General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice Guide

American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division

The Compleat Lawyer, Summer 1996, Vol. 13, No. 3

technology.law

Michael Jimmerson

J. Michael Jimmerson is a technology consultant and founder of Legal Counsel & Computing. He is the co-author of A Survival Guide for Road Warriors, a best-selling book on mobile computing for lawyers, published by the American Bar Association. His next book is Windows for Lawyers, to be released in Fall 1997. He can be reached by phone (773/506-9870), e-mail (jimmer@legalcounsel.com) or the Web (www.legalcounsel.com).

Do not adjust your dial, this is your newest technology columnist. Who is this guy and whatever happened to the other two we had this year? Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Michael Jimmerson and I am a computer nerd. Well, besides that, I am a lawyer (from a small firm background), an author, and a computer consultant.

For the last three years, I have co-chaired TECHSHOW, an annual ABA event sponsored by the Law Practice Management Section. This year, the General Practice Section was a TECHSHOW Program Partner. More recently, I have just been appointed to co-chair the General Practice Section's Technology Committee. My predecessor in this column, David Hirsch ("Tools of the Trade"), has moved on to greener pastures at the ABA Journal, replacing David Vandagriff (writer of the long-running "Electronic Lawyer" column for The Compleat Lawyer), who has moved even further up the food chain to Lexis-Nexis. But never fear, I intend to stick with you for awhile.

For starters, I want to hear what is on your mind, so please e-mail your comments to me. In this column, I would like to explore some trends in the legal software business. In upcoming issues, we will cover mobile computing, Windows 95, and whatever else strikes our fancy.

Lately, I have been pondering some of the legal software packages on the market and how they impact both our work habits and our work product. In particular, I have been using Lexis-Nexis Office and the West Network. Both offer a "total desktop solution" for your legal needs. Both Lexis and West are known leaders in the field of on-line legal research, and they each have add-ons such as cite-checking and CD-ROM. Their new products offer point-and-click access to their family of products.

Lexis-Nexis Office (LNO) employs a floating toolbar … la Microsoft Office Manager that displays icons for each of the products: Lexis-Nexis, CiteRite, CompareRite, Full Authority, or Folio Views. If you use Counsel Connect, you have quick access to its services. The next upgrade will also include a button for Martindale-Hubbell. You can also add applications, such as your favorite word processor. LNO provides a tight integration between your on-line research and your word processing program. This toolbar can be positioned anywhere on your screen or minimized.

The West Network (TWN) has an entirely different arrangement. The default displays an office with a desktop and shelves that hold other features such as a CD-ROM library, a news reader, and legal authorities. The news reader can be adapted to your personal preferences and set to download personal clippings at least once a day. This is a wonderful way to keep abreast of your practice area or clients. In addition, TWN also provides Internet access using Netscape. TWN has a visually pleasing screen; but although it can be customized, it may be annoying to power users because it dominates the entire screen.

The flaw in both of these products is a common one in all legal products--they assume that their applications are the "be all, end all." Most legal applications are configured to work in a vacuum without regard to other applications. This was especially true of DOS-based applications and is slowly changing with the advent of Windows applications. What legal users need is better integration with existing applications, not more isolation. Whatever time and billing program you use should be able to freely interact with your case management software. Sadly, this is often not the case. Once you adopt one legal package, you are locked into that vendor and whatever solutions, if any, it provides. Switching to another application can be costly and time-consuming.

Additionally, both these models assume that the user has not already customized his or her own desktop. Not a workable assumption, particularly for Windows 95 users. For starters, everyone has the Win95 Taskbar hanging out at the bottom of the screen. If you are using Office 95, you also have the MS Office Manager dominating the top of the screen. I have begun using a great new tool, PowerDesk, from MicroHelp, and it also slaps a toolbar on the screen (mine is on the right). Using Norton Utilities and its System Doctor? Yet another toolbar. All of these can be dragged to any position and you can even use auto-hide to eliminate screen clutter.

But do lawyers really need yet another toolbar? Power users will gnash their teeth and the MIS folks will tear out their hair. If you are using MS Office, I suggest adding these applications to that toolbar and forget the cutesy front-end from Lexis and West. Don't get me wrong, these are great products and offer many benefits to legal users. For example, the cite-checking products from both Lexis and West are easy to use, thorough, and perform flawlessly. Using these products ensures high quality work product and prevents embarrassing mistakes.

If you are using one of the popular office suites, e.g., MS Office or Corel PerfectOffice, you may have experienced the travails in switching applications. In the word processing world, this is not as much of a problem. I can exchange documents freely between any of dozens of formats including any version of Word, WordPerfect, and Ami Pro. Spreadsheets are almost as flexible but not quite (ever try opening a Quattro Pro workbook in Excel 7.0?). But switching from one suite to another is not quite as painful as you might believe. Your data will be easy to convert. What will take time is changing your old habits.

But legal software has a long way to go. The fact is that every legal vendor wants to lock us into their particular mold. What we should be demanding is more compatibility and easier data exchange. Before you adopt a new legal software package, find out how it works with other packages and what will be involved in converting your data. This could save big $$$ in the long run.

Copyright (c) 1996 American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.

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