by Thor Olavsrud

Law Firm CIO Makes the Case for Microsoft Lync

Apr 07, 20149 mins
CIOCollaboration SoftwareEnterprise Architecture

Law firm Holland & Knight already had a who's who of best-of-breed communications products deployed when the firm's IT team decided it needed to replace the tangled mess of PBX systems that provided voice lines at its many offices. It chose to jettison them all in favor of an infrastructure built on Microsoft Lync Server 2013.

A couple of years ago, Holland & Knight found itself on the horns of a dilemma. The full-service law firm, with 2,500 attorneys and staff, as well as 18 U.S. offices and offices in Colombia, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, was paying a fortune for its communications systems, but many of the capabilities of those systems were underutilized.

CIO Makes the Case for Microsoft Lyn

It was also time to refresh the desktop phones, some of which were 15 years old. And Superstorm Sandy, which struck the East Coast of the U.S. late in 2012, had caused a three-day outage in the primary rate interface (PRI) service through which Holland & Knight’s carrier provided telephone services to its New York City offices. Because of the age of the private branch exchange (PBX), Holland & Knight needed the carrier to restore PRI on its end — essentially the flick of a switch — but the carrier had so many customers in a similar situation that it took three days before restoration of the firm’s service came up in the queue.

“All of our phone numbers for our New York office were just busy or ringing to dead air,” says Dean Leung, CIO for the law firm. “From outside, it appeared we were down.”

Leung and his team felt it was time for a forklift upgrade of its PBX systems to ensure such a thing wouldn’t happen again. But Leung needed to make sure the firm chose the right path for its communications infrastructure. After all, in many ways communication is the life’s blood of a law firm.

“In the legal industry — as with just about any professional services realm — the client comes first,” Leung says. “Clients expect ready access and responsiveness. And we want them to be able to quickly find us any and every time so that they’ll continue to reach out to Holland & Knight attorneys as their trusted advisors. At the same time, it’s critical to support our employees in their aim to achieve some degree of work-life balance. We want our people to be able to work when, where and how they want.”

With a law firm, of course, providing easy access to clients isn’t simply about customer service either. It’s about revenue.

“We have different offices that have different cost structures based on time,” Leung says. “We want the system to be able to communicate well with our clients. We are a time-based professional services organization, so it’s all about the billable hour. So we’re driving two things: one to be more efficient in that billable hour, and two, to be able to get as much time billed as possible.”

The capability to efficiently communicate internally with colleagues, and especially domain experts, was also a big driver, Leung adds.

Holland & Knight Started by Taking Stock of Its Existing Communications Infrastructure

First, Leung and his team took stock of the current infrastructure. The firm’s offices were formed through a series of mergers about 10 years ago, he says, leading to a jumble of PBX infrastructure.

“With the traditional PBX model, we were spending over $400,000 a year just in maintenance alone,” he says. “It doesn’t take long to work through the ROI to replace it.”

As an interim step, Leung’s team found a third-party PBX maintenance service that dropped the maintenance expense to $200,000 a year. He notes that made a rip-and-replace a little harder to justify, as the ROI on the project was pushed out from two years to about four years. But he says it still made sense, because the IT team wasn’t just planning to replace its antiquated PBX systems; in many ways, it was reimagining its communications infrastructure from square one.

Even before Leung and his team undertook this project, Holland & Knight had been no slouch in offering its staff and attorneys the latest in greatest in communications technologies. In fact, it had a host of best-of-breed technologies: Avaya for voice solutions, Soundpath for audio conferencing, Polycom for video conferencing, Adobe Connect for web collaboration and Microsoft Office Communication Server 2007 for presence.

Best-of-Breed Communications Solutions Weren’t Integrated

“We had a range of communications options in place, but all our separate systems produced a far-from-seamless experience,” Leung says. “Attorneys didn’t make full use of the capabilities because they had to jump between tools to make them work. Nothing was integrated.”

For instance, he says, an attorney who started communicating with a client via phone would have to hang up that phone to move to video.

“It wasn’t a good workflow, and so it wasn’t used that much,” he says.

“Our law firm is generally driven by nontechnical people who have generally come up through a liberal arts education,” he adds. “Technology is not their forte, nor should it be. Technology needs to blend into the background and enable their workflow.”

Holland & Knight needed to streamline the complexity of its technology as much as it needed to streamline expenses. It needed an integrated and intuitive experience.

“We did not want to train someone how to use a phone,” Leung says. “We can all make a phone call without someone teaching us how to do that. That’s what I needed on a handset.”

Why Holland & Knight Chose Microsoft Lync Server 2013

After reviewing its options, Leung and his team opted to build Holland & Knight’s new communications infrastructure on Microsoft Lync Server 2013. He notes Lync was particularly attractive because Holland & Knight already had an existing enterprise agreement with Microsoft for Lync for presence.

“We did our due diligence and concluded that Lync would give us a cost-effective, integrated toolset with options available to complement each person’s natural work patterns,” Leung says. “We’re conducting an internal marketing campaign to address everyone’s needs — from employees who just want a dial tone on a traditional phone all the way up to those who have desktops, notebooks, tablets and smartphones and want communications options for all of their devices.”

“For improving responsiveness, the five-digit internal dialing and voice over IP (VoIP) calling alone make the change worthwhile,” Leung adds. “VoIP enhances accessibility as it uses our office-wide Wi-Fi coverage to augment areas where traditional cellular coverage is weak or nonexistent. We’re also enabling colleagues to reach each other more quickly through Lync features such as presence and instant messaging,” he says.

“In addition to the speed of collaboration, we’re boosting the ease with which attorneys and staff around the world can work together to resolve client issues,” Leung says. “For instance, they’ll be able to escalate a voice call to include video and screen sharing for ad hoc, peer-to-peer collaboration in one step, without having to find an empty videoconference room and deal with Cisco telepresence and other separate components.”

Lync Federation With Skype Was a Big Factor

In addition, he says, Holland & Knight’s Latin American and Middle Eastern offices have been pushing to use Skype, because that is a primary way that clients expect to communicate in those regions. With Lync Federation, Lync can connect securely with Skype. As an added bonus, that means attorneys working long hours can use Lync Federation to connect with their families who use Skype — the attorneys may still be in the office, but at least they can see their kids and spouses to say goodnight.

Lync ‘Phone+’ Functionality Isn’t Perfect

That said, Leung concedes that Lync isn’t perfect. As a phone replacement, it’s more than satisfactory, he says, noting that one of the first things his team did was replace conference room phones with Lync-enabled phones.

“People don’t even realize it’s a Lync phone system,” he says. “The core infrastructure is functional. We’ve had over 30,000 minutes of conference calls on those phones without people realizing it.”

It is what Leung calls the “phone+” features — like the capability to seamlessly go from a call to a conference call to a video call to whiteboard functionality — that still need work, he notes. The features work, but are not always easy to find without some training.

“The phone+ functionality, it’s not as intuitive as I would have wanted,” he says. “That was some feedback I actually provided to some developers at the Lync conference recently. The single pane of glass is fantastic, but it’s a little bit of a kitchen sink. The menu structure should be contextually aware. If you’re on a phone call, you should get a ribbon that shows you the core functionality that you need while you’re on a phone call. That sort of thing.”

How to Achieve a Successful Deployment

Still, Leung says the phone+ functionality is “about 85 percent” there, adding that staff and attorneys (not all, but many) are taking up the technology and running with it. He points to two things that led to the success of the adoption: good change management and marketing.

“We find most often that if a project fails, it’s because people aren’t addressing the user and change management issues,” he says. “If you just deploy it and hope that they’ll adopt it, they may or they may not. If you focus on change management and really help build the business case as to how it’s going to help their workflow and their practice, that always leads to a successful deployment.”

He notes that his team focused on emphasizing the “wow” factors when marketing the new system to attorneys and staff.

“We really changed the focus,” he says. “We stopped talking about the ‘Lync phone system,’ and started talking about it as the new phone system that integrates with Lync. We started building a buzz with the new features like audio conferencing, white boarding and ad hoc collaboration.”

Additionally, the team sought out key supporters across Holland & Knight’s organization and made sure to get them on board — and not just users who expressed enthusiasm right off the bat.

“You want to find people who say, ‘I don’t know if I want to try this,'” Leung says. “If you can win them over, it will go a long way.”

Back End Infrastructure Benefits

Leung notes that he and his team discovered another important benefit on the back end. Because the system uses Microsoft technology, the IT team has been able to leverage the same disaster recovery and business continuity infrastructure that it uses with the rest of its environment.

“It was easy at that point to leverage it all together and make that a critical, tier-one application,” he says.

Thor Olavsrud covers IT Security, Big Data, Open Source, Microsoft Tools and Servers for Follow Thor on Twitter @ThorOlavsrud. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.