That scenario would have been unthinkable even a few years ago at Los Angeles law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP (Paul Hastings) but today, thanks to a sophisticated unified messaging infrastructure and wireless technology, it's considered business as usual.
Until 1994, the firm, which specializes in corporate, real estate, tax, and employment law, conducted business much as it had since its inception in 1951. But the rapidly changing nature of the practice of law increasingly required attorneys to travel around the globe while remaining responsive to their clients.
A technology committee decided that the firm should invest in technology to address the issue, but didn't want a system that would be too complicated for attorneys who were used to simple desktop PCs or even paper filing systems. The committee chose to start by installing server-based voice mail messaging from AVT Corp. (now Captaris Inc.), envisioning it as the first step toward the full-fledged unified messaging infrastructure it has today.
Attorneys could now listen to server-based voice mail via their desktop PCs, forward voice mail to other people, and receive inbound faxes. But the eventual goal for all 800 attorneys was to combine all forms of messaging into the e-mail inbox, says CIO Mary Odson.
By the late 1990s, it became clear that most of the firm's clients were communicating with e-mail, and in 1998 the company made the switch from Novell Groupwise to Microsoft Outlook and Exchange in preparation for the final move into unified messaging, which Odson says integrates particularly well with Exchange.
As communications changed, attorneys found it difficult to retrieve messages in different formats. "If you got a voice mail message, you would have to go to the desktop and retrieve that message, and it was often easier to pass it up than check it. And there wasn't any integration with inbound faxing," Odson recalls. When attorneys were on the road, the situation quickly became untenable, requiring them to call one number for voice mail messages, connect another way for e-mail, and use a third method to check for incoming faxes.
It was clearly time to deploy full-fledged unified messaging to all of the attorneys working out of nine offices, including an office in Europe and another in Asia. By doing so, users could click on an e-mail notification to hear voice mail messages, or call to have e-mail (other than attachments) "read" to them over the phone. But many attorneys were concerned that the technology would affect how they had traditionally done business. "They were afraid that voice mail would get buried in their inbox, because they wouldn't be able to see the red light on their phone anymore," Odson says.
To counter those fears, in 1999 the technology committee gave all of the attorneys BlackBerry 957 wireless handhelds from Research In Motion, followed quickly by full unified messaging capabilities. "The payback to the attorneys was that they could immediately see on their BlackBerry that they have gotten a voice mail," Odson says.
Following quickly on the heels of the BlackBerry deployment was full implementation of Captaris CallXPress unified messaging system. The combination of the two technologies provides the one-two punch the firm's globetrotting attorneys need, notifying them that a voice mail or fax is pending. Using the system, attorneys can set up rules using Exchange through their Outlook clients to forward e-mail to someone else in the firm, and if they are traveling, they get a notification that voice mail or e-mail is pending, Odson explains. The system also supports Captaris RightFax system for inbound faxing.
"Without this, our attorneys have to constantly check for voice mail messages," she says. "We have had attorneys tell us that this capability has saved them a half hour each day."
What Paul Hastings did to streamline messaging is becoming more popular throughout corporate America. According to a 2001 IDC study, the number of unified messaging mailboxes will reach 38 million by 2004, thanks to an increasingly mobile workforce and more standards-based applications.
Although unified messaging is not inexpensive--about $100 per seat plus an additional 15 to 30 percent of the total cost for deployment--it can make sense for many organizations, depending on the systems they have in place and how mobile their workforce is, says Robert Mahowald, senior analyst for the collaborative computing program at International Data Corp. (IDC).
In the case of Paul Hastings, it made both practical and financial sense. The cost has been relatively easy to absorb, thanks to a phased approach that started in 1994 with server-based voice mail. But the most significant savings, Odson says, has been the reduced need to buy attorneys new laptops because the BlackBerries often satisfy all of their communication needs. The first year the BlackBerries were deployed the company saved $300,000 on laptops alone, she says. In addition, the company saves about $40,000 per year by eliminating a toll-free phone number the attorneys used to check voice mail and to download faxes to their laptops.
For Paul Hastings, the future may include voice over IP, which would allow attorneys to use the company's WAN to call each other anywhere in the world using the unified messaging infrastructure. With three offices expanding and moving during the coming year, it may be an optimal time to implement voice over IP to take advantage in the firm's existing investments in infrastructure, Odson says.
What will really make unified messaging take off, says IDC's Mahowald, is the development of more sophisticated wireless handsets. "Being able to pick up my messages from my wireless cell phone or a Web-based kiosk in an airport, ask a voice mail message to be read to me, or forward a fax to a particular printer on my network is what will make this a must-have application," he says. "The future of unified messaging is about the ability to offer text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and voice-activated commands."
Karen D. Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology. She is based in the Washington, D.C. area.