GPSolo Magazine - June 2004

To Tech or Not to Tech?
Important Questions (and Answers) for Your Practice

To tech, or not to tech, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The crashes and reboots of outrageous operating systems,
Or to take arms against a sea of software glitches,
And by opposing delete them. . . .

Hamlet, in Act III, Scene 1, delivers those immortal lines. Or he might have, if the play was written now and set in a small law practice. Trying to make good technology decisions has left many otherwise skilled and confident lawyers feeling like TechnoHamlets—seeing ghosts and making colleagues question their sanity. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. This article discusses how to think about systems and legal technology and gives you a solid foundation for making good decisions.

Technology is both a tool and an investment. As does any good craftsperson, we must try to find tools that are both the right tool for the job and of sufficient quality to give us a good return on our work.

A Technology Story

My wife’s brother started law school at the age of 40, after working in the real estate and art gallery businesses in the San Francisco area. He wanted to open his own law firm from day one. We had a number of telephone conversations about computers and software when he started school, covering specs, memory, screen size, percentage accuracy of the programs, and the like. He was primarily focused on a laptop and speech recognition software. After a while, we seemed to return to the same questions without getting a decision made.

Finally, I asked him what he really wanted to do with the laptop and speech recognition software. It turned out that he wanted the equivalent of a secretary because he didn’t know whether he could make enough in the first months to pay a clerical salary (about $4,000 a month). It seemed buying these tools would be a good investment. In fact, he bought himself nine months without the need for an assistant, a $36,000 value for a $4,000 investment—not a bad return after nine months. He has told me several times that my “advice” made all the difference in getting his business off the ground.

I don’t think that I gave him advice; I simply asked the right question. When you ask the right questions, the answers get a lot easier.

Self-Knowledge—the Missing Piece

In my favorite science fiction TV series, Babylon 5, one of the main characters is suspended in a state between life and death, bathed in waves of light, with disembodied voices asking repeatedly, “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” Because the character can answer those questions with clarity and authenticity, he goes on to fulfill his great destiny.

“Who are you?” “What do you want?” It really doesn’t get much more basic than that. These are pretty deep topics, however, when you thought you needed to know whether to get an inkjet printer or a laser printer. My argument is simply that the better the answers you have to these two questions, the better decisions you can make about technology. Here’s the key: Choose technology on the basis of whether it helps you be who you are and do what you want to do better than do the other alternatives you’re considering.There are several consequences to this approach. First, my best technology choices will not be your best technology choices. Second, although you should listen to advice and recommendations, the final decision must be yours. Third, this approach forces you to think of technology as both a tool and an investment.

Systems and Context

Lawyers create and are creatures of systems. A law practice incorporates a large number of systems: running the office (work flow management, operations and procedures, hiring and training, accounting and financials, planning and continuity); getting clients (contact management, marketing materials, follow-up, client intake, engagement letters); serving clients (project and workflow management, procedures, filing, forms, calendaring and docketing); getting paid (fee setting, timekeeping, billing and collections, banking and trust accounts, procedures); and complying with rules (conflict checking, confidentiality, calendaring and docketing, record keeping, training and CLE, taxes).

It’s no wonder you’re so tired at the end of the day—there’s more than enough work with the systems before you even get to the law. I have two core principles about systems: (1) You always have a system, even if you didn’t choose it, and (2) Your systems should work for you, not against you.

We all know lawyers who use the following “system” for locating notes, correspondence, and documents. Piles of paper are stacked on the desktop, credenza, office chairs, and floor. When something is needed, the lawyer digs through the papers until frustrated and then calls in the secretary, who goes through the piles until the document is found or another emergency arises.

This is, in fact, a system for retrieving needed documents. Whether it’s a good one, an efficient one, or the one the lawyer intended to use are important questions.

Always view technology within the context of your existing systems. Thinking about it outside this context will lead you in the wrong direction. In the previous example of the “piles of paper” systems, the question whether the lawyer should buy one scanner or another is not useful. The “best” scanner here is the one that will hold the highest pile of papers stacked on it when it is used as another storage space.

The better question is whether buying a scanner makes sense for this type of system, or are there better options? Once you consider how a technology fits into your context, you can read product reviews and successfully use lists of “editor’s picks” for your purchases.

Introducing a new technology must do one of two things: implement a better system or improve an existing one.If it does one of these, it makes sense to proceed. It’s as simple as that. Even a technophile like me will admit that in certain cases, a technology solution may not be the best approach. Technology is only a tool, not a panacea; it enhances the habits and skills you already have. Speech recognition software only makes it easier to get your words on a page; it doesn’t magically make you a better writer.

Roadblocks

Most lawyers are aware of only a tiny fraction of the tech choices available today. There are more than 100 “case management” programs alone. Often a lawyer or firm will spend time deciding between two rivals when the best choice may be a type of product they’ve never heard of. Getting around this involves listening to others but keeping your needs firmly in focus. Some research is called for, and the list of web resources in the accompanying sidebar (below) can help you bypass this potential roadblock.

Lawyers also get a lot of well-intentioned misinformation about legal-specific technology. People recommend using Linux instead of Windows to a lawyer who barely knows what a mouse is. For the most part, their suggestions are generic solutions that do not take into account your specific needs or systems context. What worked best for them might not work out so well for you.

If a client asked you whether she should form a C corporation or an LLC, would you say, “I heard some people had some kind of tax problem with C corporations a few years ago, so I always tell people not to use them” or “Tell me what you want to do”? The best legal advice considers the client’s context. So does the best tech advice.

 

Internet Resources

• ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division: www.abanet.org/genpractice/home.html

• ABA TechShow: www.techshow.com

• ABA Law Practice Management Section: www.abanet.org/lpm

• TechnoLawyer: www.technolawyer.com

Law Office Computing: www.lawofficecomputing.com

Law Technology News: www.lawtechnews.com

• MyShingle: www.myshingle.com

• EsqLawTech: www.esqlawtech.com

• Digital Practice of Law: http://arkfeld.blogs.com/dpl

• LawTech Guru: www.lawtechguru.com

• The Electronic Lawyer: www.theelectroniclawyer.com

• Dennis Kennedy.com: www.denniskennedy.com

Key Variables to Consider

Some factors are especially important in making technology decisions, and your needs in these areas can have a dramatic impact on the choices you should consider.

Solo/solo with staff/small firm: The type and number of users have a huge impact on your choices. If you practice solo, your choices are much simpler. As soon as you move to two users, you must consider networking, training, and standardization of software.

Litigator or not: I don’t see how a litigator can function without a laptop. Because litigation software such as CaseMap and Summation is so valuable, be prepared upfront to devote time to learning additional options. Projectors, wireless access, PowerPoint, and other options may well become necessities.

Office-bound or mobile: PDAs and cell phones are much lower priorities for lawyers who operate from their offices most of the time.

Volume of work: This factor may be the most important. Asking yourself how often you will use a new item is an essential part of a hardware decision in particular. The cost of replacement cartridges for an inkjet printer will eat you alive if you print thousands of copies a month. A standard office-package spreadsheet will work for those with a small number of clients; but an extensive list of clients, a range of rates, and several specialty matters will probably require a legal accounting package.

Priorities: It could well be that who you are and what you want is being the lawyer with the coolest gadgets. Or you may want a Darrowish approach, persuading jurors with a plainspoken style rather than thrilling them with the latest multimedia display. Don’t ignore who you are.

Area of practice and client needs: Some areas of practice pretty much require certain standard technologies. Some lawyers have told me that to make a decent living in family law these days, you must automate as much as possible. Similarly, you may have clients who require that you provide documents in certain formats, have ready access to e-mail, or implement security measures.

Observations and Recommendations

Because my point is that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for technology decisions, I hesitate to set out a list of general recommendations. Nevertheless, here are some practical pointers:

• Don’t limp along with slow computers. Even the least expensive of today’s computers is a rocket ship compared to those just a few years old.

• Four corners not to cut in configuring a new computer are memory (RAM), hard disk capacity, number of USB ports, and CD or DVD burners.

• The new generation of high-capacity external hard drives offers the best inexpensive backup solution produced so far.

• A laptop makes best sense as the primary computer for all attorneys. It is essential for today’s litigator.

• Windows XP Professional is the operating system of choice for lawyers in the Microsoft world.

• Firms putting in a network will find the new low price of Windows Small Business Server ($750, less when bundled with server hardware) makes it hard to pass up for standard networking capabilities, including remote access, at an affordable price.

• You can get volume discounts for many software programs, including Microsoft’s, with as few as five users. Some consultants offer programs that roll hardware, software, and consulting costs into a monthly payment option.

• Although Microsoft Office 2003 Small Business Version might be the best option for small firm lawyers, free alternatives such as OpenOffice may work equally well and should be investigated.

• If you are prepared to do a little more research, Macintosh and Open Source software are very acceptable non-Microsoft alternatives and should not be dismissed out of hand.

• Given the availability of electronic filing, a PDF creation program should be considered essential software. The gold standard is Adobe Acrobat Writer, but cheaper alternatives are available.

• If you have a laptop, buying a wireless card (802.11b or 802.11g) will let you take advantage of wireless Internet hotspots at airports, hotels, and restaurants.

• Take a class in any program you use on a regular basis.

• If you (1) do not update your security for Windows and other programs, (2) don’t run an updated antivirus program, and (3) haven’t installed a hardware or software firewall (ZoneAlarm is free), you may as well turn on a big neon “welcome” sign for the hackers.

Action Steps

So . . . what should you do when you finish reading this article? Spend some time thinking about your needs and how you use your existing technology and systems. Then do some homework during the next few weeks.

• Visit at least half of the Internet resources listed in the sidebar on page 28 and take a look around.

• Locate and read up on three or four software programs you didn’t know about that can be used in your specific areas of practice.

• Inventory and make a quick assessment of your current technology and systems.

• Pick one significant technology decision you made in the past, and reevaluate it using the principles outlined in this article. What lessons can you learn from this experience?

• Identify one or two technology options that appeal to you and apply the principles in this article to make your decisions about them.

Applying the guidelines outlined in this article will bring you closer to the goal of having technology that lets you work the way you want. Don’t let the latest hot gizmo lure you into buying something that will end up as just another place to stack your papers.

Dennis M. Kennedy is a solo practitioner in St. Louis, Missouri, who concentrates his practice in computer law and provides legal technology consulting services. A frequent author and speaker, he was named the 2001 TechnoLawyer of the Year by TechnoLawyer.com. He can be reached at dmk@denniskennedy.com and www.denniskennedy.com.

 

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