Fraser Milner Casgrain delivers positive verdict on videophones

About 40 lawyers at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP can now see colleagues at other offices while talking to them on the phone. And John Esvelt, the national law firm’s director of technology, said lawyers using the videophones are spending less time on the phone as a result.

Fraser Milner Casgrain, which was a pioneer among Canadian law firms in implementing voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) in 2004, is several months into a pilot using its IP network to add video to internal phone calls. At present, the firm can only use the videophones for conversations between its offices, but Esvelt said the next stage will be to use them to connect to clients’ videoconferencing facilities.

Esvelt said the pilot has already produced evidence that video makes phone calls work better. “We noticed that the phone calls were becoming shorter,” he said, “and it’s not really a surprise, because all of a sudden people weren’t doing two things at once.” When talking on the phone, he said, people are often distracted by multitasking. When they know they are visible to the caller on the other end, they focus more on the call.

Physical cues also improve communication, he suggested. “You can’t ignore the value of the whole body language.”

Tom Houston, managing partner of Fraser Milner Casgrain’s Ottawa office and one of the early videophone users, isn’t sure whether his phone calls are any shorter – “I’m not sure I’ve had enough experience to say,” he said – but he said the videophones create “a more personal connection.”

Because of the limited number of videophones in use at the law firm so far, Houston said he only makes a handful of video calls per week today, but he expects that to grow. “I can see that as we roll it out to the rest of the firm, we’ll be using it all the time.

By the end of August Esvelt plans to add another 24 videophones to the 40 already in place, with another 48 scheduled to go in during September.

Esvelt said the firm has even provided a video connection to one lawyer who works from a home office in Washington, D.C., who has been using IP telephony and a virtual private network (VPN) connection to the Toronto office for about two years. Despite her remote location, he said, technology lets that lawyer work with colleagues in Toronto “as if she’s sitting down the hall.”

The system uses the existing telephone for audio, with the video image displayed on the user’s computer monitor. A Cisco Systems Inc. IP communications system, installed and supported by IBM Canada Ltd., ties it all together. The system is very simple to use, even for less technically inclined lawyers, said Dave Komaromi, Fraser Milner Casgrain’s manager of telecommunications and network infrastructure. “If they know how to dial a phone, they can videoconference.”

Implementation was quite simple, according to Komaromi. “We had done all the hard work already by getting the voice over IP up and running.”

Marc Seeman, practice leader for network convergence at IBM Canada in Markham, Ont., said Fraser Milner Casgrain is the first law firm he knows of that has implemented IP-based videophones. Early adopters of IP video technology have included some health-care organizations – which use it for telemedicine – and organizations using the IP network for video surveillance, in place of dedicated video networks for that purpose.

While Fraser Milner Casgrain may be pioneering desktop videophones in the legal sector, some other firms are using IP-based videoconferencing. For instance, McMillan Binch Mendelsohn LLP runs videoconferences over an IP link between its Montreal and Toronto offices.

Seeman predicted increased use of video for collaboration within enterprises, and for customer service through video kiosks, as well as continued interest in IP-based surveillance systems.


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