General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Hot Legal Techno.Tips

What’s the best way to maximize your return from your technology investment? A panel of experts at the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division’s 1999 Fall Meeting offered these insider suggestions.

Leverage Your Online Connection

Conduct Online Discussions and Conference with Your Clients and Colleagues...For Free!

Previously, we talked about using Microsoft’s Netmeeting and Peoplelink conferencing software (download them from and www.people, respectively) or America Online’s free (that’s the operative word with all of these!) AOL Instant Messenger ( to conduct multi-person, private online conferences with friends, colleagues, expert witnesses, and your clients. Just type your message; everyone else conferenced in through their Internet connection can read it and type their responses.

The next development in these "instant virtual communities" is embodied by Egroups (www. You absolutely HAVE to try this thing out! Egroups allows you to create your own private chat rooms, discussion forums, or webconferences; you can invite anyone to take part. Think how efficient this would be for meetings of a State Bar or an ABA committee you work with—and how much money it would save on megabuck teleconference calls. You could conference with clients this way. You could conference with co-counsel and yes, even opposing counsel. How about a web-based, browser-driven status conference with a court at some point in the future. Heck, how about a virtual family reunion using a system like Egroups? The possibilities are endless, and the cost? How does "free" sound?

Ross Kodner

Get High-Speed Cable Modem or DSL Internet Access for Your Office!

Most metro areas now offer cable "modem" and/or high-speed telephone data transmission via DSL or T1 lines, or will in the next few months. Cable and DSL lines both work by transmitting data on a frequency different from the voice or television signal carried on the same line; they generally cost no more than the combined cost of an extra telephone line and your current ISP’s monthly charge. All three options offer data transmission at 50 to 100 times the speed of a 56K modem and 24/7 connection to the Internet, without interfering with your telephone or television service. Furthermore, at least with cable, up to 10 users can use the same line, via your network, without noticeably degrading performance.

What that means is: web pages that used to take several seconds to load now pop up as quickly as changing channels on your television. A 35MB software patch downloaded via cable modem took about seven minutes, whereas the same patch downloaded via 56K modem at another site took about an hour and a half. A slide show presentation with 70+ graphic images, about 3MB zipped, 6MB unzipped, when e-mailed to me, took a total of 44 seconds to retrieve, unzip, AND save. As more and more work is done via e-mail and website, it will become critical that you have the practical ability to move large documents, including graphic images and PDF documents, around quickly and easily. As high-speed Internet access becomes commonplace, software upgrades, patches, and even entire programs and suites may very well be transmitted primarily via e-mail or direct download...allowing you to install, run, and begin using the software almost as quickly as you can enter your credit card number.

However, this convenience does come at a small additional price. Each time you connect to the Internet via a dial-up connection, you have a different (random) IP address, which identifies you so that data can be sent to and retrieved from your location until you disconnect. With cable, T1, and DSL, you are constantly connected to the Internet and therefore have a "static" IP address that seldom, if ever, changes. A static IP address makes you a stable target for hackers, who are more likely to "accidentally" find you, as well as for deliberate breach of your system if you handle sensitive data. The good news is that a "firewall" adequate for most purposes can be constructed using relatively inexpensive software and an old 486 or low-end Pentium machine you probably have sitting on your shelf, or can obtain for a nominal price.

Sheryn Bruehl


Buy and Use a Palm PC

For scheduling. Buy and use a PalmPilot or comparable device. It’s great to have your schedule with you in court and at home. I can’t tell you the number of times I get asked, "Honey, can you pick up the kids on Tuesday?" Now I don’t have to use my failing memory!

As a mini-case manager. Use your PalmPilot as a mini-case manager program. Make to-do lists for each case and the tasks to be accomplished.

As a client rolodex. Put your client’s personal information in your PalmPilot. When you’re out of the office and your secretary tells you that Mr. Important called, you have his number with you.

Bruce Dorner

Have PalmPilot But Can’t Do "Graffiti"? No Problem— Just Get a Palm Keyboard!

If you like to use your PalmPilot to take notes, consider buying a keyboard attachment. Now, you can type your notes and look like a real high-powered geek at the same time! (Visit for Palm keyboard information.)

Bruce Dorner

The Electronic Whiteboard Goes Mobile: No More Furiously Scribbled Meeting Notes!

Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to take notes in office meetings or bar committee brainstorming sessions anymore? One answer has been the electronic whiteboard. Companies like Microtouch (www.microtouch. com) with its Ibid 100 and Panasonic with its series of electronic whiteboards have been making these for several years. They look like the traditional whiteboards that use standard dry-erase markers. But these electronic products let you print out whatever you’ve scrawled on the whiteboard screen (either with a built-in printer, as is the case with the big Panasonic units, or via a connected PC, with the more compact and less costly Ibid product line). The problem with these admittedly cool products is that they’re big and bulky—not something you’re likely to travel with.

To the rescue comes the Mimio From Virtual Ink (www.virtual-ink. com) (I ’spose the name is expected to conjure nostalgic memories of mimeograph systems...ah...there’s nothing like the smell of fresh mimeograph pages in the morning!). This $499 gizmo is a portable thingamajig that turns any ordinary whiteboard to a maximum of 4 x 8 feet into an electronic one.

The Mimio consists of a 28" bar that folds in half and weighs under 2 pounds, four color-coded dry-erase marker "sheaths," and a pressure-sensitive eraser. The Mimio bar attaches to a standard whiteboard via suction cups and has position-sensing optics that detect and record your strokes as you write or draw with ordinary dry-erase markers inserted into the sheaths. You can also erase.

While as of this writing the product may still be in the pre-production testing stage, it’s still pretty darned cool. Even though it doesn’t recognize handwriting or convert it to text (but neither does my Crosspad XP, which was specifically intend to do that), the ability to print out pages and pages of live meeting notes and distribute them to participants—where there isn’t a traditional electronic whiteboard available...well, I want one!

Ross Kodner

Pack Your Palm!

This little baby is not merely a glorified electronic day is a suitcase. Pack everything and anything you might need or want. Start with the basics, such as your practice information. All good case management programs have a PalmPilot "conduit" so you can have your phone book and your docket in your pocket.

Then you can add your e-mail, newspapers, magazines, games, books (yes, whole books), a timer, an alarm clock, games, your favorite web pages, copies of important cases, games, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and Criminal Procedure & Evidence. Throw in the TV Guide, a diet planner and exercise log, a family photo, word processing documents, Spanish lessons, German lessons, French lessons, Hebrew lessons, a translation of the Torah, chapters of the Bible, your grocery list, your check register, maps and restaurant guides for most major cities. You can even load software to use the whole thing as a television remote control (I am NOT kidding, infrared is infrared).

Add a global positioning system component (about $200) and the PalmPilot will just about drive you home. Oh, it makes sounds, too. And you can get a printer, a modem, a cool case, and a brand-name stylus, to name a few. For a sample of the tens of thousands of PalmPilot programs and accessories available, you can start with these websites:, www.palm, and

Sheryn Bruehl

Voice Recognition Is Ready for Prime-Time (But It’s Not Perfect...)

With continuous speech recognition, and the low cost of high-power computers today, the dream of a dictating machine is very nearly a reality. But like most doses of reality, it has its downside. Voice recognition makes mistakes—lots of them at first, fewer as you go along. Problem is, it used to be enough just to inspect and "spell-check" a document to know that there were no typos or other embarrassing mistakes. But voice recognition software won’t make spelling mistakes; it puts in real words that it thinks you said, so that "inure" becomes "in her" or "in your." With the right southern drawl, "hill" becomes "hale" or "hell"; "far" becomes "fur" or "for"; and so on.

There is no substitute for a thorough proofreading of your work, but the "text-to-speech" and playback modules of your voice recognition program can help. Also consider using a grammar-checking program to help catch sentences that just don’t make much sense.

Sheryn Bruehl


America Online Diskettes

Some of us have accumulated enough of those mega-ubiquitous America Online diskettes and CD-ROMs that we could pave a road from here to Jupiter and back. Most simply get thrown away—or turned into coasters or frisbees. But there actually is a really good reason to carry one of these with you even if you don’t have, don’t want, and don’t really need an America Online account. If you’re like many of us, your practice lives and dies with the ability to get e-mail. If you’re away from the office with your laptop, and you can’t seem to get any kind of Internet connection to receive that critical document your biggest client absolutely, positively needs you to see—what do you do? Cry? Whine? Change your identity and move to an island in the South Pacific and hide out (well, actually, that last one doesn’t sound like such a bad idea). No, you take out that irritating little AOL disk and you take advantage of their free 30-day or 100-hour deal!

Instant e-mail without doing anything other than loading the software, baring your charge card number, and getting online! A perfect emergency backup—you can cancel it as soon as you’re done and do it all over again with another of those 99,000 disks you have back at the office!

Ross Kodner

One E-Mail Address Is Never Enough!

You wouldn’t dream of practicing law using the same telephone line for friends’n’family, telemarketers, online access, and clients, would you? Separate office, bar association, List Serve, and friendly mail by using separate e-mail addresses for each. (And then learn how to manage and filter e-mail!)

jennifer rose

The Remedy for Shifting E-Mail Addresses—Get an ABA Alias!

Tired of being known as "ISP.Name"? Do you change ISPs and e-mail addresses almost as frequently as your socks? Consider using the ABA alias of For more information, go to

jennifer rose

Clean Up Your E-Mail, Would ’Ya, Please?

No, not the content—that’s up to your discretion. But do everybody a favor and get rid of those pesky little >>>> arrows that indicate the message has been forwarded a bazillion times already. Just copy the message into your word processor, use the Find-and-Replace function to replace each > with a space or with nothing. Presto: a clean message.

Did some poor soul who didn’t know any better send you a MESSAGE IN ALL CAPS LIKE THIS? Perhaps the sender didn’t know it is the online equivalent of SHOUTING, but you can do better—just use your word processor to convert the case to initial caps or lowercase. Finally, if you got one of those weirdly formatted messages from someone who uses a different e-mail program and you want to straighten out the lines, fixing it is a little more complicated. You don’t want the paragraphs to run together, but you do want the lines to make sense.

a. Find-and-Replace all double hard returns with a character(s) of some sort (say, ###), then

b. Find-and-Replace all remaining hard returns with nothing or with a space, then

c. Find-and-Replace all your "###" with a double hard return.

Sheryn Bruehl

Written Instructions

Keep a Paper Log of All the Tweaks on Your New PC—Consider It Your PC’s "Geek Manifesto"!

When you’re setting up a new computer, create a paper document (yep, reliable old paper) to list each tweak, adjustment, and change you make to the settings of the new machine. With this log you will hopefully be able to figure out what went wrong when the machine malfunctions. Don’t record this information as a computer file unless you put it on a disk and have another machine to access the data. If it’s on the dead machine, you can’t get to it to review the changes.

Bruce Dorner

RTFM—(Read Materials!)

Well, actually, most software these days does not come with a traditional printed manual. However, extensive help menus and online help manuals are almost always available. In most programs, help menus can be searched in one or more ways, including table of contents, index, and text searching. Before you give up or call your favorite techie in to do the job for you, try searching the help menus for one or more terms associated with whatever you are trying to do. When you find the help page with the step-by-step instructions, PRINT THE PAGE, and keep it in front of you for reference while you do the job. Or buy a commercially published book, and keep it nearby for reference.

Sheryn Bruehl


Take Care of Your Liveware!

Believe it or not, the most critical component of your computer system is sitting in the chair in front of the screen. Poorly equipped, fatigued, unhappy, or injured users will deprive you of the efficiency and savings that technology, properly applied, can provide. Look at your workstation, and those of your staff, and determine what is needed to provide a safe and comfortable computing environment. Make sure that every computer user has a comfortable keyboard, a choice of pointing devices (mouse, touch pad, trackball, etc.), a good chair, and an adequate monitor. Ask staff what they need to be more comfortable while working. Most requested items will be relatively inexpensive, yet things like copy holders, electric staplers, foot rests, telephone headsets, ergonomic mouse pads, wrist rests, etc., will improve comfort, efficiency, and morale...and, as an added bonus, will help to prevent workers’ compensation injuries. And make it fun—a Mickey Mouse Pad, a Dilbert screensaver, or a furry "mouse" cover with ears and a tail goes a long way toward making a long, stressful day a little more enjoyable.

Also, do not overlook the adaptive technology available within common programs. Windows 98 provides a multitude of options to assist the visually impaired, mobility-impaired, or hearing-impaired user. The text-to-speech modules of many voice recognition software programs can be of use to employees or associates who suffer from reading disabilities or vision problems, as can the spell-checking and spell-as-you-go functions of WordPerfect and other word processors.

Sheryn Bruehl

Training: One at a Time Please!

Don’t install more than one new or updated application in your office every three months, to give staff time to train and learn each new application before imposing an additional burden on them. Provide training and encouragement before new computers or software are installed.

Don’t just drop new tools on the secretaries’ desks and expect good results. In one office, new machines were installed over the weekend. When the secretaries walked in the door on Monday morning, they were apprehensive. At each desk was a loaded squirt gun and a bottle of champagne with a straw. A note from the office manager told the secretaries to use the squirt guns to keep the lawyers away while they worked and to stick the straw in the bottle of champagne at the end of the day and enjoy a break for the extra effort! Now that’s staff support!

Bruce Dorner

Protecting Your Liveware from Viruses (Human Ones!)

Keep nasty viruses off your keyboard by cleaning it regularly. Gel alcohol instant skin sanitizer is a clear, thick, liquid gel that instantly sanitizes without water. And it cleans the gunk off your keyboard quicker, easier, and more efficiently than liquids. (Read the label first to make sure you’re not using a "grit-enhanced" cleaner.)

jennifer rose

Not All Tushes Are Created Equal—Test-Drive Chairs Before Buying!

The seat of all power is The Chair. Not all tushes are created equal, but lawyers often spend thousands on hardware and software while ignoring their derrieres. Or they’ll splurge on a fancy maroon-leather judge’s chair that may impress clients while wreaking havoc on spines. Spend at least as much time researching and testing sitting devices as you do considering Y2K. Herman Miller is a good place to start.

jennifer rose

Never Be the First One over the Hill—Let the "Warriors" Lead the Charge

Never, ever—EVER—buy the first release of a new software package, install a new upgrade or patch the first week it is available, or attempt to convert an entire office to a product that is less than six months old—unless you have an excellent backup system and you LIKE to suffer. There are plenty of techie-types (the SEALs of the software world) who do these things to themselves, and will report back if there are injuries and casualties.

Sheryn Bruehl

Invest In Power Tools!

Specialized practice software is the power tool of our trade. You can change a tire with a lug wrench, but the guy who does it for a living has a pneumatic gun that does it instantly for a reason. There are excellent tax, bankruptcy, estate planning, real estate, divorce, workers’ compensation, probate, and corporations software packages out there on the state and national level. They are no substitute for legal judgment and careful proofreading, but they can shave hours out of the often tedious process of preparing transactions in those fields and often make it possible to assign most of the preparation to a legal assistant or secretary. Charge a flat fee that’s competitive with others who are doing the work hourly, and you’ll make more money in less time, with fewer headaches.

Don’t assume that the most expensive program is the best, or that the cheaper one will necessarily save you money. Make sure that there is adequate technical support available at a reasonable price, and that the software is compatible with your word processor, printer, and computer capabilities. Where possible, demo the software yourself and let your staff play with it. Figure out which one will be the easiest and most efficient to use. If the field is a large part of your practice, you might want to pay more to have all the bells and whistles. If you only do one or two of those transactions a year, a simple form book on disk or a macro program may be all you need or want.

Sheryn Bruehl

Have It Your Way! (Learn to Customize Toolbars)

You can put your most commonly used programs on the Windows toolbar at the bottom (or side) of your screen and remove default programs that you never use. In Windows 98, simply create a folder with a name like "My Custom Toolbar," and create shortcuts to your favorite programs within that folder. Then right-click on your Windows toolbar, select Toolbars, New Toolbar, and locate the folder you created. The icons for the programs you chose will now appear on your Windows 98 toolbar, and the programs can be launched without closing your current programs or documents. Similarly, in your word processing program, you should customize your toolbar(s) to include icons for all of the common functions that you use, to delete those that you do not use, and to organize them in a way that is intuitive for you. In WordPerfect, for example, you can create up to eight custom toolbars, customize a context-sensitive property bar, and format an applications bar. In addition to icons for functions of the program, you can add icons to launch additional programs, or to play macros.

Sheryn Bruehl

Do It on the Desktop!

Learn to use your "Desktop" like a real desktop. First, clean it up. You know all those icons that came with your computer that you are afraid to delete, but don’t know what they do?? Right-click on an open space in the desktop, select New, Folder, then name it "The Closet" or "Stuff That Used to Be on My Desktop" or "The Black Hole" or "Deep Space Nine" or anything else that suits your fancy. Drag all those little icons and drop them into that folder. Presto! Nice clean desktop. (Caveat: Don’t try to move My Computer, Network Neighborhood, or Inbox into that folder; for reasons only Microsoft can explain, they have to stay where they are.)

Now that you can see the surface of your Desktop, you can put out your own little personal things:

• Make shortcuts to your favorite programs (right-click on the desktop, select New, Shortcut, then Browse until you find the *.exe file that launches the program, then name your shortcut).

• Create a folder called "Stuff" and put in all those random e-mail messages that you save because you think you’ll look at them someday. If you really save a lot of "Stuff" you can make additional folders: "Funny Stuff," "Techie Stuff," "Research Stuff," etc.

• Download patches, .wav files, and other things you plan to use only once to your Desktop so you don’t have to look for them and can easily delete them when you’re done. Do remember that if you delete a Shortcut (identified by a little arrow in the bottom left corner of the icon), you don’t actually remove the program, so delete away; if you delete a file or a document from your Desktop, it actually gets deleted. (NOTE: If you need to find your Desktop in a drop-down menu, it is ABOVE the C: drive and My Computer. If you need to find it in Explorer mode, it is in the Windows directory.)

Sheryn Bruehl


Year 2000 Dates and Other Scary Things That Go Bump in the Night

The actual transition from 12/31/99 to 1/1/2000 is not the only scary set of date changes technology has to deal with—several other problematic dates also need to be addressed!

Leap years. While PCs and other electronic equipment might be ready to handle the 1999 to 2000 transition, they may still not recognize that 2000 is a leap year. Talk about double whammies! This means they might fail to recognize February 29, 2000, and would then be off by an entire day. Even if you reset the date, the day of the week may still be off. This can be easily checked (back up first!!!) by doing a "rollover" test, with the test PC set to February 28, 2000, at about 11:58:00 p.m. Let the system tick over to see if it properly rolls to the "leap day." Some Y2K testing software will check this for you. If your system doesn’t recognize the leap day, you’re not technically Y2K compliant, and you’ll need to pursue getting an update or fix from your PC or BIOS manufacturer.

Miscellaneous date gotchas. All sorts of software has been written with internal date limitations. For example, it is commonly known that 32-bit programs, like many on your current Windows 95, 98, and Windows NT PCs, have a date calculation failure point in the year 2036. This will affect the massive body of software written in the popular C++ programming language. Certain programs like Microsoft’s widely used Excel 95 can’t handle dates past 2078, Windows 95’s Win32 runtime library fails after 2099, and the NT 4.0 File System will fail in the year 29,602. n

Ross Kodner

See bios for Sheryn Bruehl, Bruce Dorner , and Ross Kodner on page 35. jennifer j. rose ( is a lawyer-writer in Morelia, Mexico, after practicing family law for two decades in Iowa. She is editor-in-chief of GPSolo (formerly The Compleat Lawyer ), manager of Solosez , the List Serve for solo and small firm lawyers, and a contributing editor of Internet Law Researcher.

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