General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice Guide

American Bar Association
General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division

The Compleat Lawyer, Fall 1996, Vol. 13, No. 4

Future Shock What can lawyers expect of technology?


Kimberly Sanchez is a freelance writer in Chicago, Illinois.

Law@future.where is it headed? It seems as though everyone today talks in symbols--"colon, back slash, at, dot"--except in the legal field.

Some lawyers are lagging behind the times and doing things the old-fashioned way. But law students are graduating with technological experience. They've used Westlaw, Lexis-Nexis, and the Internet for school and recreational purposes. And they're going to take that knowledge with them into the professional world. So, these future leaders of the legal profession are going to technologically affect the future of the legal field.

Get Organized with Software
Application software is already widely available on CD-ROMs and can be used to schedule appointments, keep track of expenses, file documents, assist in research, and offer guides for building a strong case--most of which an organizer or a good secretary could successfully accomplish. But if you're the kind of person that writes dates and important messages on a Post-It-Note and tacks it to your desk, only for it to get lost under a mountain of paper, perhaps these computer organizing programs are for you.

E-mail and the World Wide Web
Lawyers also are using the Internet, whether it's to conduct research, send a document, or just to chat. E-mail is replacing telephones and fax machines. The Internet alleviates the problem of phone interruptions, busy lines, and the need to deal with a stubborn client immediately. If a client says that he needs to talk to you right away, and you have three scheduled appointments and a court appearance at noon, you can have him e-mail you. That way, he can get the problem off his chest, and you can respond as soon as you get a chance.

While the fax machine can be as immediate as e-mail, you can't store faxes from others in your computer the way you can store e-mail. Although you get a document right away, you are stuck with a piece of paper (often a flimsy one); if you don't file it right away, it may get lost on your desk.

Some lawyers use the World Wide Web simply to gather information or conduct forums. By accessing a Website, lawyers can get information about state statutes, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and even some businesses. Lawyers and experts also can converse on the Web by leaving queries for each other. It's sort of like posting a note on a bulletin board. If you have a question and want other opinions, you can leave a note on a Website and most often someone will respond. Soon, you could be involved in obscure conversations, sharing ideas, knowledge, and information with others from around the nation or even the world.

Other lawyers use the Web for advertising. It's not like plastering your name or practice on the back of a bus, though. It's more like the yellow pages. Potential clients browse the Web and stumble upon your site. Those who conduct business over the Internet might look specifically for lawyers on the Web who demonstrate knowledge about technology.

On Cornell University Law School's Website, 30 different lawyer's Websites are posted. Not surprisingly, several sites list lawyers from California's Silicon Valley--the breeding ground for modern technology.

Kirsten Keith, a sole practitioner in Palo Alto, says that since she posted her site, she has retained almost one client a month that she can attribute to the Website. "I think it's the wave of the future and I think it's important," Keith said, speaking of the Internet. "I think it will be an electronic phone book."

She also uses the Internet for research and communication, not just advertising. At midnight one night before a hearing, she remembered an article she had seen in the newspaper a few weeks earlier. Having thrown it away, she turned to the Internet for help. Sure enough, in a matter of minutes she was able to access the article, print it, and submit it as evidence in court the next day. However, she did run into a problem--the judge refused to accept the document, proving that the legal profession is still skeptical about advanced technology.

Practicing in the areas of immigration, criminal, and family law, she receives e-mail from her clients to save them the trouble of going to her office or trying to reach her over the phone. "I think a lot of my clients appreciate the convenience," Keith said. "A lot of my clients are computer savvy."

Beyond E-mail
Technology presently is being tested and designed to do more than keep a lawyer organized and on time. Lawyers are testing electronic filing, video conferencing, and voice-recognition technology. These advancements will do more than expedite the legal practice. They will help lawyers be more thorough and open up the field to solo and small firm practitioners.

But the plethora of information available on the Internet will not replace the need for lawyers. Clients will just be more informed than before, according to Dave Hambourger, director of the ABA Technology Resource Center.

"Research, communication, marketing--the Internet is being used," Hambourger said. "But I don't think it will fundamentally change the practice of law. There is specialized knowledge and judgment a computer doesn't bring you."

The Convenience of Electronic Filing
Just as e-mail can save a client from traffic jams and parking garages, electronic filing can do the same for lawyers. No more running back and forth to the courthouse to file motions and submit briefs. No more paying carriers to do it for you. And no more worrying about getting to the courthouse before 4:30 just to look at a piece of paper.

With advanced database technology that has the ability to send and receive electronic documents, all parties and judges involved in a case can access a database; receive and send official filings, pleadings, briefs, complaints, and other court documents; and communicate with each other. Judges can even file decisions electronically.

In Prince George's County, Maryland, the state court set up JusticeLINK, a database designed to reduce paperwork and ultimately reduce costs. Sponsored by the National Center for State Courts and a group of private companies led by Andersen Consulting, the pilot program worked so efficiently that the court is implementing it permanently. (See "Technology in the Courts.")

"It has proven to work, so we're going forward with it," said county clerk Suzanne James. "By using the service, attorneys also have access to a listing of cases and they can pull up all their cases or case types. If they have opposing counsel they don't have to mail or messenger stuff, they can e-mail it."

According to a study conducted by California-based Andersen Consulting, lawyers and their clients could have saved $646 million if 80 percent of the 19.1 million lawsuits in 1991 had been filed electronically.

Though systems like JusticeLINK do cost a subscription fee, they may be more cost-effective in the long run. This could mean significant savings for small firm and solo practitioners who do not share filing costs with several other lawyers. James points out that solo practitioners who share a secretary with someone else may already be aware of how much time it takes the secretary to manually file documents.

For those who choose to continue to file the old-fashioned way, documents can be scanned into the database system. A terminal is available at the courthouse for those who want to access information but don't have the technology, avoiding an elitist court system.

"This is the beginning step for us to be less reliant on paper," she said. "Banking is virtually paperless and [so are] many other aspects of business, so I do not see why the courtroom should have to be the only one with paper."

Clyde Christofferson, chair of the ABA Science and Technology JEDDI Committee and secretary of the JEDDI Corporation, says the problem with electronic filing and docketing is the need for a standardized system.

JEDDI (Judicial Electronic Document and Data Interchange) is a standardized electronic mail system that sends documents and forms between computers. Lawyers and courts cannot send simple e-mail to the courts because different word processing softwares produce different formats--there is no one set standard. And it would be unproductive to have lawyers send e-mail to the clerk's office to be printed and then filed.

The JEDDI Corporation is working to establish an automated filing process that coordinates with all others. "Banks have been doing these things for years so its not a technical problem," Christofferson said. "But the courts don't have familiarity with this. You're going to have to proceed slowly."

One problem is that if a document is misplaced or gets lost, a lawyer needs proof of its filing, such as a stamped copy. But the only proof with electronic filing is a simple message blinking "sent" across a computer screen, which isn't enough.

"I think they are going to find that there are elements of the procedures that are adaptive in the paper environment that just aren't going to transfer very well. There are going to be some rough edges to iron out," he said.

He suspects that with JEDDI's efforts, 70 percent of all lawyers will be using electronic filing within five to ten years. "These things are going to take time and patience, but we're getting there," Christofferson said.

Even More Cutting Edge
Voice-recognition technology and video conferencing are other technologies that currently are being improved to work accurately and effectively.

The University of Arizona's Courtroom of the Future Project is designed to study how technology can increase the efficiency of the trial process and to train students and lawyers in the use of technology in the courtroom.

"[Technology] affects every facet of our business," said Winton Woods, director of the project. "It changes the way we do research. It changes the way we communicate with each other. It changes the way we communicate with the courts and government offices...the way we relate with our clients. It allows small law firms to compete on an even keel with larger firms."

If a lawyer can create a will or a real estate lease with one keystroke, competition will increase, he said. "If I can produce a lease in 15 minutes, I can compete with the downtown firm doing it." This competition should lead to reduced cost, too, he added. "If all I have to do is push a button, how can I charge you for that? Lawyers may have to charge for the value of the product, not the time they put into it."

Another advantage small firms have, he said, is that the larger firms invested in full-equipped computer systems ten years ago that are now outdated. "The technology is changing so quickly that there's a huge reticence for a large firm to buy a whole new system. The result is--they don't change." Woods said. "On the other hand, if I'm in a small cost of becoming completely modern may be doable."

Voice-recognition technology. The expansion of voice-recognition technology will open up the legal field to many others who were restricted in the past--especially those with disabilities. "People who are blind, people who have large motor impairment--people who have been excluded from the practice will now have access," he said.

It will also change the way lawyers write, he said. "If everything becomes oral and you're interacting with your computer instead of your secretary, I think it will have an effect on the language," he said. "It certainly will reduce formality."

Woods warns that voice-recognition technology may lead to longer documents and ultimately more paperwork. "If I'm talking to a computer and my words are popping up on my's going to change my language. The word processor has been a disaster for many lawyers. It allows them to write 100 pages when five would suffice...If we get voice recognition that is 100 percent accurate and does it at the same rate of speed that we talk--that could be a real disaster. I could see some lawyers sitting there and becoming enthralled with what they're saying." Woods estimates that access to accurate voice-recognition technology is just a year away.

Video conferencing. A significant problem with interactive communication such as video conferencing is that lawyers can do business easily across state lines. "It's clear that electronics is going to reduce the significance of state licensing law and push us toward some national licensing system," Woods said. "I think that's inevitable. The virtual law firm is not very far behind. You can type in your question, give them your credit card, and they can give you an answer. The greatest action in law office computing is going on with the small firms."

New technology never seems to exist without hitches. These problems currently are being studied and worked out. For example, telephone wires have trouble transmitting full-speed video conferencing. The use of satellites and fiber optics will alleviate this problem, however.

"Instead of going to a meeting, I can have interactive video conferencing where there is no impediment--that is enabled purely by the existence of fiber optic cable. Fiber optic cable is a sewer pipe compared to the garden hose," Woods said. "Soon, I will be able to do what I've always wanted--live on a mountain in Colorado and do everything I want to do."

Sidebar: Technology Books for the Law Office

A Survival Guide for Road Warriors by Daniel S. Coolidge and J. Michael Jimmerson. Includes practical tips and advice that will help you master a virtual office. Product Code: 5110362

The Lawyer's Guide to the Internet by G. Burgess Allison. Includes no-nonsense information about the Internet and its impact on the practice of law. Product Code: 511043

Becoming Computer-Literate by Carol Woodbury. Includes advice and tips on getting the most of your current computer system and buying new equipment. Product Code: 5110342

WordPerfect 6.1 for Windows in One Hour for Lawyers by Carol Woodbury. Includes a learning guide for the most popular word processing software used in law offices. Product Code: 5110354

Microsoft Word for Windows in One Hour for Lawyers by Catherine A. Pennington. Includes lessons to help you prepare, save and edit basic documents and offers special tips for users of Windows 95. Product Code: 5110358

To order, call the ABA Service Center at 312/988-5522.

Copyright (c) 1996 American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.

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