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By Mark Tamminga
Reba J. Nance
Director, Law Practice Management and Risk Management, Colorado Bar Association
When Reba Nance was growing up in Southern California, she was certain that she wanted to be a teacher. Instead, a small twist of fate led her to work in virtually every staff position within a law firm. The outcome is that she is now a highly regarded practice management expert, advising lawyers on nearly every aspect of running a law practice. In addition to her role with the Colorado Bar Association, she is a frequent presenter on topics such as legal technology and malpractice prevention, and she was the first female chair of ABA TECHSHOW®. With her special expertise in legal technology, we asked Reba to share highlights of her story as well as her top tech advice for our readers.
RN: I graduated from San Diego State with a B.A. in liberal studies and teaching credentials in elementary and special education. Then I moved to Colorado, where it turned out that my new roommate was a criminal defense attorney. After only halfheartedly looking for a teaching job, I decided I didn't want to pursue teaching at that time. That's when my roommate recommended me for a legal secretary position in a law firm.
Over the next 20-plus years (with one year off to teach third grade), I worked with various law firms as a receptionist, secretary, word processor, paralegal, secretarial coordinator, attorney recruiting coordinator, bookkeeper and office manager. It provided a great background for me as a practice management advisor. Now when a member calls me to ask for advice on a particular topic, I understand the implications and related issues because I've seen every possible angle.
RN: It's amazing how law office technology has changed just in my professional lifetime. Most of us were using manual typewriters in the 1970s. We thought it was a huge deal when we were able to upgrade to "memory" typewriters. To make a simple change in the text, I can remember true "cut and paste" using bond paper and matching up the lines of the old and new text.
In the mid- to late-'70s, the large firm I was with implemented one of the first "word processing" programs. It was a proprietary application. The word processing operators basically had to write code to format a document, as well as to make revisions to the text. To type a document with an underlined heading centered in the middle of the page, come down one line for text, and then indent that text 10 spaces, you had to write an entire line of "code." If you left out a required semicolon or period in the code, the document would not "compose"—meaning it wouldn't even print out! It took a really good operator about three months to be able to function well. Obviously, not very efficient, especially with the turnover rate in a law firm!
I also remember the first fax machines. There was a company down the street with one, and we would walk the documents over there and have the company fax them out for us. It took a while before someone said, "Hey, what about confidentiality issues!"
Our first word processing center required a full-time operator, shut up in a freezing room on another floor. All documents were sent down to her to be printed on the one printer, and then she would deliver the documents about every half-hour.
When voice mail arrived on the scene, it actually made everyone's life harder. I remember a partner's secretary coming to me in tears once because, in addition to everything else she had to do, the partner began requiring her to transcribe every single voice message. E-mail use eventually made that easier. It's absolutely incredible to me how it has all changed!
RN: I would try to get across that technology is an investment. If you take the time to learn what's available, make an informed choice, and then get the appropriate training, it will revolutionize your practice. I work mainly with solo and small firms, where the lawyers must do absolutely everything. If they have staff, it is usually just one person, and that person typically works for someone else as well—or only works part-time. After lawyers spend time doing everything that must be done, they feel like they have no time, or expertise, to figure out how to use technology to make it all easier. The thought of going through this process is overwhelming for most lawyers.
I know firsthand how it goes because when I bought my first Palm, it sat on my bookshelf for almost six months before I could rationalize taking the time to sit down and learn to use it (and I love this stuff). As I suspected, it made my life much easier and now I couldn't live without it. Almost every piece of technology I use for the office also has a use in my personal life. Technology truly provides a great return on the investment.
I think the best bang for the buck for small law firms has got to be practice management software. I don't even practice law, and I couldn't live without it. It can help you in every area of your life and your practice. It makes you more efficient, less stressed and more in control. All of my data is in one place and I know where to go to find it. I might not get everything done that I should, but it's generally not because something slipped through the cracks.
Granted, it takes time to choose a system, set it up, move your data over, and keep it up to date—but it is way worth it.
RN: Limited time, energy and resources. No doubt about it. Every so often we ask our members to tell us what the bar can do to help them in their practices. Most recently, the number one concern was balancing life and work. Solo and small firm practitioners are responsible for it all, but they are also trying to do it all. They feel overwhelmed, but they don't feel like they have the time or money to get help.
It's like the chicken and the egg. They are overwhelmed because they don't have the resources that would help take some of the burden off their shoulders. If they would just step back and look at it all with a fresh eye (and maybe with the help of someone who's knowledgeable), they would realize that making the investment to get the help they need would pay off in the long run.
But as it is, there is barely enough time to do the "real" legal work while also trying to run the office, send out the bills, do some strategic planning, engage in marketing, and still spend some time with family and friends. We are all being pulled in so many different directions, and have so many people vying for our time, that it's tough to find any balance between a professional life and a life outside the office.
RN: I am fortunate to have a great relationship with my local chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators, and the people there are a great resource for me. Ours is a natural alliance. I'll never forget how at my first ABA TECHSHOW, during a breakfast function, I ended up sharing a table with an IT person for a large East Coast firm. She asked what I did for the Colorado Bar Association. After I explained my duties, she said, "Oh, so you're like the administrator for all the Colorado lawyers who don't have an administrator!" It hit me that that is exactly what I do.
Our local ALA chapter has a very active list serve. I'm in a unique position to answer questions that they post, and they help me to keep abreast of life "in the trenches." Also, a group of their members serves as editors of the law practice management column in our monthly journal, The Colorado Lawyer. In addition, we've developed a series of courses to help them train their support staff on things like avoiding the unauthorized practice of law, dynamite customer service, ethics in law firms, maintaining confidentiality, and helping secretaries learn the ins and outs of working in particular practice areas such as litigation, family law and so forth. We've also conducted a technology survey with them that is available to lawyers around the state.
Plus, we've given all the ALA members a complimentary membership to the Colorado Bar Association. This means they have access to our Web site and The Colorado Lawyer online, in searchable form, as well as information about CLE programs and the like. Currently we're working on a joint project to compile various forms for practice administration, such as confidentiality agreements to be signed by staff, office-sharing agreements and related documents. They contribute the forms, which I redact to maintain confidentiality, and then I post the forms on the CBA's site. In this way, our solo and small firm lawyers have access to forms they would not otherwise have the time or expertise to develop—and the ALA members have one place to go for the same information. It's truly a symbiotic relationship.
RN: Right now, I'm really focusing on just getting them through high school! Seriously, though, their generation has grown up with technology and they're not afraid of it. Both of my sons are very proficient at instant messaging, word processing and even PowerPoint. Our local elementary school actually required them to put together their first PowerPoint presentation in third grade.
One of the things I've noticed, though, is how cavalier—read, "sloppy"—they can be in their written communications, mainly because they're so accustomed to using e-mail and instant messaging. I try to stress that a professional look and sound is important in communications, but it's a battle to get them to use proper spelling and complete sentences. Likewise, I often see younger lawyers communicating via e-mail when a formal letter would be more appropriate.
Finally, I have to remind them to read the manuals occasionally! They tend to pick up something and start using it immediately without any fear (a good thing), but they balk when it comes to spending time on training. Is it a male thing or an age thing? They regularly miss out on terrific features because they just want to "get it done."