General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Advice for Beginners How to Get Started

By R. Hunter Manson

I am no computer expert, and probably will never be one. I’m told that is why I was asked to write this, because there are apparently a lot of lawyers like me who are, in one way or another, now learning how to use this technology. Perhaps I can help others avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way and give encouragement to those like me who do not adapt easily to new technologies.

I started several years ago, at a time when my office was well staffed with good legal assistants who I thought made it unnecessary for me to learn to use a computer. I was aware that others were stepping into the computer age in growing numbers, but I didn’t feel the need. I was

convinced that I would always be able to dictate a letter or mark up a form document for my assistant faster and more efficiently than I could ever produce one on a computer by myself.

Actually, the impetus for me to buy a computer had nothing to do with my law practice. My younger brother, Pete, had lost his ability to speak. He had purchased a laptop, and I decided to do the same so we could communicate by e-mail.

So the first decision facing me was what to buy. I realized that to try to read and understand literature on the technical aspects of computers was way beyond my comprehension. Fortunately, I had been working on some ABA projects with Bob Caston, who seemed to know a lot about computers. Better yet, he was willing and able to talk about it in language I could understand.

Bob was kind enough to tell me which were good products, and what features I should look for in them. I did some shopping with that information, and Bob was also able to tell me whether or not the prices I was being quoted were in the ballpark. This experience has allowed me to formulate Beginners’ Rule One : Find someone knowledgeable who will tell you what to buy and how much to spend.

I decided to buy a laptop for the mobility it offered. If I was going to invest in a computer, I wanted to be able to use it wherever I might be. I thought the more use I was able to make of it, the more productive my investment would become, and that has in fact turned out to be the case.

Once I made the purchase, the next challenge was getting set up. I quickly realized that this would require help that would have to be immediately accessible. It was much easier to show someone the problem I was having than it was to try to explain it on the phone but trying to reach Bob Caston long distance multiple times a day just wasn’t going to work. Even the free 800 assistance numbers offered by the computer vendor weren’t fast enough. Learning how to use the computer was taking large chunks of time out of my day. Client demands and the pressure to maintain billable hours meant that, when I hit a snag, which I often did, I needed access to someone in the office I could call for help right away. Fortunately, our office manager knew enough about computers to fill the bill. I also found that, when we had to call an 800 number for assistance, having him on the phone with me got us through the corrective procedures about twice as fast as when I tried to do it on my own. This has led me to formulate Beginners’ Rule Two : Find someone close by who can help you get started.

Instruction manuals were never basic enough for me. I did try to read them, but I would inevitably run into a word or a concept that was completely foreign to me, which usually ended that particular effort in self-instruction. My experience using the manuals was so bad that, the first time I tried to use my computer, I found I was unable to exit the Welcome Center and had to shut the whole thing down. I know that most of the problems I experienced were self-inflicted, but the manuals were of little help in extracting myself from the problems I created. They always seemed to presume a level of understanding about computers that I simply did not have. Problems that I might struggle with for an hour would be solved in minutes by my office manager, who was able to see what I had done and then correct it. This leads to Beginners’ Rule Three: Find someone who can explain the instruction manuals to you.

I could have done much better with the instruction manuals if I had known about The Computer Desktop Encyclopedia, by Alan Freedman. About the size of a normal dictionary, this book contains over 8,500 definitions used in the computer industry and includes explanations about how things work. All the terms used in the book are defined in the book. Every beginner should have one.

Whenever some one else sits down at my computer to try to untangle the latest snag I have created, I always ask that person to verbalize what’s being done to try to correct the problem. Usually the one helping you will begin doing things with the computer that you have never seen before, and it doesn’t help much for that person to try to explain the corrections after they have been made. It takes a little longer, but I always ask for an explanation of every keystroke that is being made. Not only does that help create a better learning experience, but it can be a morale booster as well when you begin to see how much of the assistance you’re getting is based on absolute guess-work and hunches. It’s always comforting to see that computers can sometimes baffle even the experts. Beginners’ Rule Four: Always ask the expert to verbalize the assistance.

It didn’t take long to realize that most computer operations involve a series of commands. I found that, if I could write out the series of commands and save them in my computer carrying case, I would be able more often to cause the computer to deliver what I needed on my own and without assistance. Over time, and with repeated use, I became able to remember the sequence of commands without referring to my notes. But in the beginning I could not have gotten by without them. Beginners’ Rule Five: Write out the sequence of commands necessary for every computer function you need.

My growing interest in computers caused me to begin to notice the great number of training courses and seminars that are available. At first I thought that learning about how to use computers would be like learning my way around any other subject, where the goal is to obtain as much formal instruction as you can before you begin to apply what you have learned. But learning to use computers is not like that. I found that the only way to get enough out of a computer course to make the expenditure of time and money worthwhile was to first gain some hands-on experience. Without that experience, much of what you hear in class will either be over your head, or its relevance will not be fully appreciated. To grasp what the instructor is talking about, it’s best to have already encountered the situation being discussed. This leaves the beginner with only one choice, which is to dive in and try to use the computer after someone shows you how to get started. This will inevitably result in some frustration as you begin to encounter problems you don’t know how to fix, but there is no better way to begin laying the foundation that computer courses and seminars can later build on. Beginners’ Rule Six: Dive in first and go to class later.

The more I learned about my computer, the more I liked it and the more dependent on it I became. Before long I was actually able to converse with people about their computers and how they used them. A whole new world was beginning to open up to me. I found that it is a world without age limits. I am still surprised at how much young children know about computers. I have a young nephew who is somewhat of a computer whiz, and I was flattered when he said he would like to try out my laptop. After watching him use it for a while, I realized he seemed to know more about it than I did, so I left him alone with it. This leads to Beginners’ Rule Seven: Never let anyone use your computer alone. because the next day at the office I saw things on my computer screen I had never seen before! Many of the functions I had become dependent on were no longer available to me, and the ones that still worked seemed to have developed a number of quirks. What was worse, when I tried to get help to straighten it all out, the first question was always, "What did you do to make it this way?" Of course, I was unable to answer, because I had left my nephew alone and did not observe what he was doing. I was eventually able to straighten things out, but to this day I don’t know how some of those problems were created.

As I began to gain confidence with my computer skills, I became more interested in the vast array of computer programs available. It was very tempting to load them into my computer to try them out for a while, which I often did. After awhile I learned that much of what I was loading into my computer was seldom used. I also learned that these nifty but seldom-used programs were taking up a large part of my computer’s capacity. Even worse was the realization that the new programs I loaded were not always compatible with the programs already on my computer. As a result of this experience, I have now deleted all programs except those I know I will be using in my law practice on a fairly regular basis. Before I load something new, I need to be convinced that I really need it. Beginners’ Rule Eight: With computer software, load only what you know you need.

I have now progressed to my second-generation laptop. The need for an upgrade was caused mainly by a lack of sufficient memory in the first one I bought. I have learned that the obsolescence of this equipment is very rapid, but the benefits I derive from it still make the investment well worthwhile. I have also learned that my earlier view of legal assistants, as a way to avoid computers in my law practice, was off base then and is further off base today. Legal research is done better and more quickly with computers. Documents are easier and quicker to prepare if I do them myself, without having to rely on assistants, no matter how well qualified the assistants may be.

Perhaps the greatest thing about computers is the independence they provide. Using a portable scanner and printer/fax along with my laptop allows me to carry on my practice from wherever I might be. I still use the office to take my phone messages and to take care of time-keeping and billing, but beyond that I can manage just about everything else myself. The self-reliance and independence given to me by computers and their accessories makes every cent I have spent on them worthwhile. Getting to this stage has not always been easy, but now I don’t see how I could function any other way. n

R. Hunter Manson( rmanson427 @ aol.com) works out of his office in Richmond, Virginia.

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