Trying to decide which new technologies to adopt can be a tough decision for bar associations and attorneys alike. But more and more tech-savvy lawyers are turning to their state and local bars for information on using technology to work better, faster, and cheaper.
What kinds of hardware and software are plugged-in (or more likely, wireless) lawyers using? How are their bar associations guiding them through the process?
A tale of two lawyers
Stephen Malouf is a Dallas attorney whose three-lawyer firm attempts to use technology products wherever possible. When working on a case, Malouf and his colleagues use a document management system that includes the capacity for scanning documents.
“In cases where we’re going to be traveling a great deal and need documents with us, we’ll scan 1,000 or 100,000 or 200,000 pages so we’ll have them available on disk,” Malouf says. The same documents are also stored on a server that is accessible from anywhere the firm’s attorneys can connect to the Internet.
For presentations, Malouf uses a combination of Microsoft’s PowerPoint and Verdict Systems’ Sanction program. “PowerPoint is a good basic tool but limited when it comes to presenting information in a nonlinear fashion,” he says. A linear approach—where one slide needs to follow another in a logical progression—is fine for opening statements or closing arguments, he adds.
But during a trial, a particular exhibit may be needed all of a sudden, and Sanction’s ability for instant retrieval becomes crucial. Malouf stores all the evidence he may use during a trial—including scanned documents, animations, photographs, and video excerpts of depositions—into Sanction where they are available with a couple of keystrokes.
At trial, his computer is generally attached to a monitor that is visible to the courtroom and, most importantly, to jurors. The ability to have the jury looking at a document while a witness is testifying about it is “hugely important,” according to Malouf. Attorneys used to have the witness testify while looking at the document and then show it to the jury after the witness was finished. “By then it’s too late, because you’ve finished your examination of the witness. Juries want to see what you’re talking about when you’re talking about it. It seems like that should be obvious, but it isn’t always.”
Back in the office
For e-mail and calendaring, Malouf uses Microsoft’s Outlook. He tried other programs, including two the firm developed in-house, and found them to be not as effective.
Technology has greatly shaped the course of legal research, he notes. Malouf uses an online research service that costs $1,800 a year for “unlimited access to every state and federal database in the country.” Such widespread access used to cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, and allows solos and small firms to level the playing field with larger firms.
To round out his arsenal, Malouf uses Timeslips for hourly work, Quickbooks for accounting, and Excel for spreadsheet and database work.
Based in Londonderry, New Hampshire, Bruce Dorner has been a computer user and advocate since personal computers generally became available. “We have had online calendar and messaging since the days of DOS,” he says. Dorner was a charter member of various ABA computer user groups and has seen “computers go from novelties to tools” as the industry matured.
In addition to the usual law practice tools (word processing, spreadsheet, etc.), Dorner says the most important tool for attorneys these days is the Internet. At the most basic level, Web sites and blogs allow potential clients to find attorneys and learn about their areas of expertise. Lawyers can handle their caseloads much more efficiently by providing existing clients with private access to their documents and using Web collaboration tools, such as conferencing.
“I have colleagues who practice IP law and never meet two-thirds of their clients. With e-mail, conferencing and phone calls they never need to sit down in the same room,” Dorner says.
With the Internet, he is able to practice law “from anywhere I can find a connection to the Internet. I can check messages, grab a document, create a document, chat with my secretary, and check my assignments. I can do everything that I would normally do at my desk.”
Keeping ahead of the curve
How do lawyers like Malouf and Donner stay up-to-date on tech developments and what role do bar associations play in that process? It depends.
The State Bar of Texas and the Dallas Bar Association are “spectacular resources,” according to Malouf. In addition to reading bar publications, Malouf and his colleagues attend numerous seminars each year where technology is discussed, tech vendors show their wares, or both.
“We try to stay well ahead of the curve, and exhibitors at bar association meetings and bars themselves” help his firm to do just that. “As a practical matter, litigation support is a business,” and people in the field are valuable sources of information.
Malouf also credits ABA publications with helping him keep on top of trends. Between the ABA and the Texas associations, “they have available to you all the cutting edge technologies, if you’re willing to take the time to look at them.”
What about smaller bars?
Dorner, who chairs the Technology Committee of the ABA Solo, Small Firm & General Practice Division, says many bars have “a wealth of information” available to attorneys although just how much varies from state to state. Voluntary bars, he says, are more likely to devote resources to providing technical knowledge to members. But smaller states may find it too expensive to set up a large-scale effort devoted to technology for members, he adds.
One resource Dorner recommends for solo and small firm attorneys is Solosez (www.abanet.org/soloseznet/index.html), a discussion list geared toward solo and small firm lawyers. He began the list nearly 15 years ago as a way for a few tech-savvy lawyers to share ideas, questions, and observations related to their practices. It has since grown to include 3,400 members, who do everything from talking about new technologies to helping other members plan their vacations. “We have now grown into a global community.”
Bob Moss, a retired judge and litigator who gives presentations on law office technology, says there are wide variations between the quantity and quality of legal information bar associations offer their members. In his experience, some offer programs that are “too vanilla and there’s nothing out there.”
He finds that most of the people who go to his seminars are solo and small firm attorneys. Larger firms tend to have their own IT departments. In many cases, participants at his programs do not have up-to-date software or know how to use it, he adds.
PMAs to the rescue?
To deal with this and other practice management issues, a number of states have hired practice management advisors (PMAs) to advise members on all aspects of running their practices, including the use of technology, according to Moss.
One such PMA is Nerino Petro, Jr., who has filled that role for the State Bar of Wisconsin (SBW) since 2006. Petro writes the “Product Watch” column for the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s Law Practice magazine and gets to sample all kinds of new products. He gets a wide range of questions from attorneys, ranging from “Should I upgrade to the latest version of my software” to “Should I get a new computer to replace my 5-year-old model?”
Because he keeps up with the latest trends and products, Petro believes even his most tech-savvy members rely on him for information about what’s new in the business. He also publishes a blog and oversees the SBW’s Practice411 e-list.
Where else do lawyers get IT information?
Statistics on where lawyers get their tech information contain some interesting findings. More than 63 percent of respondents to a 2008 survey conducted by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center (LTRC) say they get their information from print publications, says Catherine Sanders Reach, LTRC director. The written word is the highest scoring resource, a result that is consistent with previous studies although more attorneys (42 percent) now say they use Web sites and blogs.
More than 40 percent get help from staff members and more than 43 percent ask peers, Reach says. Only 17 percent turn to e-mail or online discussion groups.
Reach says that technically sophisticated attorneys in more remote or rural areas may find their local bar association resources to be limited. But she believes they can be useful resources to their bars by helping to teach other members how to automate their practices or their existing software.
“In some bars, members are just dying for this information,” according to Reach. “You find other members who are at the forefront and you say ‘Who better to talk about using technology in their practice than them?’ ”