By Browning Marean
From knowledge management to case management, an introduction to law firm-specific technology tools.
Most young associates can use a computer with remarkable ease. E-mail and instant messaging are second nature, and blogs and social networking sites are part of daily life. Law firms, however, have their own sets of technology tools. Knowing what they are—and how to put them to use—presents significant challenges as well as opportunities for new associates and the firms that hire them.
A totally unscientific survey of associates in my law firm indicates that the curriculum at most law schools does not include any legal technology training other than the use of LexisNexis and Westlaw. But there are, of course, many other technology tools that savvy lawyers put to use to build and win their cases. As computer technology has made its way into the fabric of the modern law firm, a far richer suite of applications is now available to assist in organizing matters.
The challenge for associates is to take the time to learn to effectively employ the tools that are available to them. The challenge for firms is to provide appropriate training and support while associates come up the learning curve. What types of tools should associates learn to help win the day for clients? Here is an overview of my top categories.
Most attorneys have an excellent working knowledge of Westlaw and LexisNexis. In addition, though, the Internet is an ever-richer source of quality information housed in a wide range of online repositories. Developing an in-depth knowledge of searching techniques for the Internet can greatly enhance understanding of even the most complex of issues. I admit in my own practice to turning to the Internet to do background research in almost every case, and I find it remarkable that I have never failed to locate online information that was useful to the case. Modern browser software, such as the scrapbook plug-in for Firefox, permits easy aggregation of relevant research materials.
Many firms are implementing knowledge management and work-product retrieval systems. Knowledge of these systems can be of extraordinary benefit to associates and permit them to complete assignments in a timely and efficient manner. These systems also allow one to find work product developed by and for the assigning lawyer, so they significantly increase the chance of creating high-quality work acceptable to the assigning lawyer.
While most associates arrive at their firms with a good working knowledge of word processing software, fewer have experience with spreadsheet tools such as Excel. Developing an in-depth knowledge of Excel can pay huge dividends. More clients are requesting detailed budgets for their matters, and Excel is the perfect tool for budgeting. Also, expert witnesses use Excel to create their damage analyses and other reports. If you lack an understanding of how Excel works, it may severely hamper your ability to do a meaningful deposition of such an expert.
Decision analysis software is a powerful analytical tool. Treeage is my favorite in this area. When coupled with an Excel budget, decision analysis software assists greatly in preparing an early case assessment, making the assessment less of a burden than it otherwise would be. Learning to use this software allows an associate to become a significant member of any litigation team.
One of the most significant developments over the past several years has been the growing importance of electronic discovery. This shift in emphasis requires all lawyers, not just associates, to learn new skills. First among these is learning how to deal with discovery databases that permit review of vast quantities of electronic data for both privilege and production. This is a rapidly developing field, and new tools are coming online all of the time.
Once relevant case information has been identified, I find the CaseSoft suite of products to be most useful. I use CaseMap as the focal point of case preparation. Basically, the program allows you to develop chronologies, perform issue analyses, keep track of research and tasks to be accomplished and so forth. Because the program allows many users to access the same file simultaneously, it is an excellent collaboration tool. Another beneficial feature is its ability to receive input from document review databases, as well as programs such as LiveNote and TextMap, which are used for deposition transcripts. In this regard, I refer to it as my "synthesis engine."
PowerPoint is certainly a sufficiently robust presentation tool for many matters and trials. One step up the ladder, though, is CaseMap's "sister" product TimeMap. Because the two programs play well together, it is possible to create visual chronologies of a matter with ease. While TimeMap has a presentation mode, it also permits rapid export to PowerPoint. There are also excellent trial presentation software offerings by Sanction and Trial Director. Properly used, these tools are extraordinarily effective for presenting documentary evidence.
Obviously, learning all these tools takes a commitment of time and energy. My recommendation to associates is that they develop a list of programs that they will become familiar with over the course of a year. The good news is that there are many resources available to assist in the learning process. Of the applications discussed,I believe that early emphasis on learning knowledge management tools and the CaseSoft suite of products will pay the biggest dividends.