General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice Guide

WINTER 1998 - VOLUME 1, NUMBER 2 << BACK TO TABLE OF CONTENTS

Technology is More than Bits and Bytes

Lessons Learned from Technology Implementation in the Delivery of Legal Services

By Richard E. Winder and Steve Gray

Fascination with the ever increasing speed and capability of computer and telecommunications technology sometimes blinds us to the real value of technology in the provision of legal services. The nature of the small firm practice—with its time and financial constraints—tends to limit comprehensive use of technology. Until recently, the software industry—by its very nature—fragmented, rather than integrated technology tools. For instance, we purchased a word processor, a time and billing package, an accounting program, a spreadsheet program, and an e-mail system, and now we can only wish that they could integrate with each other more effectively.

Today’s technology takes us well beyond the walls of the law office. Yet our travel into technology is often done in a stream-of-consciousness or haphazard fashion which prevents us from realizing the full value of technology for our clients and ourselves. As we move from infatuation with technology to comprehensive technology planning, we begin to realize that technology is more than the bits and bytes from which it is comprised.

Though we have a sense that technology is more than bits and bytes, we still wonder what exactly it is. Is it merely a tool that helps us become more efficient at what we do? For example, the word processor replaces the typewriter, and gives us the ability to make minor changes and reprint the changed pages rather than having to retype the whole document. Is it merely a calculator that can perform sophisticated calculations? For example, the time and billing package replaces paper time slips and performs automatic calculation and accounting functions. Or is it a substitute for the telephone or the mail, permitting us to send instantaneous electronic messages instead of calling or writing a letter?

Over the past five years, the authors have gained a sense that the real value of technology extends beyond the electronics, the hardware, and the software packages, to its impact on the lives of those who are affected by it. Since 1993, the Michigan State Bar Foundation (Foundation) has worked with the Legal Services Association of Michigan (“LSAM”) and the Access to Justice Task Force of the State Bar of Michigan in developing and implementing a technology plan for legal services programs in Michigan.

Legal services programs are nonprofit law offices that provide free legal services to poor people, opening the doors of access to justice to people who could not otherwise afford legal assistance. These legal services programs are actually small law offices, ranging in size from five to fifty attorneys. They are geographically spread across Michigan, with some offices housing only one attorney. They also engage in a mix of practice types, from a high-volume housing and family law practice to practices that handle unique legal issues and complex litigation matters. As such, they provide a rare opportunity to develop some insights about technology applications in the small but integrated law firm.

The authors have learned that the real value of technology, then, is in its impact on people. It is in the vision it provides. It is in the culture that it facilitates. It is in the relationships that it encourages. It is in the partnerships that it builds. And it is in the future of which it is part.

Survey of Technology Needs of Legal Services Programs in Michigan

A 1993 survey of Michigan legal services programs revealed three major focuses of technology:

A. Assisting in the development of inter-program communication and resource sharing;

B. Assisting all programs in reaching a basic level of computer resources and compatibility among programs; and

C. Assisting in the automation of the case management function.

Technology is Vision

In the movie Field of Dreams, the main character was told “If you build it, they will come [to support your project].” He followed his dream and built the baseball park, and he found that his dream was fulfilled—customers did come to support the project.

However, many legal services program directors and law office administrators are finding that simply bringing technology into the office is not enough. Building a fancy network is not a guarantee that it will be used. Implementing technology in the legal office takes more than building on one person’s dreams. It requires vision. It has to encompass the dreams and the needs of everyone who will be affected by it. It has to encompass the broader “field of vision.”

The principle of vision is: “If you support, they will build.” The vision has to be broad enough to encompass the needs of those who will be served by it. Under “field of vision,” leaders seek from other participants an understanding of what needs should be addressed, and support the building of systems around those needs. The participants themselves have a clear understanding of the needs. When they know they have support in addressing them, they begin to apply resources to fulfilling those needs.

A clear technology vision is one of the most important factors in implementing technology in the small- to mid-sized firm. Vision is more than just a picture of the future. Rather, it is a realization of our present capacity to deliver the future. An integral part of that realization is a clear understanding of the needs that are to be addressed and the resources that are available to address them. Vision, then, is the linking of needs with the resources required to fulfill those needs. This relates to the focus of technology. Are we seeking technology for technology’s sake? Or is there a significant, underlying purpose in our use of technology.

These are questions that the LSAM Computer Committee and the Technology Subcommittee of the Access to Justice Task Force asked as they developed eleven technology recommendations for the Michigan Plan for Legal Services in the fall of 1995. They identified a key focus in using technology in legal services: to improve the capacity to assist clients in meeting their legal needs, through technology. This improvement could come through improvements in the service delivery support systems, as well as through improvements in the interaction with and service to clients. In both cases the focus is on the client. Michigan legal services programs, chose to concentrate on the support and delivery system of the law office first, electing to focus on the tools for direct interface with the client after the support system was in place.

If needs are integral to vision, then it is important to determine exactly what the needs are. This is best done by reviewing needs with those most affected. In this case, it was the legal services programs whose needs were being addressed. A 1993 survey revealed three key technology needs: A) a need for intra- and inter-program communication and resource sharing; B) a need for a basic level of computer technology—a minimum standard that all programs would achieve; and C) a need for a comprehensive case management system.

These needs are as relevant today as they were in 1993. Moreover, they are as relevant to the private law firm as they are to the nonprofit legal services provider. In fact, the eleven technology recommendations each address one or more of these needs and identify the technology resources that will be applied to fulfill these needs (see sidebar p. 49). The recommendations, then, have become the vision of the Michigan legal services programs’ technology projects.

An interesting thing happened as the recommendations were published. They actually became the technology vision of the constituent organizations. The Foundation provided a minimal level of funding to purchase software to develop and test an inter-program e-mail pilot project. Before the pilot project was completed, several other programs had already purchased the networks needed for the e-mail software and had asked when they could join the project. Shortly thereafter, the project was expanded state-wide.

The same dynamic is now occurring with the adoption of a state-wide case management system. The LSAM Computer Committee recommended state-wide implementation of the ProLaw case management package. The Computer Committee obtained funding for a pilot project to implement and configure it in five programs. This required a major upgrade, since most offices did not have the Windows 95 software required to support ProLaw.

The five pilot programs have already applied their resources to upgrading computers and purchasing Windows 95. In addition, several other programs have begun to upgrade their computers and have requested the installation of the case management software. Moreover, because they had a clear vision of the direction of the technology plan, they were able to purchase computers at discounted closeout prices. This reduced the overall cost of implementation.

The private law firm can take advantage of the same dynamic by sharing its technology vision with its staff, clients, and legal and technology partners. If these constituent parties know that the law firm is embracing technology, they will become the eyes and ears of the firm on technology matters—making the firm aware of special pricing and new technologies that are consistent with the plan.

Indeed, technology is vision. “If you support, they will build.”

Michigan Technology Work Group Recommendations

(Part of the Michigan Plan for Legal Services – A Planning Process Among the Legal Services Association of Michigan, the Michigan State Bar Foundation, and the State Bar of Michigan, October 10, 1995)

The following technology recommendations were made a part of the Michigan Planning Process for Legal Services, and are included in the Michigan Plan for Legal Services. The goals they assist with are included in parentheses after each recommendation.

1. State-wide e-mail System (A)

2. State-wide Computer Hardware Upgrade (B)

3. Uniform Case Management and Timekeeping System (C)

4. Substantive online Bulletin Board/Document Bank for Poverty Law Issues (A)

5. Automated Document Assembly System (C)

6. Computerized Research Capability (A and B)

7. State-wide Computer Training and Support (A and C)

8. Automated Intake System (C)

9. Accounting Software (A and C)

10. Automated Phone and Voice Mail Messaging System

11. Database of Potential Funders’ Grant Focuses (B)

Technology is Culture

For the individual, effective use of technology is a mind-set. It is not a matter of just chasing technology for the sake of technology, but rather using technology to enhance the personal and/or professional life of the individual. In the organization, effective use of technology is a matter of organizational culture, the tone of which is often set by organizational leadership. The law firm culture for technology should focus not on the equipment, but on how the technology will be used, and what ultimate needs it will address. In this way it is related to the technology vision described above. But culture is different from vision in that culture is the environment in which vision flourishes.

Technology cannot thrive in a culture that is antagonistic to it. Similarly, the law firm’s use of technology will suffer if the technology vision is misdirected. The firm that has computers on every desk is missing a major technology value if it does not connect the computers with each other through a local area network to permit sharing of files, printers, and other devices.

The technology culture should focus on communication, integration, and collaboration. It should not merely focus on doing things faster. Rather than asking simply “How can we use our computers?,” the question that should be asked in a law firm technology culture is “How can we use computers to communicate, integrate, and collaborate in providing more effective services to our clients?” The firm that just uses computers for word processing is missing some of the real value of the computer. The firm that establishes a Website just to “get its name out there” is missing the educational value that it could provide for its clients. The computer should become an integral part of operations rather than just a single-function tool.

The technology culture will breed a sense that there is a continuing need for the use of technology in the delivery of legal services. Many firms treat technology purchases like copier purchases: they study it to death, make a major purchase, and forget about it for five-to-ten years. We advise legal services programs to build an ongoing, somewhat level budget for technology purchases. They can do this by planning purchases over a three- to five-year time frame. In one year they can replace one-third to half of their workstations. The next year, they can replace the file server. The following year they can replace another wave of workstations. Then in the fourth year, they can replace printers, scanners, etc. A similar plan should be developed for software upgrades. In this manner, they avoid the necessity of replacing everything at once—a dilemma that often leads to putting off purchases. In addition, this purchasing scheme provides the power users, who are often testing new software, with the latest equipment on a regular basis.

Technology is Relationships

The legal services programs’ e-mail network in Michigan is connected through a central hub at the Foundation. Legal services programs dial in on a daily basis, deliver all the mail from their office, and pick up any mail waiting for them from other offices.

For some people, technology has become a means of building and sustaining relationships. Other people fear that technology will stand in the way of relationships. They fear, for example, that e-mail systems will reduce the amount of personal and voice contact. Our experience has been that technology has actually enhanced relationships even though it may in fact have reduced direct personal contact. E-mail provides an additional way to keep in touch, not a mutually exclusive alternative. Rather than eliminating direct personal contact as a method of communication, e-mail supplements direct contact. In many ways it is more efficient than the phone or the personal visit. An e-mail message doesn’t have to play phone tag or wait until the recipient has time available to talk to you. Imposing on a person’s time or personal space can actually erode a relationship rather than enhance it. By providing a myriad of additional communication methods, technology can actually enhance relationships.

This has been the experience in the Michigan legal services community. Program directors maintain regular contact with their staff through e-mail. Just as important, program directors and staff regularly communicate with other program directors and staff at distant locations. When unique legal issues arise, staff can contact outside attorneys for assistance by sending a single e-mail to a group address. This entire process of communicating, asking for help, and providing assistance is a relationship building process.

Effective use of technology, then, can enhance relationships with clients, outside attorneys, and legal services offices. It can increase the contact while at the same time diminish the intrusion.

Technology is Partnerships

In today’s technology world, the small- to mid-sized law firm cannot implement a technology plan without a cadre of technology “partners.” These partners include hardware and software vendors, computer maintenance firms, Internet service providers, other law firms, legal services providers, etc.

With the fast pace of technological advances, we can no longer view technology as an “off the shelf” purchase. For example, some legal services programs are struggling with software that is no longer supported, because the software company is no longer in existence. In addition, some software is too complex and difficult to install, and requires extensive vendor assistance.

In selecting software and hardware partners, it is important to select companies that are expected to be around at least for the useful life of the product. They should also have a history of keeping up with current technological developments. How often have you heard stories of firms upgrading to a new software package only to discover that the new program is incompatible with their e-mail system?

A vendor can provide significant assistance in selecting the right products and the best deals for the law firm. For example, one of our vendors has kept us informed of closeout pricing on major brand computers, and as a result the Foundation has saved a significant amount of money on hardware purchases. Additionally, we have been able to set up volume licensing and purchasing agreements with various software companies. This also has provided substantial savings.

Significant advantages can be gained through working with other law offices or state or local bar associations to obtain information about the best systems for your firm’s particular needs. Partnering at this level can make group purchasing power possible. By pooling efforts at a state-wide level for the purchase of case management software, the Foundation and the LSAM Computer Committee were able to work with ProLaw to achieve a savings in software and training costs. Moreover, ProLaw, as a software “partner,” is working with the Computer Committee to tailor the software for legal services use, and to make a single user version of the software available for the pro bono attorneys with whom we work.

Ensuring that technology will integrate with other law offices or legal services providers is an important part of any technology plan. A recent informal survey of legal services providers revealed that while respondents felt that pro bono attorneys were an integral part of their operations, and about half felt that pro bono attorneys should be part of the legal services programs’ technology plan, only about 5 percent actually included pro bono attorneys in their own technology plans.

One of the reasons the LSAM Computer Committee selected ProLaw’s standard law office case management package was to enable it to have electronic contact with the private lawyers who volunteer to provide pro bono services. This system permits a legal services office to transfer client and case information directly into a pro bono attorney’s case management system by e-mail. In addition, the legal services office can provide forms and documents that the pro bono attorney can then use when handling referred matters.

Another advantage of working with others in the development and implementation of technology is that it permits small-scale implementation of pilot or test projects, prior to full-scale implementation. There are five major benefits of this. First, it permits the pilot participants to work out the “bugs” prior to full-scale implementation. Second, it assists in building an “experience base” of people who are familiar with the technology and who can assist others in implementing it. Third, it permits selection of people who are interested in and prepared for the technology, so that costs and start-up time are minimized. Fourth, the pilot participants’ excitement about the project is contagious, and they become the opinion leaders for broader implementation. And finally, the remaining offices can see the technology in operation and can actually see that it will work for them, rather than having to hope that the technology will meet their needs.

The Foundation and the LSAM Computer Committee have implemented pilot projects for both the state-wide e-mail system and the case management project. We found that costs were minimized by having those legal services programs that already had the networking software (for the e-mail system) and Windows 95 (for the case management software) already in place, participate in the pilot. Our experience has shown that prior to completion of the projects, other legal services programs have witnessed the enthusiasm of the participants and have asked to implement the software. In fact, some of the nonpilot programs began making the purchases necessary for them to implement the project prior to completion of the pilot.

Technology is the Future

It is becoming more and more apparent that technology is changing the very nature of the practice of law. The practice of law ten years from now will not be the same as it is today. As legal information becomes more and more available in schools, libraries, court kiosks, and living rooms, we must focus on redesigning the practice of law to remain in sync with the information age in which we live. Law firms and legal services programs that do not make the effort to integrate technology into their practices will find themselves being left behind by those who do.

For this reason, it is very important that the legal profession, engage in the research necessary to help shape the future of the practice of law, rather than leaving it to market or governmental forces to determine. To that end, the Foundation, in coordination with LSAM and a consortium of legal services providers in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, has applied for a federal Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (“TIIAP”) grant to develop the Midwest Legal Aid Network (“MLAN”). Although the project was not funded by TIIAP this year, its concept can be developed through a series of technology pilot projects. MLAN’s focus is to provide legal “points of presence” at libraries, schools, community centers, and on the Internet, where clients can communicate with lawyers in legal services programs and pro bono offices through teleconferencing over a telecommunications network. Low-income clients who could not otherwise afford legal representation in drafting forms or other legal documents for use in legal matters will be able to access these services. The system will serve as a referral network for clients who do not qualify for free legal assistance and will allow clients access to legal information, pro se forms as appropriate, and legal assistance. Ultimately, it is hoped that the lessons learned from this project will help us determine how technology can best be used in the future to make meaningful access to justice available to all who need it.

Conclusion

Technology is becoming such an integral part of the practice of law that it must become an integral part of law office operations. However, it must go far beyond providing new ways of drafting documents. It must implement new ways of communicating and building relationships with clients and other technology partners. Its ultimate focus has to be on the use of technology to improve the capacity to assist clients in meeting their legal needs—and this can only occur through improvements in service delivery support systems, as well as through improvements in interaction with and service to clients.

If we embrace a vision of technology and fully support it, all those around us will help bring our vision of technology into reality.

Richard E. Winder is the deputy Director of the Michigan Sate Bar Foundation. He has been active in the development of technology at the Foundation and in Michigan legal services programs. He has also been active in the total quality management movement, and has spoken nationally and internationally on the relationship and cultural aspects of quality. He may be reached for comments or questions about this article via e-mail at rwinder@michbar.org.

Steve Gray is the Managing Attorney at the Michigan Poverty Law Program, the state-supported entity which, among other things, provides technology support and training for legal services programs in Michigan. He has been active in the development and implementation of technology in legal services for a number of years, and has assisted many legal services programs in installing computers, networks, and software. He can be reached via e-mail at grange@umich.edu.

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