There is no substitute for face time, as people in my business are wont to insist. But maybe there is.
During an interview with Mark Chandler, General Counsel of Cisco, to discuss the evolving legal marketplace, see Leaving Behind the Medieval Model, he demonstrated for me Cisco’s newest entry (competing with Hewlett-Packard, Polycom and Tandberg, among others) into the web conference market— a small meeting room that boasts an IP (Internet Protocol) phone, three broadcast-quality cameras, three ultra-sensitive mikes, three 60-inch plasma screens, a crescent-shaped table that seats six and soft back-lighting. The result, as one satisfied client related, is that "you can literally see and hear a pin drop a continent away." The sensation is of simply being in a small conference room with well-lit colleagues across the table–I admit to the eerie feeling of being able to reach out and touch someone, only I couldn’t.
At $300,000+ for each of these pods (and it takes two, of course) and monthly maintenance costs in the thousands, it would require a lot of deferred traveling to pay for the luxury of not having to sit on tarmacs. Nonetheless these systems seem to be enjoying brisk demand, with prices down from $550,000+ two years ago and double digit increases in sales annually.
There are a number of circumstances that might prompt law firms to take advantage of these technospheres. In light of how time-consuming air travel has become, the need for rapid decision-making and the globally far-flung nature of more and more law firms and their clients, they offer a reasonable and efficient tool in law firms’ management and delivery arsenals.
But my interest in this product (in case you’ve been wondering why I, a techie manqué, am going on about this) relates to something one of the true techies touting this system remarked when I saw it. "The name of the game today is collaboration," he said, and went on to discuss the myriad tech tools now available that promote collaboration—web-conferencing, intranets, extranets, wikis, individual attorney blogs, etc.
Unfortunately, as we all know, the name of the game at many, if not most, law firms has not historically been collaboration, whether we are talking about firm management, practice group, committee or even client and document issues. Lawyers are notoriously independent and skeptical/untrusting of others. The impact of many firms’ broad dispersal of offices and lawyers has not necessarily been to produce more of what wasn’t much there in the first place. Compounded with the arrival almost daily of lateral lawyers from different work and culture environments, cities, and even countries, the tendency among lawyers towards isolation is often only magnified.
So here comes the possibility of virtual face time, whether you think you need it or not. While we can agree that what needs face time, and what that term means, is often subjective, the absolute necessity of it among lawyers, their staff and clients is indisputable. I concede that web conferencing still lacks a certain something—building a critical relationship, hiring and firing, and even congratulating might still best be done in person. Real person. Where a shoulder to cry on, a slap on the back or a firm handshake can make a difference.
But if a firm determines to include one of these technologies amongst its tools or toys, it should not forget to put introducing, acknowledging, appreciating, recapping, explaining, consolidating, networking, socializing, rewarding, giving feedback, even gossiping and complaining on the list of things they are used for. It is an efficient way to build rapport and community and the productivity associated with that cost assuredly drops to the bottom line faster than whatever productivity associated with paying for either lunches at everyone’s desks or sitting on the tarmac does.