Effective Workspace Design for Global Collaboration

Effective Workspace Design for Global Collaboration

Rethinking how we work together with the technology that supports us

Until recently, globalization was a trend largely confined to big companies. Today, however, we’ve entered a new era where even small firms, recognizing the growth opportunities, are proactively broadening their global reach. Prosperoware, for example, was operating in three countries at the two-year mark—albeit with a shoestring staff.

Globalization takes a number of forms, some of them very complex. But in the legal industry, the model is fairly simple: establish networks of offices in numerous cities and bring the global and local together with the services  you offer your clients. Not surprisingly, setting up offices as far apart as New York and Tokyo and London and Hong Kong has both strategic advantages and tactical challenges.

Strategic Challenges

Among the very real strategic advantages is the ability to work on a matter around the clock. To effectively collaborate on a global level, however, requires an environment that is both standards based and flexible. This is a tricky balance to maintain but, fortunately, advances in IT coupled with web technologies make it possible.

An effective mechanism for global collaboration will include two elements at a minimum:

      • A set of standards flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of matters yet sufficiently formalized to enable lawyers to look at a matter, understand its structure, locate data, and hand it off to another lawyer (without calling anyone).
      • An adequate degree of data centralization that provides global access without sacrificing the firm’s standards for confidentiality and data privacy


Flexible yet formal standards

For most lawyers, their desktop is their office, and a significant amount of information, including documents, spreadsheets, presentations and emails, clutters their systems. Most law firms use iManage WorkSite to organize this information in a workspace to make it more broadly available as electronic files. This is an important first step for both managing risk and facilitating collaboration.

For each matter, firms typically have at least one and possibly several workspaces for each matter. These workspaces house “virtual” case files that can contain tabs, document folders, and search folders. Where the system breaks down, in a way that is especially detrimental to global collaboration, is in the traditional approach to workspace design.

Traditional workspace design

Traditional workspace design is front loaded, which requires the practice group to decide on the “perfect” structure. This process takes too long, requires multiple meetings, and produces suboptimal results. The fundamental reason this approach doesn’t work is that users often do not understand what they need until they begin managing an electronic file.

Let’s look at the three common models to workspace design in iManage WorkSite. All three approaches are characterized by many empty folders and/or general chaos.

      • A minimalist approach, which creates one folder for documents and one for email and lets users create subfolders.
      • The generic practice-area approach, which creates lots of folders to cover different circumstances using fixed structures.
      • Crafting folders according to the type of matter, which requires the creation of lots of folders using fixed structures.


None of these models works well in a collaborative environment. A labor and employment practice, for example, typically provides a variety of services, ranging from discrimination litigation, union negotiations, employment contracts, and employee handbooks.

Minimalist approach

A minimalist approach (one folder for email, one for documents) means that no matter is organized in the same way. Typically, each user builds their own folder structures under each root folder, such as Sally’ documents and Joe’s documents. This may serve some goals of risk management, but it is a useless model for collaboration.

Generic practice approach

The generic practice-area approach produces whole sets of folders that are unnecessary to the matter, forcing users to navigate through many empty folders, which creates confusion in a collaborative environment. In addition, if end users are allowed to create sub-folders (which they can out of the box), people tend to create their own world that no one else understands.

According to the type of the matter

Crafting folders according to the type of matter requires too many different workspace templates and also creates confusion, the death knell for collaboration. In this scenario, the determination of the workspace design is made at matter opening. However, because lawyers often do not have a good understanding of all the work the matter encompasses, they are forced to guess the matter type. If they are wrong, the whole structure will need to be re-worked, which creates a burden for both IT and the user population.

What about cross practices?

The other challenge with traditional models for workspace design is that none of them deal with cross-practice matters. For example, any matter involving a merger or acquisition will not only involve the corporate group but, depending on its complexity, could also involve many other practice areas, including tax, labor and employment, real estate, finance, intellectual property, and even litigation. The ability to allow each group to have their own folder structure for their part of the process is essential for collaboration.

A new model for workspace design

Effective global collaboration strategies will require us to rethink how we work together and how we use the technology that supports that work. It will also require some very specific changes in how we manage our legal processes. Prosperoware has initiated that effort with two new concepts: on-demand foldering and matter team management. With this approach, firms:

      • Put the responsible lawyer in charge of the matter
      • Ensure adherence to practice group standards
      • Improve adoption of the electronic file with an easily understood structure that can be quickly rolled out

In this model, all of these processes are seamless: none require the support of an administrator.

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