The 21st Century Law Office—
Going Electronic Two Years Later
By Thomas C. Baird
Thomas C. Baird is President of Baird, Crews, Schiller & Whitaker, P.C., in Temple, Texas.
Technology is overwhelming today's law firms, especially solo practitioners. The demands for a greater range of services, quicker response, flexible working arrangements, cost savings, and revenue increases, along with natural curiosity about new electronic gadgets and toys, have caused many law firms and lawyers to sink into a quagmire of new technology. The question is whether or not technology will really provide some of the answers the legal profession is searching for—or, maybe more accurately, whether or not the stress and effort are worth the gains and benefits received.
Probably the most important thing to remember is that not every law office automation program or system fits every office or every lawyer. Each lawyer and law firm must decide which automation programs and online legal resources work for their particular practice—which systems and software seem to work and which do not. It is often helpful to check with other firms or lawyers to find out what programs they use and like and what programs they have tried and do not like and why.
Two years ago, a small firm in central Texas, with only four lawyers and 13 staff members, attempted to find the answers to the many questions posed by technology. The firm had determined that the time had come to either make changes or suffer losing client respect and confidence and a corresponding decline in profitability. The trials and tribulations of that effort were traced in The 21st Century Law Office, PROB. & PROP. 29 (July/Aug. 2001). The challenge was to improve the firm's practice of law consistent with its philosophy to provide clients high-quality legal services promptly and at a reasonable cost.
The firm's electronic office has helped to increase efficiency and productivity with corresponding cost savings. Using automation and technology has eliminated the need for several full-time and part-time staff. The firm estimated it has saved $100,000 annually. The most important benefit has been the change in attitude of the lawyers and staff and the positive response from the community, clients, and other professionals who have commented on how much easier and more efficient it is to do business with the firm.
Can You Teach Old Dogs New Tricks?
Lawyers and staff members had to change their mindset. The firm invested time and money to train all lawyers and staff on how to use the new programs, what the various programs would do, and how individuals could customize the programs to fit their individual needs.
Dual monitors and color printers were installed at each workstation, and all the firm's computers, printers, scanners, and copiers have been networked.
Lawyers and staff members experimented with both Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect and decided that an office that wants to service its clients well really needs both. The firm invested in several document assembly programs, including FlexDraft and ProDocs, and also invested time in developing forms for use by the whole firm.
Lawyers have been hearing and reading about the paperless "office of the future" for years. And with e-mail, inexpensive scanners, fax to e-mail services, electronic document management systems, and the like, the technology is almost there. The profession may never get to an office that runs without any paper, but it is certainly possible to get to an office that uses a lot less paper.
When you generate a document in your office, you already have that document as a computer file. When a document is received from the outside, and before you can do anything with it electronically, you must first use a scanner to convert the page into a computer "image" file. Some firms are using fast production networked scanners with ADF (Automatic Document Feed) units to scan everything that comes into the office. Scanners differ mostly in price, speed of scanning, connection to the computer, scan resolution (the dpi or "dots per inch"), and whether the scanner scans only black and white, a variety of half-tone gray scale, or color.
Scanners can really enhance a lawyer's ability to get his or her work done. Too many lawyers are still photocopying exhibits and faxing them around the country when they could be scanning the pages, using Adobe Acrobat software to assemble the document, and e-mailing the document to a mailing list.
The firm was tired of paying for offsite storage, which was growing and made finding files difficult and time-consuming (resulting in unbillable time), so it went "paperless." To start the "paperless office," the firm installed two network copier/scanners. It implemented a policy for scanning, including how to handle paper until scanned, back-up procedures for the electronic documents, and electronic filing procedures that allowed anyone in the office to find the electronic copy of the document no matter who filed or created it. Because all firm documents are filed electronically, lawyers have quick access to them and are able to distribute them quickly to anyone able to receive documents electronically, which is nearly everyone. The firm has found that the PDF format has a nearly universal acceptance, mainly because the Acrobat Reader is freely available to recipients.
All firms should check out scanning software and start using it. For example, Scansoft's Paperport software ( www.scansoft.com ) provides management tools that help "stack" pages together to assemble the document just as if it were paper. The software helps to manage the scanned images into folders (if you wish) and provides links to Adobe Acrobat, Word, WordPerfect, e-mail, and other applications.
The user interface works well. The user grabs the image of the document that was just scanned and drags it to the icon of the software where the user wants to save it. Dragging it to Word or WordPerfect initiates the built-in Textbridge OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software and opens the word processing software with the converted document already in it, ready for editing as a word processing document.
Two other features of this software make it even more desirable. "SimpleSearch" allows the user to search for words within the text of scanned documents, as well as documents that have been typed in the word processing software or created in spreadsheet software. The other feature, "FormTyper," almost entirely eliminates the need for a typewriter in the law office. The user can scan a document or print a form from the Internet into the Paperport software, then grab the document and drag it to the FormTyper icon and type whatever the user wants into the blanks within the document. Once the user saves the document and returns to the Paperport desktop, he or she can drag the document to the printer, to an e-mail message, or to Adobe Acrobat to create or add to the pdf file that the user intends to e-mail to several people.
When e-mail is used to send attached documents, most people send the documents in either Word or WordPerfect format. Consider using Adobe Acrobat to prepare electronic packages to be e-mailed. Documents can be sent in WordPerfect or Word format when the lawyer wants the recipient to edit the document. Adobe Acrobat should be used to e-mail documents (1) that the sender does not want the recipient to edit, (2) that the sender wants to make sure can be printed at the recipient's office with exactly the same fonts, spacings, page breaks, and over-all appearance as the documents were printed at the sender's office, or (3) that the sender wants included as part of a package of documents created in different software packages or that are only paper documents at the sender's office.
To accomplish the third preference, use the scanner and the Paperport software to scan the documents, drawings, or exhibits. Drag the images to Acrobat, and then use the Acrobat software to assemble the package in the same way that a paper package would have been assembled. Not only does this create a nice, neat electronic package to e-mail to an entire mailing list but it simplifies electronic filing because the electronic "package" to put into the client's electronic file folder already exists.
This technique saves time for the law firm's staff as compared to trying to send the same paper document with a fax machine. With e-mail (or fax ser-vices over the Internet), there is no paper to jam in the fax machine and no busy signals.
And the firm's administrative division is "paperless" also. Each administrative assistant does procurement and purchasing electronically with payment by the firm's credit card. The firm has also instituted online banking and electronic payroll, which of course gives all employees quicker access to their salaries when paid.
Faxes and E-mail
The firm installed fax software that allows faxes to be sent from and received at each individual workstation and established a policy for storing and filing the faxes. Lawyers can fax filings directly to the Secretary of State from their computers and include payment by credit card authorization. They can fax letters and demands without a snail-mail copy. The firm's postage savings have been substantial, and the proof of receipt from the other party can be easily filed electronically with the document. When incoming letters and documents are in an electronic format, the lawyer can save them instantly and easily to the file. The firm therefore encourages clients and opposing counsel to e-mail and fax all communication for easy file maintenance. The clients and opposing counsel seem to prefer this, too, as they are able to avoid snail-mail and save postage. Lawyers can find a file and transmit it to a client or another lawyer by e-mail or fax without ever having to leave their desks and with very little interruption to the projects on which they are working.
Today's larger firms are almost certainly using a formal, enterprise-based document management system, and even firms with only a few lawyers should put some kind of document management system into place. One possible solution is a modern case management system, which may provide document management as an aid to keeping all of the information about a case together in one place. And even a solo practitioner can save all sorts of outgoing and incoming documents in client- and case-related folders and subfolders accessible through word processing and e-mail programs.
If a firm takes advantage of the document management (DMS) features in its case management software, such as Amicus Attorney ( www.amicus.com ), CaseMaster ( www.stilegal.com ), or Time Matters ( www.timematters.com ), or uses a system like WORLDOX ( www.worldox.com ), it will be easier to find documents quickly.
First, DMS automates the process of saving documents and later retrieving them. When a document is saved, the document is put in a pre-determined place determined by the client or matter (or other system established by the firm).
Second, DMS indexes the text of documents and the text of the description of the document so that the user can find that text later. For example, the user could find all of the documents containing the word "executor" or all of the documents with "Last Will and Testament" in the title.
What can this do for the lawyer's billable hours? If the lawyer's hourly rate is $200 per hour and he or she wastes only one hour a week looking for documents or waiting for his or her support staff to locate documents, that lawyer spends $10,400 in the effort every year. Several studies have estimated that the average lawyer loses $40,000 in billable time each year looking for files. By comparison, document management software usually costs about $350 per license.
The key to document management is diligence, because it is easiest to record information when the document is created or received. It is obvious, but often not appreciated, that the creator or recipient of a document knows more about that document at the time of its creation or receipt than he or she, or anyone else, will ever know at any later time. The firm's word processing system undoubtedly has a setting that allows the document's creator to enter information about the document into a summary sheet when the document is created or saved. The lawyer has almost certainly not set his or her copy of the program (or a secretary's copy) to require the entry of such information. If keeping control of documents is important, then, before bothering with a document management system, set your personal copy of your word processor to look for summary input.
The firm established a comprehensive contact database that includes e-mail addresses, cell phone numbers, home phone numbers, business phone numbers, fax numbers, and personal information on clients and correspondents. This information is used to develop e-mail and fax distribution groups for mass mailings, newsletters, and notices for law changes. It is very important that everyone in the firm understands the importance of putting the necessary information directly into the database, which may be shared with multiple programs.
The firm began to phase out its library, which was expensive and time-consuming to keep updated, and now uses on-line resources for legal research. The state bar has several great on-line resources, including "My Texas Bar," "Case Digest," "Reptile," and CLE articles. Lawyers are also able to access court dockets and other information on-line.
All lawyers and staff have the ability to work from home. The firm found it advantageous to install workstations at each lawyer's and staff member's home and to provide everyone with dial-in capabilities. This has numerous advantages, including enabling the firm to retain highly qualified people who are working parents. All lawyers and selected staff members use laptops and PDAs (personal digital assistants) that enable them to work from practically any location.
The firm invested time and money to ensure that its web site not only describes the firm but also works for the lawyers and the firm's clients. It gives the firm's profile, provides access to on-line resources, and pre-sents FAQs, articles, forms, and other information. It provides easy access to the firm's extranet and easy distribution of firm newsletters.
The firm took the time to educate its clients and other professionals on how to use this technology. People outside the firm find they are better able to communicate with the firm and that the firm's lawyers respond more quickly (which they like). The firm's lawyers have useful information available to them "24/7." By using e-mail and the firm's web site, lawyers are able to give their clients background information relating to their matters before they come for their appointments, which helps to eliminate several fact-gathering steps. Clients like that their lawyers have instant access to their files at all times. The firm's electronic office therefore lets its clients know that its lawyers care about them because they stay in touch, respond quicker, give useful information, and assist the clients in helping themselves.
The firm's phone system was updated to accommodate the electronic office. A voice mail system was implemented that not only saves payroll by eliminating the need for a receptionist but also enables the caller to leave a detailed message that is delivered directly to the person called, which enables the staff member or lawyer to be better prepared when returning the call. The firm's telephone policy calls for staff members and lawyers to update their respective answering messages daily, to include a plug for the firm's web site, to check their voice mail regularly whether they are in or out of the office, and to return calls quickly. The firm also implemented follow-me routing of phone calls, which forwards office calls to cell phones and enables clients to reach individual lawyers even if the lawyer is away from the office.
The firm updated its engagement letter to incorporate the issues that arise when lawyers communicate electronically. The updated letter allows the client to consent to the firm's communicating by fax and e-mail, including transmitting documents, and also discloses the possible loss of security when doing so. The engagement letter also discloses that the firm stores its files electronically, what its file destruction and file retention policies are, and what the firm's extranet capabilities are. The client also has the opportunity to authorize the firm to e-bill and have the client's bill charged to the client's credit card. Finally, the engagement letter promotes the firm's web site, which directs the client to several beneficial articles, letters, and answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs).
Benefits the firm has derived from its electronic office include:
o Time Savings—The firm experiences better organization, better control, a better work product, and quicker access to information. There is also quicker receipt of information from courts and opposing lawyers.
o Money Savings—In addition to being storage intensive, paper is very labor intensive. Having a paperless office means that the firm needs to spend less time filing and less staff for filing. Postage, paper, and storage costs are also reduced.
o Building Confidence—Lawyers in the firm have enjoyed increased respect from their peers, increased professionalism, reduced malpractice worries, and better staff morale.
o Better Research and File Access Capabilities—The firm has better research capabilities, quicker receipt of information from courts and opposing counsel, access to the best legal minds across the country, and possible association of specialized experts on a particular matter in a seamless manner. Internet access, and the capability of being virtual, means that the law "office" can be anywhere in the world. The Internet allows any member of the firm access to all of the firm's files on the firm's file servers through virtual private networking (and, because the firm is completely paperless, everything is on the servers).
o More Fees and Better Quality of Life—The electronic office provides the firm's lawyers with the ability to work from anywhere, allows the lawyers to charge a higher hourly rate or fixed fee with greater certainty that the fee will be more than adequate, reduces receivables (which saves money and makes the firm more money), gives lawyers and staff members a better quality of life, and so enables the firm to retain highly qualified people.
Where Do You Start?
According to the American Bar Association's 2001 Legal Technology Resource Center Survey Report, few lawyers take advantage of the technology available to them. The survey found that although 91% of firms have a word processing program, just 20% use case management software. "Attorneys still have areas where they could be using technology to make their lives better and improve the way they handle cases," said David Whelan, director of the ABA's Legal Technology Resource Center in Chicago. The problem is greatest in small and solo practices. "We were surprised there was a lot of law office automation that had not been picked up. And at smaller firms and solo offices, you were just as likely to find nothing," Whelan added.
The concept of office automation and the advanced use of technology sometimes conjures visions of cold, futuristic environments that are paperless, robotic, and hyper-efficient. But automation is making the practice of law much more humane, freeing lawyers—especially those in smalland midsize firms—from mundane clerical tasks so they can concentrateon their clients.
Those who decide to take the plunge into the electronic office will have several questions. What products and procedures are best for the actual production of documents? Do you spend all your time drafting documents and turning them into forms? Do you use various programs that assemble documents; and if so, do you accept the documents as assembled, or do you radically redraft the document? Or, do you just keep a lot of old documents around and just search and replace the names and other individual information? (This latter recourse means that you try to maneuver your clients into doing something similar to what you have done before, which is not really serving the client.) How do you get all of the various programs to share information so that you do not have to re-enter the same information over and over again? How do you manage your client information so that it can be used for updates, newsletters, and other applications? How do you change the bad habits of your partners and still remain partners with them? What particular uses of technology can be incorporated into the twenty-first century law office?
When the decision to automate the law firm is made, it is essential that the firm choose the simplest programs that will work for the particular lawyer or law firm. There is a huge selection of software to choose from. In a perfect world, billable time will be entered on one program (a case management program) and transferred to another program so that the information is shared universally with all other programs that handle billing, file management, calendar control, contact information, and document production. The idea is for all the programs to work together seamlessly.
This environment works best when there is little or no paper. The information is always available, organized, and retrievable. The information required for distribution to the client is complete and transmitted quickly and efficiently. The paperless procedure is very efficient, very simple, very affordable, and very important if the law firm is going to increase revenue. It saves a ton of time—time that can be converted to billable time.
To get started, the firm will need to obtain the proper licensing, suitable software, professional installation, adequate training, and some new hardware. It is also necessary to either have a full- or part-time information technology staffperson or to make other arrangements with a technology consultant who knows the firm's specific system, hardware, and programs.
Andrew Z. Adkins III, director of the Legal Technology Institute at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law, divides office automation for lawyers into six basic categories:
1. Document Management—Programs such as Docs Fusion, iManage, or Worldox help lawyers organize and findtheir files.
2. Financial Management—Programs such as Timeslips, Quicken, Juris, or TABS III are used for time and billing. Many of these programs, when integrated with other programs, help lawyers track their hours and analyze how they spend their time.
3. Case Management—Programs such as Amicus Attorney, Time Matters, and ProLaw help lawyers tie together everything associated with a particular case. Some programs will create a phone list for each case or let lawyers dial from that list by clicking on a particular name. Some programs feature a pop-up clock that prompts the lawyer to bill time whenever he or she opens the file.
4. Litigation Management—Programs such as Summation and Concordance manage specific documents and images. They are particularly good for organizing litigation involving years of research and what otherwise would be tons of paper.
5. Legal Research—Programs for legal research include tools such as Westlaw, LexisNexis, and other Internet-based research services.
6. Client-Relations Management—Programs such as Interaction and LegalEase let lawyers capture personal client information—birthdays, anniversaries, and client hobbies and interests—to jog the memory. "It carries marketing to a more personal level," Adkins said. "We don't see a lot of it right now."
The largest barrier to law office automation and the use of technology is the perceived cost. Many lawyers look at the cost without analyzing the benefits and miss the fact that if something costs $5,000 per person to implement, saves $3,000 per year, and increases revenue $10,000 to $20,000 per billing lawyer each year, then automation becomes very affordable. These types of automation products contain many features in terms of saving time and money. One example: A lawyer or secretary can enter a changed phone number into the computer once, and the program will update the number in every program wherever it appears.
Another barrier is the difficulty—real or imagined—of learning new technology. Many very sophisticated programs have almost limitless options, shortcuts, and functions. Yet most people use only a fraction of a program's capabilities. For example, a law firm implements a new time and billing program. The time system saves a lot of money and encourages people to put in their time on a daily basis. The lawyers and staff, however, shy away from the program's more advanced features and thus lose the additional financial and time benefits available. People are creatures of habit and they like the familiar.
Another barrier to law firm automation and technology use is a concern over security. Some firms are considering using a document management program that would allow clients to view their case files on-line. This type of program will let clients into the firm's server to view their files but lock them out of the files of other clients. Giving clients access to their files on the firm's server raises numerous security issues and is just downright scary to many lawyers. Many firms may have to get over this fear. Their more sophisticated clients may well begin to demand this type of access to their client files, and firms may have to accept the risk to allow clients instant access to their files.
Another barrier to the use of automation and technology is the lawyer's attitude. Lawyers seem to need a reason to purchase these products and programs. Too often lawyers decide they don't have a reason to automate and, therefore, they don't. Lawyers who bill by the hour may view time saved by automation as unbilled time. These lawyers need to realize that billing by the hour is out. They need to "value bill," that is, they need to charge for the work, not the hours. Law firms that bill by flat rate or lawyers that use contingency fees will find that they will be able to make more money if they also become more efficient. Their billings are based on value, not on time. Some firms may find it difficult to quantify their savings in terms of money or people-hours, but they will find that automation makes their working lives easier. The lawyers have better use of their down time.
Many lawyers still believe that these programs make life more complicated or believe that automation is just a fad. These lawyers just need to remember the days when the only office equipment was a copier and an IBM Selectric II. It is ironic that the same lawyers who make a living advising people have difficulty taking advice on running their practices more efficiently. These lawyers have a comfort zone and they do not want to leave it. But sooner or later most of them will realize that they must get out of their comfort zone and do what is best for their staffs, clients, and themselves. With a change in attitude, some homework, a lot of planning, and a little training, they will realize that they can make the jump from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century.
Doing Your Homework
Before a firm jumps out and acquires law office automation software, hardware, and other technology, the firm must do its homework. The lawyers need to first evaluate what they want their firm to accomplish for its particular practice and then research what is available for their purpose. Firms that hire a consultant should do this same homework. Once the lawyers zero in on a particular product or set of products to do their tasks, they can then ask the consultant if he or she knows of other firms that have tried to do the same thing. It is good to get three to five references. When you talk to other firms, ask about every aspect of installation and implementation, including how long it takes to get up and running. Ask if these firms were satisfied with the consultant, the products, and the training. Find out what the firm's plan for implementation was and how it worked. Ask what the rough spots were and what they would do differently next time. Ask how the product is functioning now and if it does the job they expected.
Invest in Training
To get the most out of new software, plan and budget for training. For document management programs, which simply help organize files, a half-day training session might do. For more complex case management software, two to three days of training, preferably spread over a week, will probably be necessary. The most effective training on the more sophisticated programs is a half-day at a time and with floor support provided after that. This is the most expensive way to train, but it is often the best way in the long run.
Technology can be very confusing, and there are so many choices. Just as you learn one technology or computer program, another one comes out. The programs and gadgets have too many options and settings to comprehend. There are not enough hours in the day to spend time with your family, pursue your hobbies, perform your civic duties, learn new technology and automation programs, and do your work so that you can make a living and avoid malpractice.
But lawyers must commit the time and effort to learn the programs and the technology, even if they feel like old dogs learning new tricks. An old saying has it that "a wood cutter does not lose time sharpening his axe." Similarly, lawyers do not lose time sharpening their technology skills. So sharpen your axe, learn new tricks, and enhance the quality of your practice.