Telepresence cuts near $1M in travel costs for law firm

Sprawling international law firm DLA Piper has upgraded from videoconferencing to telepresence that will save the firm nearly $1 million dollars per year in reduced travel costs and lost productivity.

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The conferencing gear that simulates across-the-table meetings has a provable and achievable return on investment over five years, and may actually pay for itself before then, says Don Jaycox, CIO of DLA Piper U.S.

Rescheduling half the firm's in-person board meetings as telepresence conferences and relying on at least two attorneys per week to use telepresence rather than travel accounts for significant savings when lost productivity for travel time is factored in, Jaycox says.

"If I look at my total telepresence project cost, which includes equipment, room construction, implementation services, maintenance contract, financing costs, etc., then amortize that over the expected five-year life of the system, it works out to be just a hair under $500,000 per year for our six U.S. sites," he says. "Our early experience suggests that a more accurate number of avoided trips is closer to four or five per week, so the $970,000 projection almost certainly underestimates our actual savings."

Jaycox says the quality of the illusion that everyone is in the same room is so high that a group of conferencing attorneys working on a case broke off into two groups, one at each end of the virtual table, as if they were all in the same room and split up to discuss separate issues, he says.

Top management of the firm has embraced the technology to the point that it has replaced two of its four annual meetings with telepresence conferences.

The system, based on Cisco gear, still has interoperability issues with other vendor's equipment. For instance it is not backward compatible with the traditional videoconferencing gear from Tandberg and Polycom that the firm already has in place, but Jaycox says he thinks the company will address that within the next year. Cisco's purchase of rival telepresence manufacturer Tandberg should help push that compatibility, he says.

Beyond the financial benefits, telepresence meetings works to bind together the 65 DLA Piper offices in 28 countries and its 3,800 attorneys, he says, by encouraging more meetings. Telepresence sessions are simpler to set up than traditional videoconferencing, and that encourages greater use. "It enables the meetings you otherwise wouldn't have had but probably should have," he says.

The CTS 3000 systems the firm has installed in six of its U.S. offices each have three 64-inch high-definition video displays, high-def cameras and CD-quality sound systems installed in rooms furnished and lit alike. The effect this creates makes it seem that the people sitting in the connected telepresence rooms are physically together in one room.

DLA Piper first considered telepresence in 2007 with partners conducting a meeting between a demonstration room in San Jose and a second in London. Jaycox, who went into the demo considering telepresence as "expensive new technology I don't need," came away a believer. He proposed funding six of the firm's sites internationally in 2008, but the international directors said it was the wrong time for such an investment.

So he proposed installations in six U.S. offices that would be paid for by the U.S. arm of the firm, and that plan was approved, with Cisco trimming back the estimated cost by 30%. They reached those savings by relaxing some of the specifications for room configuration.

The firm outsourced the installation to Presidio which was experienced in telepresence deployments. Work on the conference rooms was done at night to avoid disrupting business.

The sites were selected so they put 80% of the attorneys within an hour drive of a telepresence room, he says. Jaycox says he has observed attorneys working together via telepresence conferences, and was struck to see two workgroups formed at either end of the telepresence table, just as they might if they were all working around the same physical table. "You had the sense all these people were in the same strategy room," he says.

Making it possible for far-flung attorneys to work closely together via telepresence helps drive home that the firm has offices around the world and should have an international focus - a benefit of the system that can't be quantified in dollars and cents."When you work in one location, you tend to draw inward. We want people to think globally," he says.

This story, "Telepresence cuts near $1M in travel costs for law firm" was originally published by Network World.

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