Dorsey & Whitney’s CIO on IT-Plus

Dorsey & Whitney’s CIO on IT-Plus

Dorsey & Whitney’s CIO talks about how his role goes beyond traditional IT leadership.

Paul Miller, CIO for Minneapolis-based law firm Dorsey & Whitney, describes his role at the firm as “classic in many respects and unique in other ways.” He oversees the usual: infrastructure, networking, applications, websites, telecommunication, AV. But he also finds himself managing librarians.

“What is classically thought of as a law library falls under my responsibility,” he says. “And when you think of law libraries, the classic viewpoint is books sitting on shelves, right? And that’s what they used to be. But more and more, the shelves are going empty, because it’s all going online. These resources are now becoming computer resources, software applications, oftentimes in the form of a database.” The digital information requires oversight and management from IT.

The general movement away from paper records to electronic information affects his work in other ways. Legal work—specifically the discovery process—often involves digging through documents related to lawsuits or other legal matters. And those documents now are more likely to be electronic. “It’s e-mails, it’s files that might be stored in a file server, Word documents, and things of that nature,” Miller notes. “And if you looked at a large case, maybe 30 or 40 years ago, maybe there were 50,000 documents that you had to find and read through. Now, with the way electronic information is so easy [to create], it could be millions of documents.”

This digital explosion has spawned the e-discovery industry. Companies like Eden Prairie–based Kroll Ontrack use specialized software and experts to unearth and analyze relevant data for attorneys.

However, Dorsey has an in-house e-discovery department, and Miller oversees that work, too. “It’s more than just software, buying software for law firms and giving it to lawyers,” he says. “It’s about having people behind the scenes who actually help run and manage the software, load the data into it, parse the data into pieces that we think are important and relevant. It’s really an adjunct to the legal team, and so we have staff in my area that help manage and operate those tools for the lawyers.”

Miller especially enjoys being able to bridge his organization’s technology and business sides and make things happen. “Technology becomes an enabler of business results, and that’s what gets me excited. I’m much more of a business-oriented CIO than a tech-oriented CIO. I have learned to be smart enough to ask the right questions.”

He says he has no shortage of feedback from his users: “I like to tell people that CIOs are one of the jobs that you get a performance review every day by everyone in the organization. If your technology works and you’re feeling like it’s helping getting your job done, then you feel good about the CIO. But if your technology is not working and it’s impinging your ability to get your job done, then the CIO is not helping you out.”

In an interview with Twin Cities Business, Miller discusses the specialized technology needs of a law firm and his drive for greater efficiencies.

Mary Connor: Tell me a little bit more about the library function. Isn’t a lot of legal information available through database services such as LexisNexis?

Paul Miller: Certainly the two really big players in this business are Thomson Legal Services and then LexisNexis . . . those are two very broad-based legal research platforms, and we use both. But there are numerous other vendors, dozens and dozens of other vendors that offer specific niche-oriented research offerings on certain topics. You might have someone that’s an expert in a certain commercial industry [such as construction], or you might have an environmental-focused newsletter that’s reporting on what’s going on in environmental causes and renewable energy.

We subscribe to these research services, and that way our attorneys can keep abreast of what’s happening in the industry, what are the legal issues that are surfacing. It’s a vast amount of information about law, but also about the industries that we serve. It’s important for our attorneys to be advisors to our clients, to understand their business and the industries they operate in. This is the kind of research information that we provide to our legal teams for that.

Background

“I’ve been here for five years, and it’s the first time that I’ve been involved in the legal industry. Prior to coming here, I worked for 21 years in financial services. About half that time was with what is now called Ameriprise . . . and 11 years at what’s now RBC Wealth Management. Much of that time was in IT-specific roles, but a part of it was in the business organization.

“Much of my career, and all of my education—my undergraduate work, my MBA—has been in business. I’ve been one that’s sort of been on that line of balancing and understanding business and technology, and helping translate that to business users. What gets me up in the morning is to see business results achieved through technology projects.”

MC: So the librarians are resources to the attorneys.

PM: Exactly. There may be a specific thing that an attorney would like some research done on, and they’ll ask one of our research librarians to perform that research and then return the results of the analysis, and they’ll interpret it. Half of [Dorsey’s library staff] are the kind of people who actually do the research.

The others are more traditional librarians. Certainly this was new to me as I got in here, but if you look at any library—whether it’s the Minneapolis Public Library or a library in a college or some other—there is an operation side to managing a library that we have to perform. It’s around putting a book in your catalog so that you know how to find it, making sure it’s in the right place on the shelf so when a person goes there to find it, it’s sitting there. Ensuring that it’s updated—oftentimes these legal books come in with regular updates. We have staff that have to manage all of that.

And we have 19 office locations, mostly in the U.S., but around the world [in four countries and Hong Kong], and so we have research library materials in most of these offices, and we have to maintain all those as well. There’s a process of distributing the information into our 19 locations and making sure we get updated.

MC: What other specialized technology functions do you manage?

PM: One other function that reports to me [is called] documents and graphic services. When you think of a law firm, much of the way that we deliver our services is through the means of a document. We’re reading an agreement, and we’re adding our legal expertise into that agreement for our client. We’re working on a litigation matter, and so we’re reviewing documents. We might be writing a brief that’s submitted to the courts, and so forth. And so a lot of the work product comes out in the form of a document. We have a group that reports to me that are document experts. If it’s a Dorsey document, it’s going to look a certain way. If it’s a brief filed in a court in California, it’s going to look a certain way because they dictate it. And so format is very important and just the overall content, not in terms of what it says, but how it’s laid out and standardized and so forth.

Of course, all of our attorneys and their support staff know how to do that, but oftentimes they will need to offload some of that work, and so we have that facility. Also, in a situation where you’re in a trial and you want to produce a graphic to represent a certain situation you want to convey to the jury, we have some graphics people on my team that can create those graphics.

MC: I assume that managing technology for a law firm means a big focus on security.

PM: It does. Over the last two or three years, there has been a far greater awareness just in the general population around security issues, in part because the media has helped illuminate that. It seems like every other week there’s another report somewhere in the world where there’s been a breach.

But one thing I’ve learned in spending some time in the law business is, compared to other industries I’m aware of, there has been a long history of paying attention to confidentiality. It has been a part of the practice of law long before computers ever arrived on the scene. And that is a big help compared to other industries, where that’s just not top of mind. Now, it doesn’t make my problems go away with security, but it does help.

One of the greater challenges today is . . . this phenomenon sometimes called consumerization of IT . . . these opt-in services that people can just subscribe to for a very low cost, oftentimes free, that allow them to be productive in their jobs. A good example of that is . . . these file sharing or cloud storage solutions, whether it’s Dropbox, Microsoft SkyDrive, or Google GDrive. People can just go out and sign up for this stuff, take a confidential piece of information and store it on that site, and I might not even know.

MC: How do you address that?

PM: We do have an annual—oh, I’d say ‘exam’ isn’t quite the right word, but it’s a review of ethics that are required by attorneys, and so they answer these questions. That gives us an opportunity to reinforce information security issues.

Miller By The Numbers

Time in position:
Five years

Number of IT staff: “Somewhere in that 108 to 112 range,” Miller says. “Of those people, I’d say 75 percent or so are Minneapolis-based. The others are out in regional offices.”

About half work in infrastructure, applications, network, and “classic IT roles.” The rest are in non-traditional IT functions, such as the law library, e-discovery, and document services and graphics. Miller uses staff augmentation on a project basis.

Major software: SharePoint, Ringtail for e-discovery, NetDocuments for document management

Number of users he serves: 1,300 in 19 offices—two Canadian offices in Toronto and Vancouver; London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Sydney; the remainder are in the U.S.

MC: How does Dorsey deal with the bring-your-own-device issue?

PM: We’ve been embracing it in ways that we feel are appropriate. So we’re not saying no. About a year ago, we announced our program for BYOD—with the appropriate tools that we have to manage these devices, we’ve felt comfortable in offering this as an option. So if you’re eligible to have a smartphone, you can either choose to have a Dorsey-provisioned BlackBerry . . . [or if you’d] rather have a combination personal-business device, you can opt in to our smartphone program, and so we will give you access to Dorsey systems. We require that you install mobile device management software on that device so we can manage the security on it and ensure that it has password protection and we can wipe it, and all those controls are in there. It’s been very successful. We have more than half of our mobile device users who have opted to that program, and the trend keeps on going that way.

MC: Is your data center located in your offices?

PM: It is. We have a secondary site in Eagan, but our main one is located here. And we’re 90-plus percent virtualized. There are a certain number of servers for various reasons that just can’t or shouldn’t be virtualized. So we’ve kind of hit the goal, if you will, of what we can do to achieve virtualization economics in the data center. The next step is looking at virtualization at the desktop level. I’d say that our strategy on that is cautious. We’ve talked with enough other businesses that have struggled with it over the past couple of years, some of the early adopters, and we’re finding that . . . it’s tough to make the financial numbers be a big win.

MC: Really?

PM: Oftentimes it focuses on support and some efficiencies of support and delivery of services to regional locations and so forth to become the win, as opposed to the numbers when you look at the economics. For instance, if you’re going to virtualize the desktop, then you ought not have a fully capable desktop computer sitting on one’s desk. Why would you spend all that money for that if you virtualized it?

MC: Right.

PM: [But} a lot of people, that’s what they want. They virtualize it, but there’s still this hunk of iron on the desk, because they can’t afford to get rid of it right now. That would be one of the reasons, right? Or, if I buy one of these thin clients, sort of like a dumb terminal, the cost delta is not huge between [that and] a mid-scale device. And plus I have to buy all that software for virtualization.

So the cost may be shifting. Maybe I’m spending $200 less on that device sitting on the desk, but I’m spending $200 in license fees back in my data center. So it’s not the panacea.

We have certain business scenarios in our world where it does make a difference. [In] e-discovery services, we have to sometimes ramp up very quickly and bring up 20, 30, 40, 60 workstations very quickly to handle a case. Deployment of that can be done very easily in a virtualized environment compared to installing physical software on 60 machines. That is where we see a business case for a virtualized desktop, at least near term. Once we work through the technology and some of the cost issues, I’m sure it will show benefits longer term.

The other challenge, quite honestly, is when you’re in a dispersed organization of offices a long ways away from each other, getting the performance of the virtualized desktop to work. So you don’t come into an office in Palo Alto, California, and just have a sluggish experience from a user’s standpoint.

MC: What other user issues are you targeting?

PM: Looking for ways to collaborate more efficiently and so forth is really where a lot of our focus is nearer term. The practice of law is a social business. There are a lot of conversations between clients and lawyers, and conversations amongst the legal teams with each other, and so communications has always been a crucial part of the business.

MC: What sorts of tools are you using for that?

PM: SharePoint is one of the big platforms that we have adopted, along with Microsoft FAST, which is embedded in SharePoint. We’re moving forward with an enterprise search, a sort of Google for information inside of Dorsey. We have so much information that’s scattered, and so many different systems. We have information that is found on file servers, in document management systems, on SharePoint, in our client systems, in our matter systems, and so forth. Lawyers are notorious for keeping e-mail. They don’t want to delete any e-mail. Where I came from, I could put a size limit on your inbox, and if you exceeded it, I could say delete some e-mails. That doesn’t work so well here, and the size limits, even if I imposed them, would be unbelievably large. This enterprise search tool also handles the e-mail, along with all your files, in just one search.

So we’re trying to build the Google experience for people to improve their productivity in finding things, which is such a critical part of the business. We’re not transaction processing; our business process isn’t step A through step D, and then a product could come up. It’s a very collaborative intellectual kind of experience, and finding information fast is one of the key aspects.

We’re looking at some of these Facebook-like functionalities. As opposed to just sending a chain of e-mails around, let’s experiment with Facebook. We have our voicemail system integrated with our e-mail system. So now when you leave a message on my voicemail, I can get it on my computer at work, I can get it on my smartphone that I carry in my pocket, and I can listen to it. I don’t even have to dial in to my phone system anymore. It’s just an e-mail that appears in my inbox.

MC: What are your other current projects?

PM: Workflow is another. If you look at many other industries, there have been a lot of finance processes that have been automated through workflow kinds of technologies, and we have some, too. But we’ve really looked at account opening.

MC: What do you mean by ‘account opening’?

PM: In a law firm, one of the things that you do before you agree to do a project for a client is do a conflicts check. Do you have other clients that might be adverse to this matter that you take up, and so forth. So there’s all this vetting a matter—a ‘matter’ is a project, it’s a unit of work, it’s a case that we work on for a client—to ensure that you can with integrity take that work.

That’s very much of a technology-driven process these days. With our data that we collect and what we know about ourselves and what we know about our clients and what we know about the different kinds of matters, we determine whether we have any conflicts. And when a client calls us and wants to get some work done, that can’t take forever, just to do the conflict checking, so you want to do it efficiently, and that’s where, again, technology comes into to play and helps us a great deal.

One of the changes that’s going on in the legal industry is [law firms] have to become more efficient and they have to operate more like businesses, because they’re being challenged on the revenue side. And so in the golden years, it may have been very easy to make good margins and increase your hourly rate each year to make up for the cost and be less cost-focused. Now you have to focus more energy on being very efficient, because it’s very difficult to get that revenue to make up for it. So expense controls and efficiency are more crucial than ever in the law business, and expanding automated workflow processes in more business practices is one of our other initiatives.

MC: What are the major types of software you use? Do you have a large enterprise-wide application such as SAP like you’d find in other types of companies?

PM: There’s not one thing. The biggest of them is called Ringtail. That is the name of the product that is the heart of our e-discovery tool, and there are many things around it.

And as I mentioned, law firms are really document-oriented organizations. That’s the container in which all of our value-add is delivered, and so managing documents is far more important in a law firm than many other businesses. Most large law firms have invested in a document management system, and so have we. Ours happens to be a cloud-based document management system, and we’ve been using it for quite some time. NetDocuments is the name of it. [It] helps manage documents, control the versions, allow other parties access so you can jointly edit documents. It has really good search capabilities, so I can find the document. It’s a very intensively managed environment. Then there’s a number of smaller solutions. We have a case management system targeted at litigation. We have some project management tools that our corporate lawyers use.

MC: It sounds like you have a large range of applications.

PM: When someone called [me] about this job, one of the first thoughts that crossed my mind is, ‘What kind of technology would a law firm even need — I mean, a bunch of lawyers?’

MC: They’re just talking and writing!

PM: Yes. E-mail, Word, what else do they need? So one of the first things that I did when I came on board was get a handle on our application inventory. It [turns out] that there were more than 200 different software technology solutions across our 19 offices. Granted, some of them are small. [One might be] supporting these six people over in this office, because they’ve adopted this practice and they use this tool. But it’s far more than I ever thought.

There is an industry association for legal technology called the International Legal Technology Association, and they have conferences, including their large annual conference. It just amazes me when I attend those conferences, how many software vendors come into the vendor hall to display their wares. It just is really incredible, the different tools and ways of being efficient that people have invented.