July 9, 2008

Italian lawyers use open source software to move online

Author: Marco Fioretti

Just a few years ago, getting complex legal assistance from a lawyer you never met in person would have been unthinkable. Today, however, many people carry on relationships online; why not conduct business with your lawyer online as well? One Italian firm already works this way, using open source software as much as it can.

The lawyers at Solignani in Vignola, just a few miles from the home of Ferrari in Maranello, never see many of their clients after one initial meeting. All communication takes place by phone, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Internet telephony, or email. While some clients see this as an awkward but necessary way to save money, the majority like it because it saves a lot of time. The first time each client contacts Solignani, he or she decides whether to go digital all the way or stick to traditional meetings.

Solignani's unique approach makes writing legal briefs and other case documents much more open than in traditional firms. For example, lawyers often hear clients complain that their comments and feedback don't make it into the final draft of a brief. With clients who are comfortable with written communication and have an adequate knowledge of the matter, Solignani can solve this problem at the root. Clients can participate actively, via the Internet, in the authoring of each case document. Of course, Solignani maintains authority over the overall legal strategy and has the ultimate responsibility to decide what exactly goes in the final, official version of each file. However, the Solignani lawyers find that client participation results in documents that are often richer and more complete (and more effective in court) than the ones they'd get via the traditional approach.

Daily communication happens by plain or encrypted and signed email, Skype, Windows Live Messenger, or Google Talk. Whenever remote clients need on-site assistance, Solignani refers them to the closest member of Netis, a nationwide network of legal firms started and coordinated by Solignani. All members make wide use of digital technologies both to cooperate more efficiently and to guarantee to their clients clear and consistent tariffs. For example, to avoid unpleasant surprises, the initial quotes include any assistance from other Netis members.

Messenger is the preferred IM client whenever a lawyer and client want to quickly add handwritten notes to a document; the company says it's the only one that works out of the box with their scanner and tablet drivers. Tiziano Solignani, the firm's founder, acknowledges that Linux can be configured to work with tablet notebooks and electronic ink, but says Linux doesn't work as well as Windows XP Tablet PC Edition on the firm's notebooks.

Besides electronic ink, there is only one other application for which Solignani continues to stick with proprietary software. The core of its customer management system is an old database, developed in house more than 10 years ago with Microsoft Access 97, when, Tiziano says, "Linux was still almost unknown outside specialist circles." That database is the main reason why Solignani hasn't moved to a 100% open source software back end. Several attempts to make it run under either Wine or CrossOver crashed too frequently to be usable. The firm also looked into hiring somebody to develop an open source cross-platform replacement based on the Qt libraries, but lack of local programmers with the required skills and other problems stopped the project. A few years after Solignani started using that Access database, two open source programs for managing workflow and customers inside law firms were announced in Italy: eLawOffice and Knomos. Solignani, however, doesn't use or plan to use them for several reasons, including feature sets, incompatible formats, and lack of time. Those products provide some features the company doesn't need, while things Solignani take for granted from their in-house system are missing from those standard, one-size-fits-all products, and they don't care to re-code them from scratch.

All the other programs Solignani uses are either open source or cross-platform Web apps that use open formats. In the office, one CentOS server handles all backups and also works as a firewall and domain server for Windows clients. The official email client is Mozilla Thunderbird, and Google Calendar handles appointments. Firefox is the only browser, both because it's considered much more secure than Internet Explorer and because of all its useful extensions. OpenOffice.org handles all office documents, which are configured to interact with the Access database.

Some years ago, the firm members began working remotely, connecting to the office via a terminal server. Later on, when broadband became both common and affordable, the firm moved to Google Docs, for two reasons: it's faster than terminal servers, and unlike OpenOffice.org, it makes it possible for several people to coauthor the same file. Google Docs features, such as highlighted comments and revision control, work better for Solignani lawyers than their OpenOffice.org counterparts. However, Tiziano and his colleagues would prefer a Google Docs version made to order for workgroups and small businesses. He says, "Google Apps for domains is a step in the right direction, but it is still far from what we need."

Solignani uses open source software and file formats for several reasons. First, Tiziano says, open source software is stable, safe, flexible, and usually does its job well. It also saves the firm money, though that has never been Solignani's primary goal. Second, open formats and open source desktop apps don't force Solignani to use a particular operating system. Tiziano says, "We do love Linux, but find that some tasks are still faster under Windows or Mac OS X, which we think remains the most polished environment today." Finally, Tiziano and his colleagues are convinced that operating systems will matter less and less in the coming years. Tiziano points out that Linux, Mac OS, and Windows are all becoming easy, stable, and secure enough for what most desktop users actually do with them. As he sees it, desktop computing is moving to the Web anyway. "If you can do everything inside your (cross-platform) browser, what else do you need to care about?"

Open formats and software are simply a way to get to that point as soon as possible. Tiziano wants to be able to work with his remote partners or clients even when the only tool available is a cell phone, and Google Docs can already show the different versions of a document on such devices. Consequently, he and his partners make a point to evaluate every new Web application that is released to check whether and how much it will help them do what they need, wherever they are and whatever software platform is available.


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