Practicing Law with Computers - A Gigabyte SuccessBy Roger L. Shumaker
In 1980 I bought my first computer, a Texas Instruments 99/4 with 16K of RAM and a cassette tape interface for data and program storage. This computer also supported cartridge-based software (similar to today's Nintendo and Sega game cartridges). The next year, my partner and I bought a desktop micro-computer, a Z80-based computer with 64K RAM, running under the CPM operating system, primarily for word processing. Wordstar reigned supreme and this particular machine had 23 function keys dedicated to Wordstar functions. We bought a NEC Spinwriter daisy wheel printer (actually it had a thimble-shaped print wheel) plus CBASIC programming software and a couple of boxes of floppy disks. Total cost: $10,500.
In 1983 we acquired an IBM-XT with 640K memory and a 10 megabyte hard disk for $6,500. I have had two 286 AT-based computers with 40 MB hard disks (a desktop PC that cost $2,000, and my first laptop that cost about the same amount). I next used a 386-based laptop with an 85 MB hard drive (cost: $2,000), and I wrote this article on a 486DX, 50 megahertz, 500 MB hard drive (cost: $2,000). Both the progression of technology and the decrease in costs are amazing.
Hardware improvements and dropping hardware costs have been accompanied by similar improvements in software. The hardware you are using is not as important as the applications you are running if you want computers to enhance the way you practice. This article describes three categories of software:
- personal productivity/information management software
- task oriented software
- communications software.
Software in this category tracks projects and keeps important information readily available. I used Sidekick in its early days and eventually graduated to a program called MemoryMate from Broderbund Software. Its primary benefit was its unstructured nature and key word search capabilities, i.e., any tidbit of information could be entered into a record, be it a name and address, a task or a note regarding a case or ruling. The program indexed information with or without a reminder date and could be searched by any word in the record. For about three years I have been using a more structured personal information manager, DayTimer Organizer (DTO), formerly Instant Recall, which has revamped some of its features in its latest release.
DTO is organized around several common views of the office desktop -- the daily, weekly and monthly calender; the mailing/telephone list; the "to-do" list; and the notes list. In Windows, any one or all of these views can be simultaneously active. The user can assign reminder dates and categories to items on any of the lists, and can assign or make this information available to other users on the network. DTO also has rudimentary e-mail functions. My firm has implemented DTO firm-wide, on an individual and work group basis. In my department, three of four secretaries, five legal assistants and one other lawyer share a common database of DTO information, can assign tasks to one another (I do not like the potential for mutiny in their assigning tasks up to me, but this type of delegation is important) and can determine availability for meetings. This software is an extremely powerful "work group" tool.
Windows is a significant part of the personal productivity software genre. It offers ease of use enhancements over DOS and permits multi-tasking, i.e., using more than one program simultaneously. On most days, I will have DTO, e-mail, WordPerfect and Symphony running simultaneously under Windows, so I can easily switch to and from these programs as the need arises. Typically, I will be running at least one other application, creating in formation for use with either WordPerfect or Symphony, or both. I have DTO at the ready for creating tasks resulting from a telephone call, or for quick reference to other information stored in its database.
Task Oriented Software
This category includes word processing, spreadsheet analysis and several specific legal applications. Among the specific legal applications are tax analysis, return preparation and valuation programs that provide me the tools with which to deliver legal services on a cost effective basis. On any given day I may use these programs to assess the impact of a charitable remainder trust or a GRAT, or to complete a federal estate tax return. The spreadsheet software allows me to design solutions to difficult problems that the specific applications cannot handle.
For example, I recently analyzed the impact of a charitable lead unitrust planning under various scenarios. The primary focus was the tax cost of establishing a generation-skipping transfer tax-exempt, non-grantor CLUT. By using a charitable planning program, I was able to determine the results under several different options, varying the term and the unitrust percentage. With a spreadsheet also running under Windows, I was able to build a table of the results, which I then incorporated in the initial client report detailing the benefits of this planning technique.
Similarly, a spreadsheet model has been very helpful in calculating the benefit to family members of CRT and CLUT planning for clients. This analysis typically is a comparison of the results over time of using the planning technique and not using the technique. In most cases this type of analysis is the only tangible way for the client to understand the costs and benefits of a particular planning technique.
I do not do most of my own typing, preferring to use dictation with secretarial transcription. However, I do complex editing of first drafts of correspondence and custom drafting of special provisions in documents. The opportunity to see how the custom provisions look and to assess how they will work within the document is much better than the manual edit, back and forth between my secretary and me.
In late 1994 we engaged the services of a consultant to convert our estate planning documents to a document assembly system using CapSoft Development Corp. (CAPS) document assembly software. The firm's legal assistants can produce better initial in a fraction of the time required under our old system, and CAPS virtually eliminated secretarial involvement in the drafting process. I too can prepare first drafts of sophisticated documents in less than 30 minutes of answering questions about the provisions to be included and other variable information, such as names of the client, family members, executor and trustee.
Several of the applications I use daily are now Windows-based programs -- Viewplan's Vista, Factuary and Benequik; Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows; and WordPerfect 6.1 for Windows, to name a few. Like many organizations, my firm has not upgraded to Windows 95 because it has been somewhat unstable on our network.
Communications software helps me stay in touch within the office and with the world. We have e-mail internally on our local area network. At this point, e-mail is not used widely enough to fulfill its true potential, but it is the best means of communicating with our computer consultant about network or software problems.
The most significant change in communications involves the Internet. I very rarely use ABA/net, but now check my e-mail via NetCom (the largest of the nationwide Internet service providers). My firm now has an Internet domain name, "mhbh.com," which allow Internet e-mail to be delivered to the firm's computer and in turn to my computer through our internal e-mail. I anticipate that we will have a World Wide Web home Page by the end of this year. I am on the Internet several times a day, primarily using e-mail but also the World Wide Web, for both personal and legal research. On several occasions I have located valuable information without significant cost or time expenditure. I receive daily messages from both the ABA-PTL and LNET-LLC electronic discussion groups.
I use my computer on a day-to-day basis in ways too diverse to describe in this article. I cannot imagine my legal practice without this powerful tool at my fingertips. Personal computers will become increasing important tools for most lawyers in all practice areas.Probate & Property Magazine is published six times annually and is included in section members' annual dues.