GPSolo Magazine - December 2003
In a more ingenuous stage of my life, I once had the chutzpah to attempt a review of database programs. This was at a time when we all believed that to use a computer, you first had to learn to program. Database programs were languages that one could use to write database applications. Fortunately, we all learned better; none of us still thinks there is a great future in being a key-punch operator, nor do we all learn Fortran in order to word process. Database (or application) programs are ubiquitous, and few applications do not involve a database of some kind. Why should you, my fellow solos or small firm lawyers, care?
There are a number of persuasive reasons. First, though, let’s cover the most common question: What exactly is a database? It’s nothing more than a collection of information. Period. There are good and bad databases. Good ones allow you to extract useful information from them. Bad ones make extraction difficult. The difference is in the design of the database. For example, one data system we all stumbled around in during school is the Dewey Decimal System for organizing books. All those numbers and letters on the spine correspond to progressively more specific subject matters.
Or let’s say we put together a list of all the people in Smallville. The list itself is pretty dull. If we create another list of all people in town who bought Amazing Superboy Products, however, we can easily use it (through the magic of computers) to target these buyers for other products of a similar nature. Now we have something we can sell to other vendors looking for new markets. With a computer, I can re-index this “database” to relate to any field (generic piece of data). Assuming the necessary information is entered into an accessible database, I can produce new groupings of these fields.
Of course, the fields of useful information extracted from related databases can be focused in incredibly sophisticated ways. Indeed, an entire industry is based upon comparing one database to another and extracting useful (or annoying) information of some kind. As a lawyer, you already have a number of databases at your disposal: phone numbers, list of clients, time and billing systems. Each of these is a database. What can make them particularly valuable are two properties: data views and data portability.
Data views are the ways in which you can view and sort data. A phone list that cannot sort phone numbers by last name would be pretty useless, but one that sorts by company name, or location, or other categories such as industry, last bill rendered, or date of last contact would be a whole lot more useful. Each of these “sorts” gives you a different list. For example, if you sorted your client list by (1) receivable aging and (2) responsible lawyer—you’d know immediately who has all the deadbeat clients.
It’s likely you already use databases every day. Microsoft Outlook is an e-mail handler and contacts and calendar database. Lawyer-in-a-box packages? Databases of clients, contacts, and billing and time records. A few general-purpose database programs still exist, with which you could develop your own database applications. Examples include FileMaker Pro (www.filemaker.com), Microsoft Access (www.microsoft.com), and Borland/Corel Paradox (www.Borland.com).
Data portability is a critical factor in being able to use a database: Can you get your data out in a way that makes it usable in another program? All data is stored in some kind of format. If you can’t export the data in a particular database to a variety of other programs, you’re restricted to the application program that supports that particular database. Any software database product that doesn’t allow the data to be exported to other software products is generally a poor choice. If you don’t understand the nuts and bolts of exportability, hire someone who does before you invest in software. The initial cost of the software is minimal compared to the cost of data conversion.
When you have a need to organize a quantity of information and do not have a program specifically designed to deal with such information, a general-purpose database program can fill the need. Often, offices that do not handle large-scale litigation choose not to acquire litigation management software. The smaller cases, however, do occasionally generate a sufficient quantity of facts as to require a system to store and retrieve that information. You can configure a general database program to satisfy that need. I know of at least one intellectual property firm that has used Microsoft Access to write an entire patent and trademark docketing system, form filer, and tickler.
Other possible uses of such programs in a law office could include such things as inventory lists of supplies, equipment serial numbers, software serial numbers, and library materials. Some offices use general database programs to keep track of files as well. FileMaker Pro is a popular choice among general database programs. Because it works on both the Windows and the Mac platforms, you can move data files between them. You can also move smaller databases or parts of larger ones to your handheld devices to take with you and use on the go. (Of course, that feature is not unique to FileMaker Pro.)
Learning to use a general-purpose database program to write your own applications is not something that can be done without a significant investment of time. Fortunately, more and more legal-specific database applications have been written for us, and we aren’t obliged to become programmers in order to practice law.
Daniel S. Coolidge is a recovering large-firm lawyer, now a patent and intellectual property attorney with Coolidge & Graves, PLLC, in Keene, New Hampshire. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.