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The Many Faces of E-Lawyering

FROM: January/February 2004, PAGE 36 BY: Richard Granat and Marc Lauritsen

Introduction

In January 2000, William Paul, then president of the American Bar Association, convened the first meeting of the ABA eLawyering Task Force. Electronic lawyering thus gained a formal place on the profession’s agenda. Just what is e-lawyering, and where do we stand in relation to it as we enter 2004?

E-lawyering, in short, encompasses all the ways in which lawyers can do their work using the Web and associated technologies. These include new ways to communicate and collaborate with clients, prospective clients and other lawyers, produce documents, settle disputes and manage legal knowledge. Think of a lawyering verb—interview, investigate, counsel, draft, advocate, analyze, negotiate, manage and so forth—and there are corresponding electronic tools and techniques.

While admittedly only one corner of the vast legal technology world, e-lawyering and its lawyer-less analogs present fundamental challenges for our profession. There are great dangers, but also great opportunities.
The following writings—by members and friends of the current eLawyering Task Force—explore some of the developments and possibilities.


Richard Granat ( richard@granat.com) and Marc Lauritsen ( marc@capstonepractice.com) are Co-Chairs of the ABA eLawyering Task Force ( www.elawyering.org).

Everyday Law for Everyday People

By Richard Granat

The Internet has spawned new opportunities for lawyers to serve moderate-income individuals and families more effectively. The concept is to render what is known as “personal legal services” at lower fees, in less time and more conveniently. Richard Susskind, author of Transforming the Law (Oxford University Press, 2001), has characterized this opportunity as “the latent market for legal services.” The latent market consists of the millions of people who choose not to resolve their legal problems through a lawyer. They would rather leave their problems unresolved than pay a legal fee.

Many law firms still have first-generation Web sites that consist of little more than an expanded Yellow Pages ad. Some firms have second-generation sites that provide rich substantive content. Yet a much smaller number of firms actually provide applications that help clients solve their legal problems over the Internet in a way that is both satisfying and price competitive. These include legaladviceline.com, visalaw.com, mdfamilylawyer.com and lemonlaw.com, to name a few—all true law firm sites that offer legal solutions directly to middle-income consumers.

More interesting is the emergence of a new category of legal information Web sites that offer very low-cost solutions to consumers directly. Although some of these sites are owned by lawyers, they are clearly non-law firm sites and are capitalized as private companies.

During the past three years, literally hundreds of these legal information sites have emerged, offering services in the area of wills, divorce, adoption, bankruptcy, business incorporations, child support enforcement, living trust creation, debt counseling, immigration, trademark search, copyright registration, patent registration and landlord-tenant law. They offer Web-enabled legal forms, legal information services, Web advisory systems, law guides, FAQs and other tools for routine legal problem resolution. These sites vary greatly in quality and only very few comply with the ABA’s Best Practices Guidelines for Legal Information Web Sites.

These sites’ impact on the legal profession is not insignificant. In one area alone—no-fault divorce—it’s estimated that major sites, such as completecase.com, legal zoom.com, selfdivorce.com, mylawyer.com, divorcelawinfo.com, uslegalforms.com and others, processed more than 50,000 online divorces in the past 18 months. If the normal legal fee for an uncontested, no-fault divorce is approximately $1,500, then some $75,000,000 in legal fees has just been drained from lawyers’ practices on a nationwide basis. This is not a small amount and it will increase, at the expense of the legal profession, as the legal information sites become more targeted and sophisticated.

Figuring out how to incorporate “disruptive technologies” into their own practices is the next challenge and opportunity for law firms serving the broad middle class. Neil Ruther of Legal Advice Line has estimated that this potential market could reach $10 billion in annual fees, but that the business may go to the legal information sites and the few innovative law firm sites—not to the traditional law firms that have priced themselves out of a lucrative opportunity to extend the delivery of legal services and access to justice.

Richard Granat ( richard@granat.com) is President of MyLawyer.com, Inc., a legal information company.

 

E-Learning Tools

By Wells Anderson

Classroom learning has its place, but it also has its limitations. The time and dollar costs can be high, and participants may forget much of what they hear and see. Paper materials are less expensive and can help with relearning. But these static black-and-white handouts or books are often tucked away and forgotten.

E-learning tools, in contrast, allow authors to create full-color, full-motion, narrated materials that “show and tell” how to perform important tasks. These materials can be immediately available either on a firm’s network or anywhere over the Internet. A good example is a collection of product videos explaining the features of a popular legal application. Consider how the videos on the Time Matters site ( www.timematters.com/ products/videos) orient users to the capabilities of the practice management program and show how it can be customized.

With on-demand multimedia materials, users do not have to master all the important aspects of new material in daylong sessions. They can learn what they need to know when they need to know it. Interactive e-learning tools also serve as effective reference materials to help users relearn steps they have forgotten and extend their learning into more advanced areas. Such tools offer first-rate possibilities for enhancing education and training for all members of the legal team in firms of any shape or size.

Wells Anderson ( wa@activepractice.com), a legal technology consultant and author, is President of Active Practice LLC.

 

Document Assembly on Extranets

By Blair Janis

Document assembly has been an important tool in law practices for more than 20 years. About three years ago, however, it took a new step when vendors began releasing applications for online document automation solutions. These products, including HotDocs Online and GhostFill among others, allow lawyers to gather information on Web pages and deliver assembled documents directly to end-users.

This provides exciting opportunities for firms to improve their delivery of legal services through the use of extranets. On an extranet, through a Web-based interview, clients can provide firms with information needed to complete certain transactions, thereby significantly reducing the amount of time lawyers spend gathering information. Alternatively, lawyers or staff persons can enter information into the system and allow clients to review the information, improving the information’s accuracy and reducing the number of revisions made to documents over the course of a transaction. Once the information is in the system, the system can assemble the relevant documents and deliver them as attachments to e-mails (for internal or external recipients) or to network or shared drives (for internal recipients).

To provide document automation over an extranet, firms can use built-in applications provided by the software vendors or build their own Web application around the online document assembly engine. Some firms may already have the personnel in-house who can build custom applications. Others can look to the software vendors or independent consultants to design and build the applications. As the technology improves and implementation costs decline, extranet-delivered legal applications can become a reality for all legal practitioners.

Blair Janis ( janisb@ballardspahr.com) is the Practice Applications Manager for Ballard, Spahr, Andrews, & Ingersoll, LLP.

 

Managing Cases Online

By Seth Rowland

Sitting in the comfort of your office, in your sleek black Aeron chair, with dual 22-inch flat-panel AG Neovo monitors connected to the fastest workstation made by IBM and access to a network-based integrated case management system and document assembly engine, you are the picture of success and efficiency.

When a client calls, you can rapidly pull up a complete case profile, identity the client’s needs, gather some additional information and, in a few keystrokes, create the necessary documents and send the project off to billing. In the comfort of your office, you can, in effect, “print money.”

Now, travel away from your office. Unless you can access your system remotely, the competitive edge of your technology infrastructure is lost. There are three types of solutions.

Synchronization. Synchronization involves taking a copy of your case management data with you, whether on a laptop or a PDA. Before departure, you synchronize your device with your network. Upon return, you perform an update synchronization. Most case management applications, such as Time Matters ( www.timematters.com) and Amicus Attorney ( www.amicusattorney.com), have built-in synchronization to PDA devices and laptops. In addition, products like Network Unplugged ( www.mobiliti.com) allow you to seamlessly synchronize document files.

Remote desktop software. Remote desktop access allows you to travel light. Applications like GoToMyPC, EBlvd Remote and PCAnywhere (available off the shelf in computer stores) require you to install a “thin client” on one of your office computers. Then, leave that computer on and you can access it from any Internet browser. Anything that you can do from your desktop you can now do in a browser, anywhere in the world.

This solution requires some safety measures, apart from having a user name and password. Be sure that the software you choose has end-to-end encryption. Also, you will need to make sure the machine you are using to access your network is a “trusted” machine. “Free terminals” at airports have been known to have “keystroke loggers” that can record user names and passwords. Useful precautions include rotating your passwords when you travel and locking your screen.

Online case management. Web-enabling your case management system may require you to purchase and configure a Web server or to find a vendor that is hosting a Web-enabled case management system. Among the options is Time Matters World Edition, available as a self-hosted application. ProLaw Software ( www.prolaw.com) offers the ProLaw Portal. RealLegal ( www.reallegal.com), which makes Practice Manager, has a Web-enabled module, PMRemote, as well as a hosted edition called Practice Manager ASP Edition. And LawBase ( www.lawbase.com) is working on a product called LawBase Everywhere.

One key benefit of online case management is the ability to make real-time information available to clients. You can restrict what information and documents the user can see based on the user login. A major client, for example, would be able to see all recent activity on its case files, review and comment on draft documents before filing and approve disbursements for payments. This level of client service and transparency can bind a client to the firm. Plus, online case management can allow you to grant access to affiliate lawyers to work on specific projects, with ad hoc teams sharing a calendar and files over the Web.

Online case management, however, has real costs—from Web server setup, software installation and systems testing, to enabling the proper security and creating client-specific portals and matter lists. Typically, you should work with the software vendor or a certified consultant. So before deciding to pursue this solution, evaluate your client base. Would access to your case management system lead to future business? Also, is your practice sufficiently organized—or would you be embarrassed if your current case management practices were exposed? If you still wish to proceed, allocate a sufficient budget to see the project to the end.

Seth Rowland ( sgr@bashasys.com) is President of Basha Systems, LLC, a legal technology consulting company specializing in expert document drafting systems and customized case management solutions.

 

Browser-Based Advice Systems

B y Ron Friedmann

There’s an old saying that people don’t buy drills, they buy holes. The same idea applies in law. Those with legal questions don’t want information—they want solutions. Many sites offer useful legal information but, by their nature, such sites are limited. Users must search one or more sites, review the list of titles or abstracts returned, identify the promising ones, click through to read the full text, determine if the text is indeed relevant and, if it is, translate the information into a solution. This is like building a drill from a kit to make holes.

Interactive online legal advisors offer answers and customized documents, which eliminates the search, review and interpretation process. Instead, users answer a set of customized inquiries that elicit facts and apply reasoning embedded in software to derive an answer or create a document.

Building interactive advisors takes more time than just writing a memo or article, so the economics are unclear. The happy news, though, is that the interactive systems cannot answer every question—in many instances, they serve only as intelligent intake tools. Users answer questions (with the option to review background information at any point) and the system sends an intake report to a lawyer. Gone are the multiple phone calls or e-mail messages stretching over days and weeks.

Few would have predicted the advent of free, in-depth, high-quality legal information on the Web. Let that be a lesson in the limits of linear thinking. Today, demand for cheaper and faster legal solutions abounds and the technology to create “answer machines” is at hand. The only question is how the market responds to create a new wave of applications that we can hardly imagine yet.

Ron Friedmann ( ron@prismlegal.com), a lawyer by training, is the President of Prism Legal Consulting, which helps law firms and departments with the strategic use of technology.

 

Legal Cybernautics

By Marc Lauritsen

Besides its epic potential to affect the future of equal justice—and lawyers’ paychecks—e-lawyering unites strands of cutting-edge research, development and business innovation that stretch back decades. The rising generation of lawyers will be beneficiaries (or victims) of long-simmering work in ultra-high-speed electronic communications, ubiquitous connectivity, advanced user interfaces and artificial intelligence. This new generation will seize—or give way to—dramatic new business models for delivering professional services, championed by aggressive entrepreneurs.

So a central question is, how can lawyers best navigate and prosper in this new space of technical and business opportunities? How can we be effective “cybernauts”? What skills do we need to learn, and unlearn? How can and should the role of the law school change? Where will law firms, legal departments and courts find the seeds of their own transformations?

This all goes beyond “legal tech” and aging prognosticators, beyond geeks and geezers. Now is a time for all lawyers to pay attention. This is a matter of redesigning our practices for a digital age. Of being energized, not enervated, by the winds of change. Not all of us care to master the technical details, fascinating as they can be, or to ride the bucking bronco of cyberlegal entrepreneurism. But none of us can responsibly ignore the new world that is not so quietly dawning.

Marc Lauritsen ( marc@capstonepractice.com) is President of Capstone Practice Systems, which specializes in document assembly and other legal knowledge systems.

About the eLawyering Task Force

The ABA eLawyering Task Force is lodged within the Technology Core Group of the Law Practice Management Section. Our mission is to learn and teach about the use of Internet technologies for legal work. We’re interested in how lawyers can best use those technologies in their distinctive professional activities. But we’re also involved in the development of standards for information services offered by non-lawyers and for the exchange of legal data with courts and other entities. We seek to help prepare the profession for the coming changes presented by e-lawyering and its lawyer-less analogs. We welcome input and participation. See www.elawyering.org for more information.