-town offices, he travels no farther than a conference room in his own building at 41 S. High St.
Thats because in October 1997, the firm began leasing a videoconferencing system.
The decision has paid off in time and cost savings by facilitating communication among offices in Cincinnati; Cleveland; Dayton; Naples, Fla.; and Washington, D.C. The use of videoconferencing also has reduced travel and time when attorneys meet with clients or co-counsel and has provided a means of training personnel at all offices from just one site.
Making a smaller world
Communication is critical for Porter Wright, which, in addition to its six offices, has clients in 61 different countries and all 50 states.
Videoconferencing has eased that task for both internal and external communications, Terapak says.
When you have 250-plus lawyers in six offices, some nearly 1,800 miles away, theres a need to have to pull together, for internal meetings, management people in each of those locations, he explains. Sometimes its better to communicate face-to-face on a number of issues, and flying everybody in from Washington or Naples or Cleveland just doesnt make much sense. It takes a lot of time, and costs a great deal of money. Lawyers have one thing to sell and thats their time.
One of his responsibilities is to hire partners for the firm, so he uses videoconferencing to gather colleagues at each of the offices to discuss recruiting efforts.
In addition, he heads up the firms health care group, a burgeoning practice representing thousands of doctors and doctor practice groups. Videoconferencing allows the attorneys to share expertise in that area and others.
We dont need somebody whos an expert on Medicare or Medicaid fraud or abuse in each office, Terapak says. For example, through videoconferencing, an attorney in the Cleveland office can talk to an attorney and his or her client in the Cincinnati office to clarify an issue.
Its really a much better use of talent, he says.
Videoconferencing cuts out the need for travel, too.
Each month, the attorneys who specialize in health care gather via videoconference to discuss not only case status but also new regulatory matters.
A lot of that can be done via e-mail, Terapak notes. But its helpful to have someone stand up and give a presentation in Washington about a major class action going on and have everybody see them do it and project graphics.
Videoconferencing also has facilitated the firms efforts to train its counsel and staff. The Columbus office, for example, can give a presentation on tort legislation for associates in all offices. That presentation can be recorded for later viewing by associates unavailable at the time of the videoconference.
Getting a clear picture
The decision to consider videoconferencing came in late 1996 when, during budget meetings, the firms partners looked for new technology that would enhance its competitive edge and bring the offices closer together.
A team of information systems and marketing associates assessed the firms options and eventually decided to lease six videoconferencing systems, one for each office.
Business owners who dont want to invest in the purchase or lease of a system can use off-site facilities, such as those available at three Kinkos locations in Columbus. Chris Miller, general manager of the downtown Kinkos, says the videoconferencing facilities there are used at least once a day, primarily by doctors and lawyers.
Over the course of the past year, weve seen a lot of increase in use, Miller says. I think that the word is getting out there that this is a less expensive way of doing business.
For a conference between any of Kinkos 133 video-equipped U.S. locations, the cost is $150 per hour per site. The system can connect up to seven different locations at once. To hold a conference between a Kinkos and non-Kinkos site, the costs begin at $185 per hour per site. Multipoint conferences among Kinkos or non-Kinkos locations start at $225 per hour per site. All sessions, scheduled through Sprint, are billed in minute increments, and the minimum charge is for a half-hour.
We get the conference started and then we step out of the room, Miller says. Its completely private. If there are technical problems that come along, were certainly available to work that out.
Gary Falter, information systems director at Porter Wright, says using an off-site videoconferencing facility was never an option for his firm because of the frequency of use and need to connect the six offices. The firms system, manufactured by Andover, Mass.-based PictureTel, is valued at $30,000 and connects through Ameritech. The firms accounting department declined to specify Porter Wrights lease payments, but Tim Neely, video solutions consultant with Ameritech, says costs depend on the type of system.
For example, a low-end system that costs $5,000 to $6,000 to purchase would lease for $150 a month. Those systems are generally desktop or compact/portables.
In contrast, a system costing up to $45,000 might lease for about $1,200 a month, he says, but features would include very strong audio, larger monitors, document cameras, auto-tracking cameras that focus on each speaker, and the ability to function with up to 30 people at a site.
To fulfill the firms need to tape-record sessions and have the highest-quality video, Porter Wright chose to lease higher-end units.
Another consideration for Porter Wright was the need to add digital phone lines. Neely says those lines cost $135 to install, then $42 per month plus usage.
Falter points out that because Porter Wright uses three digital lines to obtain better-quality video, the firm pays three times the rate of each long-distance videoconferencing call. When conducting a multipoint call, Porter Wright uses a bridging service offered by MCI, which also adds to the cost. The bridging service ties in each line to connect all parties.
Other features of Porter Wrights choice: a document camera to show charts and graphs, and the ability to link to a computer, for example, to do a PowerPoint presentation.
Seeing is believing
To encourage use of the system, Porter Wright held two days of hour-and-a-half sessions to train its staff with demonstrations, written materials and question-and-answer sessions. About 90 percent of the staff across all offices participated.
Its a very non-intrusive technology, Falter notes. You can conduct meetings face-to-face much as you would a voice telephone call.
In fact, the equipment is so user-friendly that Porter Wright staff does not need the help of an information systems representative during a videoconference.
The system is voice-activated, so the screen shows whichever site has the person talking at the time. The screen also can divide to show all participating sites at once.
Porter Wright staff also have the ability to control the entire system from their end. If, for example, a client goes to a videoconferencing facility without experience in using such a system, attorneys on the other end can operate it.
I think the big trend were seeing is people used to cost-justify videoconferencing systems on travel savings alone, Neely says. But really since the technology has been available in the marketplace for a number of years, companies using it now are justifying it on the soft-dollar savings. Productivity is increasing; cycle times are decreasing; product-to-market times are decreasing.
He says companies also can use the technology to give employees quality-o f-life improvements because they are not traveling as often.
Porter Wrights Columbus staff uses the system daily, if not more often, Falter says. He sees it as a competitive edge.
When he did research for the firm before deciding to lease the system, Falter found that of the top 100 law firms in the country, fewer than 20 percent have any videoconferencing capabilities.
E-mail is such a widespread communication means, I cant hardly imagine conducting business without it, Falter says. Videoconferencing is just another communication means, and at some point in time I think its going to be just as prevalent as e-mail.