Lawyers Using Computers

An edited version of this article was originally published in Computer Counselor column of the June 1987 issue of the Los Angeles Lawyer Magazine.

Comments are generalizations and may not apply to every situation. It is advisable to consult with a competent professional before relying on any written commentary. Paul D. Supnik is a member of the State Bar of California and not of any other state or country. The material set forth herein is not for the purpose of soliciting any engagements where to do so would be to offend or violate the professional standards of any other state, country or bar. This web site Copyright 1990, 1996 by Paul D. Supnik

By: Paul D. Supnik


The article sets forth the premise that lawyers, and not only their secretaries should be using computers today. The LACBA Lawyers Using Computers Committee is discussed, as well as the image problem created when lawyers use computers. Examples which follow shows uses for computers by lawyers.


Correcting the Printed Word

Thought Processing

Resident Programs and Operating Environments

Resident utilities

Telephone dialers



Database Programs

Project Management


Bulletin Boards

Legal Databases


Lawyer specific programs

Deposition review

Litigation support and organization

Cite checker

Portable computers

The article concludes with a discussion how to get started with a computer in the law practice.

Lawyers Using Computers

Should lawyers personally use computers? The combination of new useful software and affordable prices means that there is no justification for lawyers not using computers. What can a lawyer's computer be used for and what is the best way to take advantage of it? This article seeks to explore the types of computer programs available to lawyers and how to go about making the most of the new technology.

A large number of lawyers are likely to respond negatively or hesitantly when confronted with the possiblity of having a computer at their desk. "I'm a lawyer" or "I don't want to or have the time to spend to become a computer programmer. After all, the reason for having a computer is to save time and be more efficient."

A realistic response is that some investment of time is required. For the most part, that time is quickly recovered through enhanced productivity.


That productivity goal cannot be achieved if one must spend thousands of billable hours determining how to use a program or computer. Efficiency is also greatly impaired when a lawyer with a computer wants to use a program with a particular aspect of law practice and has to search out reliable sources for input. As a result of these needs and the growing usage of computers by lawyers, the Los Angeles County Bar Association has established a Lawyers Using Computers Committee. The purpose of the committee is to help share and facilitate the information that is rapidly becoming available for the lawyer who does or wish to use a computer on his or her desk.

The recently formed committee has scheduled meetings on a monthly basis. This is an opportunity for those attending to share their way of using various types of software and hardware, and how that hardware and software specifically fits into an efficiently run law office. While many books and magazines discuss computer use, literature applying to computer use by lawyers is much more limited.


Once upon a time, a keyboard positioned next to a lawyers desk did not create the proper image. A lawyer should not be perceived as a secretary. Nor should a lawyer be perceived as a master of technology. How can a lawyer justify high hourly fees if a keyboard is nearby? That image perhaps was even more of a problem for women lawyers trying to develop a strong identity apart from the public's fading mistaken presumption that if a woman is in a law office, she must be a in a clerical position. Those image problems are gradually changing, as more attorneys have terminals on their desk and clients begin to respect, understand and even demand that attorneys use computers. The reasons for lawyers using computers goes far beyond word processing as will be explained shortly.


Most lawyers can type at least a little. Some a lot. For the most part, the prevalent attitude is that it is a wasted use of a lawyers time to type. However, limited wordprocessing by lawyers does have its place. How many times have you seen an attorney sneak off to use the secretary's typewriter after hours? Or when a document has to be at court by 9:00 am and the support staff does not arrive until 9:15? Have you ever heard from opposing counsel in a large firm with a central word processing department, tell you he is unable to have a document completed because the word processing department is behind?

Note taking is one application of a computer by a lawyer. When speaking to a client on the telephone, it is often far easier to take notes on a terminal than on a sheet of paper. The notes are likely to be far more detailed--and more legible. An instant memorandum can be generated when the conversation ends. If the client can relate and accept your use of a computer, far more useful client conferences can be held in your office allowing you to capture more in depth details of your client's story.

Some lawyers, typically younger sole practitioners, now do most if not all of their documents themselves. Key factors to determine whether it is beneficial is whether one can type faster than one can dictate, how critical is the turnaround time to receive documents from the firm's wordprocessing department and is the document one that would benefit from significant instant onscreen revision.(1)

Perhaps a more efficient method than exclusive use of a computer by a lawyer is a combination of dictation for rough draft followed by on screen editing of certain types of documents. When a lawyer has a terminal compatible with that of the secretary, the lawyer can dictate a first draft, the secretary can transcribe and print a hard copy and give a copy on disk to the lawyer. The lawyer can then edit the first draft prepared by the secretary on the terminal, and the secretary can print out the document in final. For documents requiring extensive editing, it is easier to make corrections on the screen in a dynamic manner, than use a fine point pen to interlineate major corrections. Many documents which have portions which are common to other documents are often initially generated from boilerplate electronically pasted together by the lawyer, rather than the secretary.

One word processing program popular in lawyers offices now is WordPerfect. Features for lawyers include generating tables of authorities for briefs, footnote capability, and having an on line thesaurus and spelling checker.


Various programs are on the market which check more than spelling. Punctuation and Style, Grammatik, and RightWriter check grammar, run on sentences, flag lengthy sentences, test sentence structure according to rules set out in Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style", flag improper case, duplicate words, and proper or awkward sentence structure.


While word processing is well known, thought processing is a relatively recent computer usage. Perhaps the most valuable reason for a lawyer to have a terminal on her desk, is the outlining or thought processing program. It is probably the single program that justifies having a terminal on a lawyers desk. Various thought processing programs which are available include Thinktank, Ready!, MaxThink PC-Outline, and an integrated program known as Framework II. The cost of these program range from nothing to about $700. PC-Outline, as originally introduced was a "shareware" program. This means that copies could be freely made and copied without cost. The user of the program was only to pay for the program ($49.95) if it were found useful. Far from a cheap low quality program, PC-Outline had the professional and convenience features of many commercial programs, having pull down menus and allowed working on up to nine (9) separate outlines at one time. That program has now been licensed by a commercial software distributor and, though commercially packaged, is still sold for a reasonable, well under a hundred dollar price.(2)

The basic concept of all thought processing programs is that it allows the user to place information and ideas down quickly, prioritize the ideas, rearrange the ideas, and more importantly, be able to instantly collapse and explode the overall idea outline or portion of the outline. Thus, one can zoom in by making details and subheadings of an outline appear, or zoom out and view the overall picture by seeing only the major topic headings. The concept of thought processing initially might not sound particularly useful or appealing. However, after familiarity with these types of programs, those that use them find them invaluable. Ask any lawyer who has used one for more than a week.

Some thought processing programs produce letters and numerals normally found in outlines. A single keystroke combination makes the next heading appear. Pressing a single function key upgrades a letter heading to a roman numeral, or reduces it to subheading arabic numeral, instantly rearranging and renumbering the rest of the outline to correspond. Consider the following brief outline examples. They are all from the same outline created with PC-Outline.

I. Smith v. Jones


A. Jurisdiction

1) Federal Question

a) 28 USC 1338

2) Diversity

a) 28 USC 1332

3) Pendant Jursidiction

B. Venue

1) Trade Secret Claim

a) 28 USC 1391

b) 28 USC 1400(a)

C. The Parties

1) Plaintiff Smith resides in California

2) Defendant Jones Co. has office in Los Angeles

a) Incorporated in New York

b) Not licensed to do business in


c) Attends trade shows in Los Angeles

d) No sales reps in Los Angeles

D. Liability

E. Damages

1) Copyright issue

a) Statutory

b) Actual Damages

c) Defendants Profits

d) Attorneys fees

2) Trade Secrets

a) Actual Damages

b) Lost Profits

c) Punitive damages

II. Smith v. Jones


A. Jurisdiction

1) Federal Question

a) 28 USC 1338

2) Diversity

a) 28 USC 1332

3) Pendant Jursidiction

4) Venue

B. The Parties

C. Liability

D. Damages

III. Smith v. Jones


A. Jurisdiction

B. The Parties

C. Liability

D. Damages

The changes from one form to another were created with less than two key strokes. The first example shows headings and text in detail. The second collapses a portion of the outline (one keystroke) and changes the hierarchy of the venue entries as a subheading of jurisdiction (one keystroke). Note that headings B, C and D were changed to C, D and E. The third example hides all subheadings (one keystroke). To obtain a paper copy, hold the control key and press "p".

What use is outlining programs for the lawyer? Legal briefs can be quickly organized. Ideas for the brief can be keyed in, rearranged, and then fleshed out. No need for order or organization in putting the ideas into the computer. Contract provisions can be outlined, and additional details can be inserted, rearranged and modified quickly.

One of the more beneficial uses is to completely organize evidence for a lawsuit. For example, the major issues as set out in the pleadings can be set out as separate categories in the outline. Subheadings in the outline can represent the various facts, and evidence which can be used to prove or disprove those facts. Separate subheadings of each issue can be set out for interrogatory responses, admissions, documents, and deposition testimony. The outline is fluid and may be continuously enlarged and modified as the case proceeds.


Resident software has further enhanced the usefulness of computers for lawyers. This software allows the program to be overlaid over an existing program, making it simple to switch from one task to another. Ordinarily, programs are retained in a computer memory one at a time. Resident programs stay or reside in the computer memory and become available at the touch of a few keystrokes. Residence saves considerable time, as would otherwise be required to exit from one program, lose the place in editing, load the second program, then exit and reload the first program and get back to the same location. This makes the resident program a useful tool, which otherwise would not be suitable in a business environment.

Thus, a spelling checker or thesaurus may be quickly overlaid on an existing document. A visual timeslip may appear over a legal brief. An outlining program may be pulled down over a contract, as a client calls to discuss a new case. The lawyer then has the opportunity to take notes on the case and then print out an instant memorandum, automatically date stamped and time stamped. Of similar interest to lawyers are the new operating environments. These allow rapid switching among software programs even though the programs are normally nonresident programs. Some operating environments, like Windows by Microsoft, require faster operating computers than the PC or XT to be truly useful but in effect allow multiple programs to be in use and appear on the screen at the same time. Programs that approach this goal, though not quite as sophisticated but work faster on slower current machines, include Software Carousel which allows up to ten (10) programs to be switched on and off the screen, and DesqView which allows switching of nine (9) programs, several of which can be viewed at the same time on the screen, with multitasking (actually running more than one program at the same time).


These are groups of programs that help make life easier. They are substitutes for what the lawyer would ordinarily use. The earliest popular utilities was Sidekick. Other programs followed under the names "PopUps", "Homebase" and "Polywindows". The nonuser is likely to say, why spend a thousand dollars and clutter up your desk with a computer. You could do the same thing with a telephone index, a pen and paper, 3 x 5 cards in a box, an ordinary paper calendar, a $10 calculator and speed dialing on a telephone? The answer is that it may just be slightly more convenient to have those tools available on a computer on your desk. When a number of these slight conveniences are available over a lengthy period of time, they add up to a considerable benefit. The term "resident" means that the programs are available when needed, even though another brief or document is being worked on. The utility "pops up" or appears over a portion of the computer screen. The calculator may have the appearance of an ordinary calculator and the numbers appearing the on the calculator may be quickly fed into the document that is being edited. A calendar can instantly appear on the screen. Unlike a paper calendar, the ability to go backwards and forwards in time, month by month, or year by year is instantly accessible. An appointment log may similarly be accessed. A separate note pad may be displayed on the screen. A memo can disappear with a single keystroke after it is entered. Programs such as "Smart Notes" or "Note It" can easily replace the popular Post It paper on the computer screen.


Common are separate telephone dialing programs or features on other programs that allow the telephone to be dialed by the computer. The computer is coupled to a modem having an automatic dialing capability, as most currently do. Type in a few letters of the persons name to be dialed and a listing of telephone number is searched; press another key and the telephone is dialed. Is it of value to an attorney or merely a gimmick? Even if the secretary dials call, a little time might be saved.


These programs have become very popular for financial modeling. Spreadsheet programs are sold under the trademarks Lotus 1-2-3, SuperCalc, Visicalc and Multiplan, and more recently, Javelin. These programs generally represent two dimensional charts or worksheets with columns lettered at the top and rows numbered at the left. The intersection of a row and a column is referred to as a cell. The resulting electronic work sheet of cells may be filled in with text and numbers. The cell may include a number or a formula for a number based on other numbers. A series of numbers based on a formula can be shown, and if an assumption used to create the number is changed, the entire series of numbers will change based on the new assumption. This is referred to as "What If" calculations. Javelin displays the formulas for determining what appears in each of the cells using easily understood words.

A typical use for spreadsheets in the law office includes law office budgeting. How does the salary of a new associate affect the annual profits of the firm, in view of the greater billing despite increased overhead? What if the salaries are raised by 5%? Just how good was that contract you just negotiated? What is the bottom line figure on dollars received on a recording contract? The information may also be displayed as graphic charts. The spreadsheet can quickly reflect the effect of changes of these variables.


Having a difficult time preparing charts for trial? Want to show your opposition a simple, clear evaluation of damages? Try a graphics program such as "Graph in the Box" or "Microsoft Chart". Graphics programs take information from tables of numbers on the screen and display the information visually in the form of various types of charts. Other graphics programs allow you to electronically "paint" and draw the images you wish to portray, with appropriate text.


A database is a collection of information. Database programs help organize that information and allow the information to be efficiently collected, sorted, and retrieved in the form of responses to specific inquiries, and in the form of reports. Popular database programs include dBASE III Plus, R:BASE, Paradox and PC-FILE III (a shareware program). Information for a database is collected in the form of records. Each record is analogous to an index card filed with standard information. Thus, clients, name, telephone, address, matter, file number, type of case, might be the information on a typical lawyers database. Each record might exist for a client, or for a file, or for a case. A database program will generate a form on the screen input. Much of the use of database programs, while useful in a law office setting is beneficial, but not necessarily something that a lawyer should spend time with. However, there are some databases that a lawyer may find convenient. Some may initially be keyed in by the secretary, but having immediate access by computer might be beneficial. Consider a client database listing a variety of information about the client available for immediate access.(3)


These programs provide "Pert" charts and "Gantt" charts popular with MBAs and systems analysts who deal with allocating human resources. These charts visually display critical dates, time periods allocated to specific tasks, and overlapping tasks which must be completed by given dates, and may display problems often associated with inadequate resources and less time than required. Management programs may be used to allocate time and monetary resources in larger litigation matters. Given a budget of $250,000 to defend a lawsuit, how much must be budgeted over what period of time, how many lawyer hours are needed until a summary judgment motion is denied? The charts establish a maximum and minimum criteria. It all sounds complicated, but an MBA is not a prerequisite for using these programs in the law office--a J.D. is perfectly adequate. Programs of this type include Timeline and Harvard Total Project Manager which generally sell by mail order for under $300.


A modem is a device that couples the computer to telephone lines. With a computer and a modem on a lawyers desk, the attorney has access to databases, electronic mail and telex. Some modems have the ability to receive messages unauthorized, even when not connected to the computer.(4) Various telecommunications companies such as MCI, Western Union, RCA and ITT allow you to directly send messages by telex throughout the world through your desk. Automatic logon procedures and simplified addressing make it fast to send short telex or electronic mail communication anywhere in the world.


All lawyers are aware of Lexis and Westlaw. Most that have these services probably must run to the firm's library to use them. Would it not be convenient to dial these services up on a terminal from your desk? Group subscription are being set up so that not only are these possible but more economical, as they now operate with PC's. All that is needed is a modem, a telephone line, a PC and communications software.

Fewer lawyers make use of the many other databases available. For example, DIALOG is a library of hundreds of databases available from Lockheed. Use, based on simply a usage charge, rather than a subscription charge, provides information on your client's competitors, allows legal research on a database of legal periodicals, has specialized legal headnote databases for labor cases and also for patent, trademark, copyright and right of publicity cases, and gives insight to useful information for you and your clients. If accessible on ones desk, it is more likely to be used and explored, than if simply available in the firm library. Western Union now has a simplified database subscription series, INFO Master which provides access to some 720 databases.(5)

The Lawyer Using Computers Committee is exploring a system for distributing a shared subscription to LEXIS, resulting in reduced costs to members of the County Bar.

Telex at ones desk, as well as, electronic mail is now available to a lawyer with a PC, modem, modem software and private telephone line. Modem software may be had for as little as nothing (shareware such as QModem, or Procomm) to a few hundred dollars. Password access to MCI's telecommunication services is currently $18/yr. plus usage fees.


Access to several electronic bulletin boards for lawyers are available to the attorney that uses a computer. With a modem, typically costing between $100 to $500, one can contact at least two lawyer bulletin boards. One is operated by the American Bar Association, ABA/NET, and although originating from Chicago, a local telephone number is available which connects you to the board by satellite communications.(6) The second is LEGACY and operated by Robert Kohn, a lawyer in Los Angeles who has put together his own bulletin board. On dialing 553-1473, one is greeted to various on line conferences on copyright, entertainment and communications law. The Los Angeles firm of Hill, Farrer and Burrill has a newsletter on line on LEGACY in the area of labor law. Messages by those who phone in by computer are left on a variety of subject in legal areas. An attempt is made to post various legal forms which may be downloaded or retrieved electronically for editing and modifying to suit ones needs. Both bulletin boards are available for a nominal charge. LEGACY may be accessed without being able to access all its feature without cost. Irrespective of the nominal subscription cost, it provides a valuable service to lawyers, and primarily those in the Los Angeles area.


One timekeeping and billing program useful to the sole practitioner or the small firm is a program called Timeslips.(7) The cost, about a hundred dollars, allows a timeslip to appear on the computer screen. A resident program, the timeslip may appear pulled over whatever else is on the computer without otherwise interupting the program or document on the screen. The timeslip may include the client name, coded so that only a few letters have to be typed to be retrieved, activity type, also coded so that only a few characters have to be typed to be retrieved. Up to 4 lines of narrative and the client matter may be keyed, along with the time. The secretary can complete the process at the end of the month when bills are to be sent out, as with more expensive time and billing packages. But this program is one of those that is especially of benefit only if a lawyer has a terminal on his desk. The reason is that it is generally faster to key in a timeslip on the computer than manually on the paper timeslip sheet with a pen. In addition, the usual intermediate step by the office personnel of keying in what the attorney has manually written on time sheets during the month is eliminated.


Various lawyer specific programs are now in existance and frequently appear in advertisements in legal periodicals. Trust and estates lawyers apparently have their share of programs, as do tax attorneys and personal injury attorneys.(8) A series of articles regarding programs for calculating attorneys fees, child support payments and damages has been written by local Superior Court Commissioner Kent Bridwell.(9)

A new program, CiteRite by JuriSoft, Inc., checks citations, and also costs about a hundred dollars. Thus, a brief may be input into this program, and compared to the style of the Harvard Blue Book. The program has a resident mode whereby cites on the screen may be check for corrections of form instantly. In addition to cite checking, the program generates a table of authorities.(10)

Various trial preparation and evidence organizing programs are now available. While some, particularly when used in connection with complex cases having numerous documents, are suited more for use by a paralegal or secretarial staff, others such as "Trialbook" are of beneficially worked with by the attorney. That more clearly gives the attorney greater familiarity with the case while arranging the information in a form suitable for proving the case at trial.

Deposition programs, such as Depobank are also beneficial for the attorney to use personally. Depobank uses deposition transcripts which have been transfered to computer disk. The Depobank program allows key word searches, allows the building of issue indexes and note taking, and the selective printing of portions of the deposition for use at trial.


Portable computers, now, laptop computers are available which range in costs from $300 to $3000. Most of these can be readily transported, to home and to court. At trials, they can be used for making notes and rephrasing questions to be asked of witnesses, and can aid in polishing the final summation. Material created on these computers can be transferred to the desktop computer at the office for further processing or use.


Speed and efficiency of computers can go far towards justifying the use of a computer by a lawyer. Personal computers, while they can do a wide variety of tasks faster than by hand, can still appear slow to the lawyer using it when waiting to perform certain tasks. Several developments in recent years have increased the working speed of personal computers and have thus enhanced their practicality for lawyers. One feature has been the lower cost of hard disks on the market. A hard disk stores a large amount of information and even a small one is capable of storing all the programs that a lawyer is likely to use and then some. This means that it is no longer necessary to swap disks every time a program is changed. Moreover, the computer will access information on a hard disk much faster than on a floppy disk. Another factor is the clock speed of the computer. IBM AT computers and "clones" being sold today which use the "80286" chip operate at least some degree faster than the original IBM personal computers; some operate many times faster. A different way in which speed is effectively enhanced is the use of resident programs discussed previously. Using resident programs, there is no necessity to exit from one program, and have the computer load the second program.

Larger memory capacities are currently available which allow several resident programs to be available and accessed at the same time. An additional feature, useful when a lawyer uses more than several programs during the day is the integrated environments which allows rapid movement between several programs. That speed is facilitated by what is known as extended memory, which permits programs to be swapped in and out electronically without the computer having to read or write information to either a floppy disk, or a hard disk. New and faster computers based on the "80386" chip are expected to become popular within a few years. Some are already beginning to find their way to the market--but without the software to take advantage of their potential.(11) But today, adequate speed is now available to make the personal computer useful for the lawyers desk.


Various articles are written on the use of computers by lawyers.(12) For example, the ABA journal Legal Economics published by the Economics of Law Practice Section has frequent review of hardware and software for lawyers. The publication PC Magazine and PC World, though not designed for the lawyer, are adequate to get the attorney somewhat familiar with Personal Computers, generally. Two or three issues from the local newsstand should be sufficient to acquire a minimal degree of computer literacy.

1. See Engholm, Let Your Fingers Do the Talking, 12 LEGAL ECONOMICS 56 (May/June 1986).

2. Brown Bag Software, 2105 South Bascom Avenue, Campbell, CA 95008.

3. Local attorney Steve R. Riskin describes how a database program can be used for timekeeping. Create Your Own Billing Program: Using dBase II, You Can Devise A Billing and Internal Accounting System in Just a Few Hours. 4 CALIFORNIA LAWYER 42 (Jan. 84).

4. E.g. Visionary 1200XT from Visionary Electronics Inc., 141 Parker Ave., San Francisco, CA 94118.

5. Krasnoff, 5 PC MAGAZINE 263 (11/25/86) On Line Searches Made Easy.

6. James, Evan, Going to the ABA-Net: The ABA's New Computer Network is Tailor-Made for Lawyers", 6 CAL. LAW. 25 (February 1986).

7. North Edge Software Corp., P.O. Box 286, Hamilton, MA 01936, (617) 468-7358.

8. See e.g. Williams, Software Abounds for Trusts and Estates Lawyers, 8 LEGAL TIMES 15 (May 16, 1986).

9. Calculated Answers: Programming Computers to Solve Substantive Legal Issues, 8 L.A. LAW. 28 (March 1985); Programming Support, 8 L.A. LAW. 41 (April 1985); and Computing Attorneys Fees, 8 L.A. LAW. 56 (May 1985).

10. See Gesmer, Two MicroComputer Software Reviews: AskSam and CiteRite, 12 LEGAL ECONOMICS 52 (Nov.-Dec. 52).

11. Compaq and at least other companies have already begun to sell computers with these faster and more powerful chips. However, industry writers contend that it will be some time before a standard operating system emerges and software will be written to taken significant advantage of the faster 32 bit chips.

12. See e.g. Martin, Personal Computers in the Law Office, 91 CASE & COMMENT 39 (Nov.-Dec. 1986).