GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2006
Old Docs, New Tricks:
Knowledge Databases Made Easy
Every lawyer, paralegal, law clerk, or legal assistant knows the importance of timely access to previous legal work. In any given practice area, certain issues and forms arise frequently. Then we scramble to find relevant prior work—either work we remember doing ourselves, or things we remember seeing in books, forms, or CLE programs.
If we can maintain this work in an organized way that’s easy to access, everyone benefits: The client receives prompt service (which can mean lower fees), and we save time that can be used to generate additional revenue.
Ideally, one would create a “knowledge management database” to store and retrieve this work. So how does one do that electronically? Typically with varying degrees of success, but we’ll walk through the basics.
Knowledge Management Basics
Knowledge management is the technology or techniques for organizing and collecting knowledge, information, or data so that it may be effectively applied at an appropriate place and time. Some texts go to great lengths defining the differences between knowledge, information, and data, but the tenets to managing them are similar. To manage documents that are obtained through e-mail, online, or on paper, you will need a database system, a reliable scanner, desktop computers, appropriate software, and organizational good sense. Each of these will be discussed separately.
A database is basically a collection of records, typically stored on a computer system that allows you to retrieve information through various queries. You might use the information you retrieve to help you make a decision about a case, or you might incorporate the data into the production of legal documents.
The software used to manage and query the records is known technically as a “database management system” (DBMS). Like much technology, it links back to early mainframe work in the 1960s and was developed in large part at IBM. Much of the technology dates to the 1970s and a project at IBM called System R, which also gave birth to the concept of a “structured query language” (SQL) for retrieving data. Products by IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and others have commercial versions of these SQL databases. In addition, the open source software movement has several versions, two of which are MySQL and PostgresSQL.
SQL databases are not considered particularly “friendly” for most users, and legal professionals tend to use other products. Some products provide an easier interface so that users don’t need to interact with an SQL database directly; products in this area frequently do more than just knowledge management. Other products do not incorporate a full-blown SQL database at all. A comparison of practice management software is available from the ABA as updated by the Legal Technology Resource Center: www.abanet.org/tech/ltrc/charts/casemanagementcomparison.html.
Some tools are integrated to incorporate all of the front office and back office operations of the small firm or solo, including knowledge management. Examples are ProLaw, produced by Thomson Elite ( www.thomsonelite.com), and Time-Matters/BillingMatters Enterprise products (TM/BM Enterprise), now owned by LexisNexis ( www.timematters.com).
The benefit of a full-blown SQL database for knowledge management (or managing the front office and back office) is in industrial-strength tools, performance, and reliability. You do pay a premium for additional server requirements (including software for some applications), technical requirements, and perhaps assistance in setting up the program appropriately.
For examples in this article, I will discuss TM/BM Enterprise products. I do so not to endorse them over other products available, but only because I am familiar with them. The TM/BM Enterprise system uses a customized interface to address an SQL database. New user pricing for TM/BM Enterprise is $1,050 for the first user and $600 for the second and subsequent users. The product requires a dedicated server, and most users likely will want a consultant to facilitate implementation. Full functioning under this approach also requires a significant investment in training (which may be needed repeatedly if you have high staff turnover). It may take thousands of dollars and several months before you realize the benefits of this integrated approach to case management and billing. But these benefits can be substantial. The system can more than recoup the initial costs. I have been a user of TimeMatters since version 4.0 and BillingMatters since it came out.
Many solos and small firm practitioners choose a multifunction unit (MFC) such as the Brother MFC 8840D ( www.brother.com) or HP LaserJet 3380 All-in-One ( www.hp.com). These MFC units combine printing, scanning, copying, and faxing. Pricing for the machines is similar, with street prices less than $400 and list prices above that. These MFCs come bundled with scanning software that can assist in the process. I have several Brother MFC units of varying age and have had no problems with them, and I have similar reports from HP users.
An alternative is the use of a dedicated scanner. Several popular products are made by Fujitsu ( www.fujitsu.com/us). Many solos and small firm practitioners purchase and are complimentary of the Fujitsu Scansnap fi-5110EOX2 scanner, which is bundled with Adobe Acrobat Standard 7.0 for scanning. While this scanner is not TWAIN compliant (which means that other software won’t recognize the scanner), it is offered at a good price point ($495 list, with street prices as low as $338) and delivers amazing performance for the money. My law firm has two of these units in addition to the Brother MFCs.
Upscale stand-alone models cost more, but they are faster, can handle more scanning per month, and offer better bundled software and interfaces (i.e., USB 2.0versus SCSI). Fujitsu, Canon ( http://consumer.usa.canon.com), and Kodak ( www.kodak.com) are popular manufacturers.
The third approach to scanning is to purchase a larger multifunction device. These can be integrated with a high-speed copier/printer/fax or be added to a faster printer that also gives copier capabilities. These units may easily be capable of 150,000 or more pages per month in print or copy mode. A high-speed unit may be essential to deal with some litigation matters that involve documents totaling many thousands of pages.
High-speed MFC units are available from Ricoh ( www.ricoh-usa.com), Konica-Minolta ( http://kmpi.konicaminolta.us), Canon, HP, and many other providers. Some are available online and others are only sold through dealers. The Canon Image-Runner series is one popular example. Expenses for the high-volume scanners or the high-volume MFC devices discussed here start in the thousands, not hundreds, of dollars and may have capabilities beyond the needs of the solo or small firm practitioner. As with all of these recommendations, type of practice makes a great deal of difference in your needs.
Imaging and Search Software
Legal professionals also require appropriate imaging software. In The Lawyer’s Guide to Adobe Acrobat (available from ABA Books), David L. Masters discusses the use of Adobe Acrobat ( www.adobe.com) for scanning and organization of your legal products, forms, and research. Adobe Acrobat Professional (currently in version 7) is a full-featured and capable tool for scanning and saving documents in the popular PDF (portable document format) mode. The product retails at $449, with street pricing about $359.
Many legal professionals rely on multiple products. There are other tools that, if not essential, are handy in manipulating the form and analysis of documents with information to be preserved. For many years, I have used products by Nuance ( www.nuance.com), formerly known as ScanSoft. Two of these products I find beneficial to law practice: PaperPort Pro Office (currently in version 10) is a stand-alone tool for scanning, organization, and conversion (retail is $199.99, with street pricing about $40 less). It is fully compatible with any TWAIN-compliant scanner. Some law offices use this software alone to track and keep organized all of their data.
I also rely on the optical character recognition (OCR) capabilities of Nuance’s OmniPage Pro Office software (currently in version 15; retail is $499.99, with street pricing about $430). OmniPage can quickly turn a PDF document into not only searchable text but also a Microsoft Word, Excel, or WordPerfect file easily. Using separate OCR software such as OmniPage might allow you to save money by purchasing the Standard version of Acrobat, rather than the Professional version, or even to purchase fewer copies of Acrobat.
Dedicated search software also can facilitate the identification and tracking of knowledge, forms, and information. There are several of these desktop packages available. Free options include Google desktop, Yahoo, and Copernicus. Attorneys use all of them in practice, but I remain wary of relying on free software linked to a search engine, out of concern that I could compromise confidentiality. This concern has recently been realized in Google Desktop 3.0 and its default settings, which store data on Google’s servers.
My personal preference is to use X1 search software ( www.x1.com). An enhanced version of the free Yahoo product, X1 lists at $74.95, but discounts typically are available for multiple licenses. The file support and performance of X1 are good on desktops and across a small network. Enterprise-level software by the same manufacturer is available.
Additional software options exist, such as Ghostscript ( www.cs.wisc.edu/~ghost) and PDF995 ( www.pdf995.com), for managing, creating, and reading Acrobat files. Some law firms also use OmniForm 5.0, a form creator and form filler.
It takes some computing horsepower to use the tools described above, particularly when doing OCR. You can plan on spending about $1,500 per machine. Depending on the volume of scanning and OCR conversion you do, you may want to dedicate a workstation just for this activity.
Generally I recommend a fully equipped Windows XP Pro system with a minimum of 1 GB of memory, using a processor that is about two steps down from the fastest commonly sold. At this time, that means a Pentium IV 3.4 or 3.6 GHZ system or AMD equivalent. I also recommend a stand-alone video card using a solid ATI or NVidia chipset for future operating system compatibility.
Creating a Filing System
With the hardware and software described above, you are fully equipped to build an effective knowledge management system—or an electronic filing nightmare. If you don’t have a plan, your system is no more useful than a random pile of papers on your desk. Only by imposing structure, consistent protocols, and methodology will you be able to effectively retrieve the information you store.
When you are filling up your electronic “file cabinet,” you must choose a method of organization and apply it consistently. One approach is to organize numerically. A numerical system is simple and progressive. A common system integrates the year of opening and a numeric designator that is sequential. For example, you might number the file 2006-LIT-507 to designate a litigation matter opened in 2006 with that sequence of file number. The type of matter designator can be numeric also, and there are many variants of numbering available.A separate index is required to use this method, however, and some fail-safe is needed. Having more than one method of indexing and access provides redundancy in the event one system does not work as expected. For example, one fail-safe might be to use the searchable text features and some search capabilities (as allowed by X1 search software) to extract the correct document, knowledge, form, or information. Indexing every word, file name, and form with date and full text search capability allows for varied methods of retrieval. This is a good fail-safe when indexing using a program such as TimeMatters Enterprise; it provides separate accessibility to the data.
A second approach is to organize alphabetically, which is easier electronically than in a real file cabinet: You don’t have to reshuffle the files to fit an additional category between two existing ones. A disadvantage is that the system does not incorporate dates in its file names, as do most implementations of the numeric system,and the system may not include topical matters that will allow recovery if you forget the alphabetical designator. You canincorporate these features with search software or other indexing systems, just as described above for a numeric system.
A third approach is to organize topically. Similar to an index, this approach allows someone with basic familiarity of legal principles to start with a broad category designation (called a “directory” or “folder”) and then quickly “drill down” for specific data. It’s like using a map of the United States, where first you find the state and then the town and then the neighborhood before locating the house. In a legal database, the top directories might be real estate transactions, estate planning, and litigation matters, and the subdirectories might be tiered to the names of clients, the date references, or more specific subtypes (e.g., partnership disputes, minority shareholder litigation, real estate construction, collection, or other categories that make sense in your practice and will aid in retrieval).This system has the same disadvantage as an index: You must identify the correct terminology to find what you’re looking for. Once again, redundancies and fail-safes are advised.
These approaches may be blended or integrated in a single database, allowing you to retrieve data according to the date, the type of file, the nature of matter, or the client name. But remember, putting too many items into the database complicates entries, so there are inherent trade-offs. My suggested approach is to use more than one method of index and retrieval: Data is organized logically in directories that make sense, linked to TimeMatters, and searchable by X1 search software. Several levels of failure must occur before the data cannot be retrieved at all.
Regardless of which organizational system you use, make sure your hardware and software are up to the challenge. If they aren’t, you might find you have to “archive” your data too frequently. When you do this, you move data off the main system and place it elsewhere, making retrieval slower and more difficult. I know that many people think it’s overkill for solos and small firm practitioners to use a system such as TimeMatters Enterprise, especially on a department-level server that could handle several hundred employees. But by upscaling your software and hardware, you can maintain a substantially larger amount of data in a “current” state without archiving.
Finally, this entire discussion presupposes that you will use some form of off-site backup for your data as part of contingency planning for emergencies such as fires, hurricanes, or even basic system crashes. (For a discussion of off-site backup options, see the article “Backing Up in Cyberspace” in the December 2005 issue of GPSolo, volume 22, number 8, www.abanet.org/genpractice/magazine/dec2005/backup.html).
Stuffing Your File Cabinet
Once you’ve bought the necessary hardware and software and settled on a system for organizing your electronic file cabinet, you have to fill it. What “knowledge,” “information,” and “data” will you want to store and retrieve? Obviously, that depends upon the nature of your practice. It could be your own work product, say from a type of case you tend to see over and over again. Or it could be someone else’s work product, or useful data found on the Internet, from a continuing legal education program, or in a proprietary product you purchased.
All your data must be in a format that can be stuffed into your electronic file cabinet. As noted above, PDF is a popular tool for this purpose. Because PDF is frequently used by government agencies and is required for filing in a growing number of courts, it will be easy to use your PDF data once you have retrieved it. And because many courts now make their own data available to the public as PDFs (as in the federal Pacer system), it’s likely that you’ll be collecting a lot of your data as PDFs in the first place.
In addition, much of the new continuing legal education material and even off-the-shelf books will give you electronic text, data, and forms you want to add to your database. These may come formatted as HTML, XML, Acrobat, Word, or WordPerfect. While it may be more consistent to convert every item to the same format, and such consistency has appeal, my law firm has not implemented this approach.
I recommend that the differing formats be tracked as is and converted only when needed. If you store only the PDF version, then a step is needed later to convert and reuse the document. As a practical matter, documents drafted in WordPerfect or Word and then converted to PDF for sending out or electronically filing with the courts are in two formats already. Both may be important for different purposes, and both need to be tracked. Having links to both in your database will help with future retrieval or drafting.
If your data comes to you as paper, use a scanner and the software mentioned above (Adobe Acrobat, ScanSoft, PaperPort, Omni-Page, etc.) to transform it into PDF. Personally, my preference is to scan at 300 dpi (dots per inch), which is a higher resolution than others recommend—it’s about the same as the old laserjet printers or typewriters. Scans at 300 dpi create larger electronic files, but my view is that hard drive space is cheap and the additional details captured are worthwhile. Some experts recommend scanning at 200 dpi, approximately the resolution of most faxes. This resolution is widely used by law offices.
You’ll want to make sure that your PDFs are not just image files, but have searchable text. Using one of the OCR programs mentioned above will do the trick. This also may be a convenient point to save the PDF into an alternative format (Word or WordPerfect, for example) that’s more useful for you.
One of the benefits of using OmniPage and Acrobat Professional for OCR processing is that they can “batch process” files. Batch processing allows you to define procedures to scan, OCR, and save numerous files in the same format consistently and automatically. Such an approach may be helpful if you scan paper during the day and then queue up the files for processing at night. This can be a time-saver when working on large projects or if turning over a procedure to less-trained personnel. The resulting product is organized for retrieval on an as-needed basis, using the methodology discussed previously in file organization.
Document Management Programs
You can make your electronic filing system even more efficient by integrating a document management program for customized document assembly. Document assembly programs allow you to input variables and assemble documents consistently with similar language and procedures every time. While all allow variables for names, dates, and other client data, most allow for customization to match the needs of a typical client. This can save substantial time in drafting and provide for enhanced, consistent quality in the finished product.
You can purchase document assembly programs of varying complexity across several different practice areas. They also vary state-by-state. Prodoc ( www.prodoc.com) is an example of a system available in Texas and Florida. For a monthly usage fee, users get a comprehensive set of forms. The program is particularly helpful for solos and lawyers in small firms.
Document assembly can also occur in conjunction with native WordPerfect or Word programs, using merge techniques. Numerous websites list time- and money-saving tips and macros for this type of document assembly (for example, see Mike Koenecke’s WordPerfect tips at www.macros.koenecke.us). But there is a downside to this approach: You might need to rework the process each time the software manufacturer releases a new version of the program. For example, some macros and other assembly tools that worked under WordPerfect 9 will not work under WordPerfect 12 without revision. Microsoft Word has even greater problems with compatibility from version to version.
There are other pre-built programs and online systems that ask users questions and then assemble documents to completion. Some examples are Blumberg Forms Online and DL Drafting Libraries; both are available from Blumberg Excelsior ( www.blumberg.com). Additional options are Ghostfill by Ghostfill Technologies, Inc. ( www.ghostfill.com), and Hotdoc, now owned by LexisNexis.
Refining Your Filing System
You can always improve on the filing methodologies employed by your law firm or solo practice. My own practice is no different. I review and purchase books that can be useful, and I use the CDs when available. In my practice area, some of the publishers I look for (beyond the West Group and LexisNexis) are James Publishing ( www.jamespublishing.com), Jones McClure Publishing ( www.jonesmcclure.com), and the National Consumer Law Center ( www.consumerlaw.org). I subscribe to computer-aided legal research (currently Lexis, subject to change annually).
Two of the very many lawyer indexing sites belong to Howard Nations ( www.howardnations.com) and Craig Ball ( www.craigball.com). In reviewing technology approaches, you should also look at published papers by Ross Kodner ( www.microlaw.com), particularly in discussions of backup strategies.
Discussions on e-mail from listserves, such as the ABA’s Solosez ( www.abanet.org/soloseznet), ABA LawTech listserves ( http://mail.abanet.org/archives/lawtech.html), Technolawyer ( www.technolawyer.com), and numerous other specialty groups may also be of value. If the e-mails are archived rather than deleted, then search tools can extract guidance, discussion, or comments. Such sites are particularly valuable when researching technology purchases or determining comments or approaches where additional details are helpful. One particularly underutilized resource is the universe of legal blogs, or blawgs. Many notable solos and small firm practitioners post helpful practice materials there.
Ultimately, you never stop refining your knowledge management system, just as you don’t retire from learning after you pass the state bar and receive your license to practice. Updating, checking, searching, and other approaches must be maintained on a regular basis or the information gets stale and less valuable.
Beware Old Mother HubbardRemember, everyone has to buy into the system—you, your fellow lawyers, your staff—or it won’t stick around long enough to yield any benefits. People must believe the system is making their jobs easier in the long run. Make sure everyone knows what the long-term benefits will be, and keep the system simple enough that you will actually use it. Otherwise, one day you might find your electronic file cabinet is bare.
Darrell G. Stewart practices law in San Antonio, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.