Legally Wireless

By Gerry Blackwell

April 04, 2003

Mid-size Canadian law firm McMillan Binch has cut the wires in its downtown high-rise offices, giving them the leading edge in WLANs for lawyers.

Lawyers have not always been known as high-tech risk takers. In fact, they're more often high-tech laggards. One Toronto firm, though, has taken a plunge with Wi-Fi wireless LANs that puts it at the very leading edge -- at least in the legal world.

Last October, McMillan Binch LLP, a firm with 160 attorneys and a high-profile technology law practice, wirelessly activated all 125,000 square feet of its high-rise office space in downtown Toronto. The Wi-Fi network was the brainchild of partner George Atis, chair of the firm's KNOWlaw technology group, who brought the idea back from a sojourn practicing in California.

"I used [a Wi-Fi WLAN] in my home office in California and I found my productivity went way up," Atis says. "Just being able to sit by the pool and interact with my kids while doing a little administrative stuff or answering client e-mails -- I could work no matter where I was in my home, or in the condominium complex where we were living."

The benefits of being able to connect at high-speed anywhere any time were even more compelling when Atis returned to the button-down world of a large firm in Toronto's Bay Street corporate legal community. He often found himself in long meetings in which he wasn't always directly involved and in presentations and training sessions that also took time away from billable work. He figures about 40 percent of his time at work is spent outside his office.

So Atis, along with McMillan Binch IT director Chris Duncan, started building a case for implementing a firm-wide Wi-Fi WLAN. It was based on the notion that lawyers could "recapture" productive time if they were able to connect to the firm's network and the Internet from anywhere in the office, including in the meeting rooms.

"Even if they only captured 20 minutes during a three hour meeting, those pockets of productivity would allow you to recapture the incremental costs [of the technology]," Atis argues.

In the end, they realized the incremental costs of building a WLAN and equipping attorneys with Wi-Fi-equipped laptops rather than the Ethernet-connected desktops most still used were not that significant anyway -- especially when placed in the context of attorneys' hourly rates.

The firm was able to negotiate a special deal with hardware vendor Cisco Systems and systems integrator GE IT Solutions in return for agreeing to be a reference customer. Duncan won't say how much McMillan Binch ended up paying, but even without the discounts, the network would still have cost less than $20,000, he says. The cost of replacing desktop PCs with Wi-Fi-equipped laptops amounts to about $320 a year per lawyer, Duncan adds.

Firm management was probably sold on the idea that attorneys could be more responsive to clients, he says. So much client communication is by e-mail and so much of it is time-sensitive that a lawyer being able to respond while in a meeting rather than waiting to get back to the office, possibly hours later, can be significant. There were also obvious, though difficult to quantify, client benefits in having access to the network during meetings to show a client documents, research and case records.

There were a couple of big-picture angles as well. Many of the firm's clients had already begun to ask the KNOWlaw group about WLANs. They were looking at implementing or had begun to experiment with wireless networks. Atis believes Wi-Fi networking in the office, at home and in public places will be the norm in future. It was important that McMillan Binch, with its important technology law practice, be seen as a leader in this area.

Also, the growing availability of Wi-Fi hotspots in and around Toronto provided more opportunities for McMillan Binch lawyers to recapture productivity, Atis notes -- while they're waiting for trains and planes, on coffee breaks or out with a client at a hotel restaurant. McMillan Binch lawyers even sometimes uses the Wi-Fi networks at colleagues' homes.

Security, of course, was a primary consideration in this grand vision of wireless networking. "It can't be ad hoc," Atis warns others thinking of getting started with Wi-Fi. "It can't be with rogue access points. The whole thing has got to be planned with security from day one."

McMillan Binch hired GE IT Solutions to conduct a site plan, design the network, help select and configure the hardware, install it and train IT staff. Part of the network design includes a dedicated RADIUS server. The firm already had a virtual private network that attorney's use when logging in to the McMillan Binch network from home -- or, now, from Wi-Fi hotspots.

Despite the 125,000 square feet spread over five floors, the office network required only nine access points to provide virtually complete coverage. Part of that is the result of "bleeding" of signal through floors and ceilings, possible because of clever selection of antenna technology, Duncan says. "We even have signals in the elevators," he notes.

The nine access points are Cisco Aironet 1200 series 802.11b units that are upgradeable to 802.11a or 802.11g. Upgrade ability was an important selection criteria. The number of access points may grow, however.

For now they're only supporting 40 users, and that number is expected to shoot up soon. The 40 is itself a rapid four-fold increase since the 10-person pilot last fall -- proof, Atis and Duncan argue, that the network really is delivering benefits. "Other partners watched us and started seeing the benefits," he says. "And now demand is outstripping supply."

Demand will increase even faster in the fall when the firm is scheduled to move to new offices. That will mean a new WLAN site survey and network design. It will also be the signal for a wholesale upgrade of partners' computer hardware, Duncan says. He anticipates that 60 to 70 percent of the firm's lawyers will switch to Wi-Fi-equipped laptops.

With as many as 110 lawyers using the Wi-Fi network, the firm may need more access points just to provide adequate bandwidth. The increased capacity requirements could also hasten an upgrade to 802.11a or 802.11g. "My gut feeling, though, is that we'll stick with 802.11b," Duncan says. "It continues to be standard. 802.11a and g look to be a bit of a risk at this stage."

Aside from security and capacity issues, there are some non-trivial human issues with the firm's vision of wireless networking, Atis concedes. For one thing, multi-tasking during meetings requires a certain delicacy. "It definitely has to be done discreetly," Atis says. "You don't want to be rude to the person presenting. But it can be done."

The other potential problem is at home, where Atis and some of the other early-adopter partners at McMillan Binch have set up Wi-Fi routers with high-speed access to the Internet. He admits he's a bit compulsive about carrying his laptop wherever he goes and working at just about any time of the day or night. His family gets a little cranky when he brings it to the breakfast table to check his e-mails.

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