Carole Curtis Q&A

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July/August 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 5 | Page 20
Technology

Who Is...

Learn how this paperless practitioner propels her firm forward with technology.

VITAL STATISTICS

  • Carole Curtis
  • Principal, Carole Curtis Barristers and Solicitors
  • Toronto, ON
  • carolecurtis@carolecurtis.com

Family law practitioners aren’t generally known for their aggressive implementation of technological innovation, but Carole Curtis and her three-lawyer family law firm in Toronto are setting an example that could upend that stereotype. Driven by both a commitment to reduce resource consumption and a drive to implement comprehensive practice management tools, Carole has led her firm into an entirely paperless world. Banning the physical file and going electronic has freed her from the constraints of the office, made great business sense and reinvigorated her practice. Carole has been practicing for almost 30 years and is a Bencher (the name given to each of the 48 directors) of the Law Society of Upper Canada, the elected governing body for Ontario lawyers. She gives generously of her time in helping solo and small firm practitioners sort through practice management issues and is a convincing advocate for the use of appropriate technologies in the solo and small firm context. Here’s how her approach to practice management and the use of technology came to be.

You’ve been a litigator for almost 30 years, starting with a mix of criminal and family law and then opening your own family law practice. Was it always your intention to be a solo practitioner or in a small firm?

CC:  I went to law school from 1973 to 1976. Less than 10 percent of the students in my graduating class were women. It was a lot like being at a stag party for three years. The women were largely invisible, and were treated as invisible. There was a locker-room atmosphere much of the time, including racist, sexist and homophobic jokes constantly. It was pretty tough. A woman had to want it a lot to stay.

When I was called to the bar in 1978, I started off as an employee in a small firm (four lawyers). After a year, they did not have enough work for four lawyers, so I opened my own firm, almost by default.

Nothing that I had done in my life to that point had prepared me for having my own business or for running a business. It was a daunting experience. What I really wanted was to be in court. That’s why I went to law school, so that I could go to court. So I did litigation for the first five years, predominantly family law and criminal cases. Then as the criminal work began to wane, I let it go, since family law was changing dramatically in the early 1980s and was more challenging and interesting for me.

A family law practice involves often very challenging human struggles that can make running a successful law business difficult. How did your approach to running a family practice evolve?

CC:  Luckily, I understood that I did not know enough about running a business and I started to go to law practice management continuing education programs in the early 1980s. There were not many of them, however, and I had to travel from Canada to the United States to attend them. It was expensive and time-consuming for a young lawyer in solo practice, and in retrospect, I am amazed that I went at all. At one conference a speaker, a Florida lawyer (whose name I regret that I do not remember), offered to send out to attendees the information package that he gave to his clients. I gave him my business card and received a large package of documents from him by mail (including instructions to clients, sample letters regarding retainers, a glossary and many other documents). I called immediately to thank him and to offer to pay for the photocopying and postage (which were not small costs) and he refused. He said we were all better lawyers if we helped each other. I was amazed at his generosity and professionalism.
It inspires me to this day.

I took his material, stole from it shamelessly (which he said we could), added to it over the years and still use it every day in my practice. Of course, my retainer package has evolved since I got those original materials more than 25 years ago, but I continue to use it successfully. It is given to my clients before they meet with me and they are asked to read it before our initial intake meeting. It is part of the material appended to my paper “ Dealing with Difficult Clients,” available for download on the LawPRO site.

I provide my clients with many documents, including tips on how to save money in legal fees, how to behave as the parent with sole custody, or as the access parent, how to fill in the financial statements used for court and, I should note, the Florida lawyer’s original glossary, which I have edited over the years.

How did technology enter into your understanding of practice?

CC: I first learned about practice management software in the early 1990s from a Toronto litigation lawyer (Ron Collins) who designed one of the best-known programs (Amicus Attorney). I met him when he was teaching word processing to lawyers. I decided practice management software was perfectly suited to my family law litigation practice (which had by then grown to three lawyers) and I knew that I wanted to get it. I did finally get it in March 1998, the same month I went to my first ABA TECHSHOW®.

It was a major step for me to go to ABA TECHSHOW, since it seemed like it was an expensive proposition for a small firm lawyer. But the conference was a terrific experience—both inspiring and motivating at the same time. After that, I spent the necessary money on training on the new software and it paid off. The staff loved the program and used it well.

I have been to ABA TECHSHOW many times since then, even though it can still seem to be rather expensive for a small firm. But the learning experience genuinely justifies the cost. It helps me to see ahead for my practice and think about where we need to be in a few years. It also makes me more interested in my work. And I still feel inspired by it. It is totally worth it.

So in 2000, after a couple of years with practice management software, you decided to go fully paperless. Set the stage. How did you pull that off? Have you really eliminated paper completely? Like, completely?

CC:  The biggest challenge when we went paperless in 2000 was the culture change. We all sat together in the kitchen—three lawyers and three secretaries—and designed the naming protocol and the file organizing protocol together. Everyone was comfortable with storing all documents electronically but all were very nervous about getting rid of the paper, which, of course, is the whole idea of going paperless. Ultimately, though, we did make the needed mind shift and today, in all our work, the real file lives on the hard drive, not on paper.

Everything that comes in is scanned into the hard drive and stored digitally. We cannot store things twice (electronically and on paper). The two essentials are these: We scan everything as soon as it comes in, and we back up religiously every day.

And the benefits are?

CC:  The entire file lives in one place—the network drive. E-mails are not printed and are not stored in Outlook. Everything is in one folder. We will eventually be able to use less physical storage space within the office and in outside storage for closed files as well. In addition, we give clients a CD-ROM to take whenever they move their file to another lawyer, which is a real convenience for the parties.

The best part is that we all have remote access to the full file at any time from any location. It has been a totally positive experience.

Having this system in place also helped facilitate the next leap for us, which came in 2004 when we bought litigation support software (CaseMap). This was also a big change and has proved really helpful for trial work (to organize data), but it is also useful for everyday work on every file.

Here’s your pulpit. What one recommendation do you have for solo or small firm practitioners as they struggle to adapt their practices to a rapidly changing, technologically obsessed world?

CC:  Embrace technology. It has made going to work more fun for me. I actually look forward to turning on the computer each day. Find a local technology consultant to advise you and provide service. Get practice management software. Go paperless. Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.

About the Author

Mark Tamminga practices law at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Hamilton, ON. He is the Technology Editor of Law Practice Technology Webzine and coauthor of the ABA book The Lawyer's Guide to Extranets: Breaking Down Walls, Building Client Connections .

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