March 2003  Volume 29, Issue 2
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Tech Tools in the Law Office
Where are Your Dragons?
 

We asked some members of the ABA Law Practice Management Section about the special challenges lawyers face in applying technology in their practices. Where are the trouble spots? What are the solutions? How can law firms steer away from problems? Here are the responses.


In the law firm, the greatest risk posed by the application of technology is the same risk that occurs when introducing any change in the way you work: how to learn the new process as quickly as possible without sacrificing efficiency. The key is training. Firms that don't adequately train their staffs-including lawyers-on using any new technology run the risk of inefficient or even improper use of it. If you're not going to get trained to use a new technology, don't bother to buy it.
Tom O'Connor ( toconnor@cybersleuther.com), The Automated Law Firm, Seattle, WA

Email overload can threaten productivity and steal valuable hours from the workweek. I have three e-mail accounts: one for clients, a second for family and friends, and a third for general use. The general use account is helpful because it will automatically screen an e-mail attachment to see if the file contains a virus. All my bar association electronic discussion group e-mails come to the general use account. Whenever possible, I have the discussion group messages post in digest form so that I can scroll through at my leisure and read the postings that interest me. I also have a junk mail filter that catches a great deal of spam and automatically deletes it after seven days. That is how I manage e-mail overload.
Karren Jo Pope-Onwukwe ( kpopeatty@msn.com), Law Office Of Karren Pope-Onwukwe, Hyattsville, MD

Here's a low-tech problem that migrates to high-tech practices: accumulating files until you're unsure which documents are relevant. When I was a young lawyer, an older lawyer told me that I should try to retain my clients' original wills. More than 40 years later, I have three full file drawers, and I am certain that at least one-fourth have been superseded and rewritten by another lawyer. As to another one-fourth, I am pretty sure that I would have a very difficult time locating those clients. The problem is that I don't know which are which. As a solo, I now regard these wills as a liability rather than an asset, and I am taking action to locate the people and return their original documents to them. My point is that I shouldn't have tried to compete with the safe-deposit box service offered by the banks. If you haven't started following my bad example with your files, please don't.
Jimmy Brill ( jebrill@aol.com), James E. Brill P.C., Houston, TX

In my humble opinion, the greatest risk of legal technology is not using it.
Monica Bay ( lawtech@amlaw.com), Editor-in-Chief, Law Technology News

An issue that affected the business development potential of one of my clients, a 40-lawyer firm without an internal marketing department, was the absence of a centralized client and contacts database. To help advance the firm's strategic marketing plan, we recommended that the client use a networked version of MS Outlook. We adapted that software to collect all the information the firm might want to know and maintain, including each contact's business or industry; what types of matters the firm handled for the contact; which lawyers provided those services; communications with the contact; and the like. Next we imported the information from all the lawyers' personal Outlook databases, plus other formats that they individually maintained, and then de-duped the database. While the lawyers were free to keep their personal databases, too, the idea was to use the technology to share information across the firm. This firm now has a cost-effective tool for managing contact records and focusing its marketing activities.
Robin A. Rolfe ( rar@robinrolferesources.com), Robin Rolfe Resources, Inc., Fort Lee, NJ

It is hard enough to be a good lawyer and stay current on the law. When I take time away from practicing law and developing my practice in order to spend time learning about technology, I am not making the most effective use of my time. Neither am I able to give my clients the high level of legal service I want to give them. On the other hand, I have to have an awareness of what technology can do. I solve the problem by limiting myself to the following: I read the ads in the various bar journals in which the advertisers proclaim what they can do for my practice or me. I skim articles in bar journals on areas of technology that might apply to my practice. I look at the goodies at bar meetings, where I know the displays and speakers are tailored for lawyers. And I ask my staff-the people who will use the technology-to do the research, with me making the final decision on their recommendations. I have pledged to never (again) make decisions on equipment or technology without first getting the input of the people who have to use it.
Jay Foonberg ( jay@foonberglaw.com), Bailey & Partners, Santa Monica, CA

Overall, the risks of technology in law practice stem from rapid advancement, new features and insufficient training. But the more significant, though unseen, danger may come from not using technology at all. Let's say, for example, that if I can't quickly assimilate the facts of a new case in which the client wants me to hastily file a complaint for a TRO, then I tend to rely on the client's version of what happened. This happens even though a tedious review of the documents, and a construction of a quick case chronology, would alert me to some major inconsistencies. Oh, so what? The TRO gets filed, the client's happy, and I make some money. But here's the "what": If I had used a program (CaseMap, for example) that lets me do the document review and case chronology quickly and easily, wouldn't I be committing malpractice if I didn't look at the inconsistencies that the chronology revealed? So how much less malpractice is it for the lawyer not to even bother to learn a thing about the program?
Ernest Svenson ( esvenson@gamde.com), Gordon Arata McCollam, New Orleans, LA