IT Issues for Solos
Daniel S. Coolidge is a recovering large-firm lawyer, now a patent attorney with Coolidge & Graves, PLLC, in Keene, New Hampshire; he may be reached at email@example.com. Andrew C. Simpson is a sole practitioner in the U.S. Virgin Islands concentrating in insurance defense, civil litigation, and appeals; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s a question as old as time (or at least as old as office equipment): Should solos be responsible for maintaining their own technology systems so they won’t lose valuable time when those systems inevitably fail at the worst possible moment? Or should lawyers stick with what they do best (i.e., the practice of law) and leave all that high-tech stuff to the experts? In this special point-counterpoint, two tech-savvy lawyers square off for a lively debate.
Daniel S. Coolidge: Let’s quickly dismiss from consideration those lawyers who play with computers as a hobby or were computer engineers in a past life. They can be their own IT departments because they’re going to do so anyway, despite evidence to suggest this is unwise. Or that they are spending ten dollars of billable time for every dollar of IT maintenance time they engage in. No, my comments are directed at lawyers who want to spend their time (their inventory) being lawyers rather than technicians, and want, moreover, to spend their time learning to be better lawyers rather than justifying wasting their time becoming computer geeks.
Andrew C. Simpson: It’s not about billable versus maintenance hours. The billable work is still there and has to get done. Unfortunately, it’s more likely a matter of losing quality non-working hours to the maintenance hours. But for those of us solos who are not rolling in the cash, keeping money from flowing out the door to an IT person is almost as important as billing time.
One of the key reasons I do as much of my own technical work as possible is it ensures that I understand my system. When something goes wrong, I can simply fix it. I don’t want to be sitting around for hours, waiting for the consultant to show up. That kind of understanding saved a vacation for me. I was in Bermuda and had to restore my server hard drive from a backup. I did it remotely and barely gave it a moment’s thought. (My full vacation saga is detailed in “Rescue Your Law Practice, Work on Your Tan,” GPSolo, December 2006.) Even if I had a consultant ready to drop everything and rush to my rescue, I would have spent at least as much time bringing the consultant up to speed and then assisting (remotely) in the process. In terms of downtime avoided, I’m not convinced that your non-technician lawyer is well-served when the consultant is truly needed.
Besides, unless I can afford one of the lawyer-turned-consultant geeks (there’s another reason to do-it-yourself—you can develop a lower stress, second career), I’m going to end up wasting time trying to teach the consultant what it is I need as I stand over her shoulder during the setup of my legal-specific software.
Coolidge: You were on vacation and had to restore your server hard drive? That doesn’t sound like a vacation to me. It sounds more like a person who doesn’t know how to get away from his job. Pathetic.
Simpson: What I do on my vacation is none of your business.
Coolidge: Whatever. If you applied your argument to other tools you use in your practice, you should be your own auto mechanic, carpenter, electrician, and possibly psychotherapist. I don’t think so.
Despite what they would like to think, for most solos and small firm practitioners, their computer systems are remarkably simple and don’t require weeks of training to familiarize a consultant with their inner workings. Sure, you will have to know how your programs work in order to use them, particularly legal-specific applications. I’m not sure it’s important that you know how to write all the macros yourself. What you really need is to know how to use your system, and how and where to get help when you need it. And always remember, have a backup system so you can keep working no matter what.
Those of us who like to play with computers and always be on the bleeding edge of the technology curve develop complex gee-whiz systems because we enjoy doing it. When we restore our server remotely while on vacation, we feel like Jack Horner: oh what a good boy am I. (Or girl.) How much better a vacation it would be simply to call your maintenance fellow and have it done while you swim at the beach.
My time is best spent being a lawyer and learning how to be a better lawyer. I have enough work to keep me busy full-time, so time spent building and maintaining my computer system, if it’s not my hobby, is time lost. Just as I wouldn’t spend time diagnosing and repairing the funny noise in the transmission of my car, I don’t need to know how to diagnose and repair the funny noise coming from my hard drive.
Another issue: Learning how to maintain your computer system is not a do-it-once-and-forget-it task. Things are constantly changing, new hardware poses new problems, new operating systems need to be evaluated, and so it goes. Does the average practitioner really have the time to keep up with the level of knowledge necessary to do detailed system maintenance?
Probably the most important thing for the sole practitioner is to have a system that is adequate to his or her needs—and rock-solid stable. Solos need a set-it-and-forget-it system, part of the cost of which is having someone with the expertise available to maintain and upgrade. The practitioner determines what his or her needs are. The system maintenance person should have the expertise to know what is available to meet those needs.
Simpson: With the exception of perhaps of my psychotherapist, the other trades you mention are not mission-critical. Even if the power goes out, I can move my computer to another building. But when my computer network goes down, I need to get back into action as quickly as possible. Those hours when the computer is down are lost billable hours, too. I suppose if you live in New York City and can get (and afford) 24-7 service you might be right. But for those of us solos who practice away from the big city, we don’t have the luxury of having someone to come running the moment something goes wrong.
I agree with you that a solo is better off with an adequate system that is rock-solid stable—but they are hard to find if you are buying off-the-shelf. The first thing you have to do these days to make a system stable is remove all the junk the computer manufacturer installed against your will. On a limited budget, the last thing I want to do is to buy a computer and then pay a consultant to make it usable for my law office.
Unless you are living in the dark ages and only using the word processing suite that came pre-installed on your computer, it’s a pie-in-the-sky dream to think you are going to find a local consultant who understands all of your software needs. You’ve got your practice management program, your billing program, features in various software programs geared specifically for lawyers (think Table of Authorities builders, Bates numbering tools, and redaction tools), the accounting program, etc. Then you’ve got metadata concerns, e-mail management, calendaring, e-filing—the bottom line is that you are better off knowing how to use these tools.
Lawyers need to come to grips with the fact that computers and software are essential tools of their trade—as essential as Shepardizing and the ability to navigate through the key-digest system. You argue that there is a learning curve to using computers and it’s not efficient to learn them if you don’t keep up with the changes. The same can be said for writing an appellate brief. Unless you are an appellate specialist, each time you write an appeal brief, you’ve got to go back to relearn the court’s briefing rules, review the techniques for presenting issues, and so on. And if you don’t know how to use your computer software, then at the last minute you will be trying to cobble together a table of authorities when you could simply tell your software to do it for you.
I think that last point is what really defines the difference in our approach. I think that if lawyers don’t do it themselves, they never truly learn, and they end up doing things far less efficiently. You are more of an optimist and think that lawyers will actually hire someone else to make them more efficient.
Coolidge: Sure, lawyers need to learn their software applications—just the same as they have to learn how to drive a car (most of them). But they don’t have to learn how to optimize a network load, nor how to repair their transmission. And any well-designed network is not going to force you to stop working just because the network is down. With a well-designed system from your computer guru, you should be able to access everything you need to keep working with a laptop computer connected directly to the network drive (rather than through the network).
Every computer on a network should be able to run independently at need. Everyone should know how to plug a printer directly into their computer to make it work. But how deep does their understanding have to be?
Recently we converted our two-attorney office to a network running Windows virtual machines via Linux. I play with this stuff, but really haven’t the time to learn the details of Linux, much less the virtual machine world. And my partner knows even less. I spent some time learning enough Linux to be dangerous, and even though I hold a degree in computer engineering, we hired a consultant to set up our network and workstations. We kept working. We knew what applications we wanted and didn’t expect that the consultant would do more than install them. If we wanted customization of our office management app, we called in someone who could take direction and implement what we wanted. We spent our time working on legal stuff—and at a much higher rate than we were paying consultants.
I am not saying that lawyers should avoid computer knowledge, rather that they should focus on what they do well: being lawyers. Know your tools well enough to get the work out the door, and plan appropriately for problems. Planning appropriately for a network outage does not mean you ought to be a network expert. It means that you have a way to get around the problem temporarily while the repairman comes.
With computers being pervasive in the workplace and in homes, it is inevitable that they will become embroiled in litigation. Knowing how to prepare discovery requests in this context is knowledge with which a lawyer will need some familiarity. Lawyers might even have to call in an expert in computer forensics rather than trust solely to their own knowledge. Does this mean they should become experts in individual operating systems’ inner workings? No. As in every other area of a lawyer’s endeavors, they need to know how to get the information they need for the task in front of them.
Simpson: You are trying to draw too fine a line. No, I don’t need to know how the CPU communicates with the PCI card. But I’d better have a good idea of how a computer “thinks,” whether that is on its own or when communicating with another computer on a network. Ask a lawyer who doesn’t understand computers to find a file on the computer when the document management system is down—it’s like a non-swimmer who falls in a pool. Another point I think you overlook is how “digital competence” helps you from both a marketing and a practice point of view. Although I’m a small firm shop, I’ve got major corporate clients. One of the things that sets me apart from my competition is my technological edge. That edge is not based upon having the latest bells and whistles—it’s based upon client confidence. My clients feel that they have an advantage in litigation when I’m making a presentation to them in PowerPoint and making a change on the fly; or when I send them a motion for summary judgment I’ve drafted that has a key piece of evidence embedded as a figure in the text of the document rather than buried as an exhibit in the back of the document. I once saved a client a million dollars in a mediation because I knew how to manipulate a spreadsheet to quickly extract key data from a 50,000-transaction database. The in-house actuarial who used those spreadsheets every day couldn’t do that. This client rewards me with repeat business, prompt payment of bills, and referrals.
Coolidge: But you’re missing the point: We’re talking about whether a solo should be his or her own computer technician, not operator. There is a long way between knowing how to use the tools at hand (doing a PowerPoint presentation on the fly) and being able to diagnose a network problem. The former is something I would think is necessary. If you don’t know how to use your tools, how can you possibly be effective? But the latter is something you have an expert available to handle.
Simpson: I’m talking about more than being the operator. The operator clicks “next” and a new slide appears. The adroit lawyer knows how to make the program sing. The advantages in my litigation practice to DIY are also legion. Sure, it’s nice to be able to have a pricey consultant sit by your side at trial and help you with your presentation of evidence to the jury. But the vast majority of cases are not large enough to warrant that expense. My clients get good trial presentations regardless of the size of the case. The competence you show is important to juries, too. A big part of winning over a jury is getting it to have confidence in the information you provide to it. Sure, no amount of bells and whistles is going to overcome a lousy case; but if the issues are close, and the jury has more confidence in you because you are able to give them information in a format they are used to, then you’ve got a leg up on your competition.
Coolidge: If it’s preparing the presentation, you should be able to do that. If it’s explaining the inner workings of the computer, you should have an expert. (You can even prepare her slides for her if it makes you feel better.)
Simpson: It’s not about explaining how it works—as far as I’m concerned, computers are magical devices. You don’t have to know how the magic works to say the magic words. And it’s not just trials. I can whip together a presentation for a mediation, summary judgment, or any other part of a case that helps give my client an edge. Imagine the impact on the opposing party when you walk into a mediation with a good presentation and the other party’s counsel makes an oral presentation, reading from notes on a legal pad. Imagine the impression you make on your own client. I’d rather be Little Jack Horner with the plum on my thumb than opposing counsel sitting there twiddling thumbs.
Coolidge: Same issue: I can do all these things, too, and still not have to be a computer technician, just a computer user. You’re off point, as usual.
Simpson: No, I’m not off point—you are just defining the issue narrowly. But even then you are, as usual, wrong. Here I am sitting in an airport trying to meet our deadline (OK, trying to meet the third deadline—the drop-dead deadline) with what has become a six- hour flight delay. I wanted to connect to my office network via WIFI, but I was having troubles. I knew to run the DOS commands “ipconfig/release” and “ipconfig/renew” and I was up and running. I knew that because I have a pretty good understanding of network operations. To use your car repair analogy, it’s the difference between looking under the hood because that’s what is expected of you even though you don’t have a clue, and looking under the hood and knowing to check a few basic things. No, I’m not going to tear down the engine and rebuild it, but I’m not going to spend three hours waiting for a tow truck and mechanic because the battery wire is as loose as the neuron connections to your brain.
Coolidge: You could have done the same thing with a reboot. Everyone knows that’s the first thing a Microsoft technician will tell you to do . . . right before “Reinstall Windows.”
Maybe we are not so far apart after all. (And would you kindly move farther away and downwind, please?) It seems we’re saying a similar thing from different directions: As a lawyer, you must know how to use your tools, which means you have to have basic computer knowledge—how to find a file, to traverse the directory, the fact that when you turn off the computer, anything not saved goes away. (Yes, there are still people who don’t understand this.) And you need to know how to use your applications.
But there is another level to computer knowledge, that which lets you climb inside and change a hard drive and set up a network and install a new video card. None of these kinds of things are really challenging to either of us (for the record, let us admit we are both computer geeks), but developing the level of knowledge to be able to do those things is not necessary for the general practitioner. It can be handy, sure, but not required. There are better things to spend time on.
Simpson: Trust me, when your systems go up in smoke the day before that big trial, you’ll consider it time well spent.
Coolidge: We won’t be settling this argument here, will we?
Simpson: Probably not. Say goodnight, Dan.
Coolidge: Goodnight, Dan.