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The new ABA book The Lawyer’s Guide to Working Smarter with Knowledge Tools covers a powerful class of software that supports the work of legal professionals. Involving technologies like work product retrieval, interactive checklists and document assembly systems, these tools help get legal work done faster, cheaper and better. This excerpt reveals what to look for in system authoring tools.
Increasing varieties of knowledge tools are available off the shelf and can serve your needs with modest customization. Finding them, however, still requires more effort than it should. Custom systems can deliver compelling benefits, but they can require big investments and energetic management. It can be tough deciding which one suits your particular law practice.
Hundreds of vendors and consultants now offer products and services that fall within the knowledge tools area, and there are several dozen Web sites providing some aspects of information about the range of available applications, although to date there is no one comprehensive resource to which people can turn to find out what tools there are, what’s good, what’s bad and why.
To help in your selection, it’s always a good idea to consult fellow practitioners and bar association law practice management advisers. You can pick up legal technology publications at trade conferences or practice area events as well. Also, Googling key phrases like “ Florida real estate form automation” will at least get you a lot of raw material. But beyond that, you should investigate the capabilities of the “toolmaker’s kit” underlying your options, too, and decide what paybacks you need from the authoring software.
What to Look for in the Authoring Toolkit
Computer-based practice systems are tools for legal knowledge workers, and the systems’ authoring environments are tools for the toolmaker. Whether the toolmaker is an attorney working on a do-it-yourself system, a designated “computer responsible person,” or a consulting “knowledge engineer,” his or her toolbox needs to be adequately outfitted to ensure the practice system delivers what’s desired. Features to consider in comparing practice system authoring software alternatives include the following.
Integration with word processing . Can you import and export formatted documents? With what word processing programs is the system compatible? Can documents be edited and printed from within the system? Can you emulate your favorite word processor in the system’s own editor? Can you prepare more than one document at a time?
Data management. Can you save client data between sessions? Can you examine information about more than one client or case at a time? Can you import from and export to externaldatabase management programs?
Ease of use. How long does it take to learn how to use applications built with the system? Is the interface consistent with itself and with conventions used in popular software packages? Can you navigate around the screens easily? Leave questions unanswered? Revise prior responses? Annotate your answers? Can you remap keys to your own liking? Is there online help?
Ease of authoring. How complex is the command language? Are there any automated application-generation facilities? Do you need to compile your systems, or can they be viewed in a run-time mode as you build? Does the system include an interactive debugger? A macro facility? How easy is it to revise and update finished applications?
Power. What numeric, logical, text comparison and “date math” operations can the system handle? Does it support validity checking on user responses? To what extent can the author control the content of the screens and other aspects of the user interface? What reference material and other resources can be made available to the user? Can such resources be global? Dynamic? Interactive? Hypertextual? Can users copy text from them to paste elsewhere? Can you link with and pass control to external programs? Is there a standard programming interface to internal algorithms and data structures? Is there any automated explanation of system questions or advice? What automated text-formatting features are supported? What about paragraph numbering, cross-references, list punctuation, columns, tables of contents and indexes?
Documentation, training and support. Is the written documentation comprehensive and comprehensible? Is training available for authors? Is there an online tutorial for users? What telephonesupport is available? Are there user groups and newsletters?
Continuity. Are the product and the company stable? Can you purchase the source code or arrange to have it escrowed with a third party? How many other people are using the software? Is there a significant ecosystem of users, consultants and vendors?
Cost. What does a license cost? Do you need a run-time license to run finished applications? Are site licenses available? What is the charge for maintenance and support? Is there a toll-free number?
This is a daunting list, to be sure. Examining several of the available packages with these kinds of questions in mind, however, can be a very instructive exercise. Most vendors are more than willing to send descriptive literature and demonstration copies of their software. Software can also often be viewed at legal technology trade shows and related events. Most important, those just starting to embark on practice system development should locate other lawyers and offices that have already begun, to get first-hand users’ perspectives on the options.
Also, here is some other advice: Don’t try to cut corners on the software—it is not the major expense in system development. People are. Software savings that reduce human effectiveness are false economies of the worst sort.
Marc Lauritsen is a Massachusetts lawyer and educator, President of Capstone Practice Systems, Inc., and also founder of Legal Systematics, Inc., providing advanced document automation services and products to law firms and legal departments. He is Co-Chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s eLawyering Task Force.
COMPANION SITE LISTS KNOWLEDGE RESOURCES
A list of sites offering legal knowledge products, services and other resources is provided at www.smarterlegalwork.com, the companion Web site to Marc Lauritsen’s new book. To order The Lawyer’s Guide to Working Smarter with Knowledge Tools (ABA, 2010), visit www.ababooks.org.