October 23, 2012

Who Is...Andrew Z. Adkins III

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Andrew Z. Adkins III

Q & A with Mark Tamminga


Vital Statistics

  • Andrew Z. Adkins III
  • Director, Legal Technology Institute; Associate Director, Technology Services University of Florida Levin College of Law
  • Gainesville, FL
  • www.law.ufl.edu/lti

At the University of Florida's Levin College of Law, Andy Adkins maintains a big list of to-dos at the Legal Technology Institute, with duties encompassing administration and finance, legal technology consulting, Web site design and development, training development, project management and market research. He also co-teaches a unique course on practice management skills and tools, designed to teach law students that the practice of law is a business, too. He has delved deeply into legal automation issues, particularly case management systems, and over the years consulted with hundreds of lawyers, law firms, and state and local governments to help them analyze and manage their automation needs. This is a man on a mission: to promote more and better use of technology in the legal profession.
For many years, he has written and spoken widely on the issue, even finding time to serve as ABA TECHSHOW® Chair in 2000 and 2001. Among his publications is the ABA book Computerized Case Management Systems, as well as a remarkable volume cowritten with his father, You Can't Get Much Closer Than This, which recounts his father's stirring experiences as an infantry officer during World War II. Kicking off this interview, Andy tells a bit about his own time in the military...

You're probably the only legal technologist ever to drive a fire truck across the deck of an aircraft carrier. How did you end up on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk?

AA: I was only 18 when Florida State University asked me to leave ("dismissed for academic reasons"; something about a 0.7 GPA). At that time, I wasn't sure what to do with my young life, so I joined the Navy. The reason I chose the Navy was because I was into scuba diving (in which I had a 4.0 grade average). In those days, you'd go to the recruiter and look through a catalog of jobs and I chose "Aviation Boatswain's Mate Handler." An ABH had two types of jobs: an aircraft director (those guys on the flight deck who wear yellow shirts and wave their hands helping direct aircraft) and a firefighter (those guys who run toward a fire when everyone else runs away).

I was first stationed in Agana, Guam—great place for scuba diving, by the way—where I worked in Crash and Rescue. After 15 months, I was transferred to the Kitty Hawk, where I was initially in Crash and Salvage. While in Guam, I learned to drive all the fire trucks, so there was no difference on the ship, except that you couldn't drive as far in a straight line. So when people ask about my driving skills, I usually tell them that I used to drive fire trucks...on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. That gets their attention.

As to how that experience influences my work today, I'll simply state that my life has been a series of blessings and opportunities. I learned sometime ago that each stage or job or chapter prepares you for the next.

So from the military into electrical engineering into legal technology consulting. Trace that route for us.

AA: When I was stationed in Bremerton, Washington, in the dry docks, I attended a couple of basic electricity classes at the local community college. I really liked the concepts, so I decided that when I was discharged, I'd get a degree in electrical engineering.

When I returned home to Florida, though, I needed a job. I joined the Gainesville City Fire Department and worked there for more than two years while attending community college. Then I transferred to the University of Florida, and my GPA went from a 3.6 (remember FSU) to a 2.9, so I decided I needed to quit the fire department and attend school full-time. I had met and married my wife, Becky, during this time, and she helped put me through school. I received my BSEE degree in 1982, then worked for Weyerhaeuser out West for a couple of years.

We eventually moved back to Florida and I took a job with Harris Corporation in Melbourne—I designed "black box" communications systems. A great job, but after four years I wanted to do more, to learn more of the craft. I remember Becky and I sitting on our couch talking about what we might want to do next and she suggested going back to school and completing my master's degree. Doing it at Gainesville was a done deal, since we had a house there and my parents still lived there. Also, in May 1988, my father was diagnosed with cancer. I won't go into a lot of details, only that we were so blessed to be with my dad his last year. He passed away in June 1989 and I received my master's in August.

That same year I began my own consulting company and decided to start working with lawyers. Since my father had been a lawyer in Gainesville for 36 years and I had an uncle who was a Florida Supreme Court justice, the name Adkins was already in the legal field. Besides that, I was somewhat knowledgeable about computers (I'd even completed my master's thesis using WordPerfect 5.0) and lawyers were just starting to get desktop computers. As the time, there were relatively few people who understood how lawyers worked and the complexity of technology. I happened to step into this industry at the right time. And here I am 18 years later continuing to do what I have such a passion for.

After being on your own for a spell, you pitched the University of Florida College of Law on setting up a collaboration. How did that come to be?

AA: When you're in business for yourself, you learn the phrases "peaks and valleys" and "feast or famine." After eight years, I was in one of those financial valleys. At that time, Rick Matasar was the dean of the UF College of Law, and I knew he had come from Chicago-Kent College of Law and the kind of reputation that college had with technology—second to none.

I decided to introduce myself to Dean Matasar and we hit it off pretty well. After a couple of meetings, I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to create an institute for legal technology at this school?" So I put together what I called the "Blueprint Plan for the Legal Technology Institute at the University of Florida," and I presented it to Matasar and George Dawson, the associate dean. After a couple of more meetings, voila, we decided to establish the Legal Technology Institute (LTI).

LTI is self-funded, meaning we provide independent consulting services to the legal profession and they pay the college of law—I'm a full-time salaried employee of the state of Florida. We've also conducted several nationwide studies (such as Internet Use by Lawyers, ASPs for Lawyers, Knowledge Management and a few others), which help fund all the activities at LTI. LTI also provides consulting internally to faculty, administration, staff and students. It's a great job and a great environment in which to work.

In your role as LTI's director, you have a front row seat to the latest crop of law students. Do they "get it"? And how is technology playing out in the classroom?

AA: Most students haven't got a clue what makes law school different from any other discipline. My personal opinion is that first-year law students are no different from first-year engineering students or first-year medical students. They come from a basic undergraduate education and have "matured" (or not matured) somewhat during that process. Now, though, it's time to get serious, with law professors trying to get students to think in different ways than they're used to, through all kinds of paradigms and scenarios. It's just a necessary process.

Students today come in with somewhat of a technology background, something you and I never had. They've grown up with microwaves (I'm showing my age here), computers, MP3 players and all kinds of other technologies. However, they are "users" of technology, rather than being "expert" in technology, and can tend to expect everything to work perfectly every time.

Law schools and professors, too, are struggling with technology and the use of technology in the classroom. The UF College of Law has a mandatory laptop policy, meaning that every incoming student needs to have access to a laptop. However, just because they have a laptop doesn't mean that every class is conducive to using a laptop. In fact, there are several professors in our law school as well as across the country who actually refuse to let students use laptops in their classes. Why? Professors teach the law and its concepts. And one of the major arguments for professors is that when you're typing "verbatim," you don't always get the concepts. On the other hand, many of these kids grew up multitasking and, for their part, they think they can get the concepts even while checking the latest scores on ESPN. At UF COL, the professors make up the classroom laptop policies as they see fit. It's a debate that will be going on for years.

Something else I'm seeing is an interest in practice management education. I co-teach a class on "Law Practice Management" and it's always booked. We teach the business of law, keeping timesheets, invoicing, accounting, document and records management, and we teach that in various types of practice arenas: transactional and litigation.

You also do a lot of technology consulting, so you see how lawyers are implementing technology in practice. Or not. How has the "technology issue" changed over your career?

AA: When I first started consulting in 1989, WordPerfect was the king and Microsoft was just an operating system. The old ATT 6300 (with 640KB RAM, a 10MB hard drive and green text display) cost more than $5,000. And what could you do with it? You used WordPerfect. Now we're deep in the information age, or as I like to call it, the "information chaos" age. It's a sea of change. There is so much out there that the big problem today is managing information. We have countless documents we've created, e-mails with attachments we've received, tons of yellow pad notes, and faxes out the gazoo. How does one handle all that information in a reliable and efficient manner? That may be the technology question of our day.

The Internet, of course, has changed our professional and personal lives, and it will only continue to grow. But one has to understand how it works and how the information flows to and fro. I spend a lot of my time doing work-flow analysis with law firms, helping them understand how technology works within their offices and how they can better utilize what they have. The key is to understand this: It's not just technology, it's the use of technology.

To illustrate, I often relate the story of a consultation I had with the Florida Supreme Court.
I was invited to conduct a technology assessment. I talked with the justices, their judicial assistants and staff, and the IT department staff to get an idea of what they had and some of the problems they were experiencing. At the end of the site visit, I asked to speak to the justices. Now, if you haven't been alone in a room of supreme court justices, that can be an intimidating experience!

I started out thanking them for the opportunity to work with such an esteemed group. I then made the comment, "I understand why you wanted a technology consultant to assess the environment, but I think what you really need is a marriage counselor." That broke the ice.
However, the point I was trying to make is that technology was not really the main problem—it was the relationship of the people working with the technology and the people supporting the technology. To optimize the use of technology, you've got to have a happy marriage between the technology and the users.

What things would you like to do for the legal profession to make practice a bit easier over the next five years?

AA: I've had many opportunities to help to make some great changes by providing information in a variety of formats. The LTI's mission is "to provide a forum for making a positive impact and improving technology in the legal profession," and I think we've been fairly successful. We've provided some great nationwide studies to help the profession with direction on various technologies. Through public speaking and publishing, I've been able to help facilitate many different forums to bring thought leaders together to discuss issues and make informative decisions. And at the law school, I've been able to work directly with faculty and students helping them to better use technology and implement some innovative solutions. I'd really like to provide more services to students in their use of computers, too—not just support services, but classes on how to use computers during their law school career.

One of the things I'm also looking at is providing a laboratory setting for evaluating and testing software. Ever since the ABA Legal Technology Advisory Committee disbanded, the only evaluations of software come from end-users, and they're not always objective. I think a testing laboratory would be a useful service to the legal community. Combine that with Web 2.0 functions (wikis, blogs, YouTube and the like) and you've got some clever platforms.

I've also toyed with the idea of a weeklong seminar for legal technology consultants on how to provide better consulting services to the profession. I'd invite the best of the best to present and we'd put together quite a dynamic seminar.

Of course, all of this gets done at nights and on weekends, but that's the nature of this business—you've got to have a passion if you want to make it work.