"Using Technology to Compete with the Larger Firms" (1)
1. By Paul D. Supnik, 9401 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1100, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, Tel. 310-859-0100, Fax: 310-388-5645. See the website www.supnik.com for other material on law practice management (as well as materials on the subjects of copyright, trademark, entertainment law, federal court practice and international law). This paper was originally distributed in connection with a talk given to the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles on April 24, 2003. Reproduced with permission.
Technology helps small firms compete on a more level playing field with larger firms. That does not mean that you have to do everything the same way THEY do it. What it does mean is that you can be more flexible and able to quickly embrace newer, technology and make it work for you. To compete effectively, you may need to exercise a greater awareness and make better use of technology than the average lawyer.
You have probably heard that we as individuals achieve only a small potential of our abilities. That saying has an analog in connection with the use of technology. Most lawyers use only a small fraction of the features available on ordinary software, including even their most used software, WordPerfect or Word, let alone special purpose software. Obviously, we are lawyers and we want to practice law; technology is only a tool to help us achieve our goals more efficiently. It is not efficient for use to use every feature of software we own. On the other hand, there are some very significant benefits to learning how to use and expand on the technology products which currently exist. My suggestion - occasionally browse through software user manuals and learn some of the benefits available with the software that you use. My objective tonight is to show you how a few of the software and technology tools can significantly impact your practice and allow you to stand tall running with and against the wolves.
First a few general comments. Being first on the block with technology is not necessarily the best. Use products that are widely used. Lawyer specific products tend to work well if used by a lot of lawyers. Large numbers permit a company to fix bugs and make improvements in the software. A software company acquired by a larger company may not raise a red flag, but does raise at least a yellow flag. Some of the software which I discuss may be in the "yellow flag" area, but may still be worth consideration. Most software companies permit you to try out their software for a brief period of time before purchasing. Take advantage of their generosity.
Attorney calendaring software has grown and migrated through the years from awkward information entry programs to rule based docketing systems. The question is not whether or not to use calendar software. It simply is a matter of which. And answering the question "which" is not easy. When calendar software works, it just makes life simpler. Critical dates are less likely to be ignored. Your E&O carrier will be pleased. And life will simply be more manageable. So what type of computer software is available? First, there is simply the electronic equivalent of a paper calendar. That can be found on programs like Microsoft Outlook. Appointment and todo information can be plugged in. Outlook can be synchronized with a Palm but not perfectly. The Palm itself can be used as a calendaring program. It is easy to use, does not have lots of features, but may work best in the environment of one or two lawyers without an overwhelmingly active practice. However, neither Outlook nor the Palm Desktop offers the type of features which are available on lawyer specific products. Those features include rules based calendaring, tickler systems and various reporting methods. Rules based calendaring generates a series of dates based on an event. The rules are based on, for example, Los Angeles Superior Court rules or the Local Rules for the Central District of California. Given the date for a trial, a number of critical dates are triggered from that trial date and are calculated automatically by the calendar program which notifies you in some manner. A tickler system reminds you that dates are coming up within a given period of time, such as a week prior to the date of the event. Depending on the nature of your practice, a rules based calendaring system can be effective. However, there are limitations. First, there is may be a significant cost factor for some rules based calendaring systems. It may be important to maintain the rules on a regular basis or risk becoming too dependent on the rules without considering changes. A rules based calendar system is advantageous if you have a heavy court caseload and if you have several attorneys in the office. Who in your office will be using the calendar? If you have some hands on experience with the way the calendar works, that is probably important. Too many times the computer functions are sent to others in the law office, and in that situation, two problems occur. First, the lawyer is unable to use the program when a key person is missing. Second, being able to spend at least some time to play with the program gives a greater understanding of its capabilities and how it can be used.
Calendar functions have been built into personal information management programs (PIMS). The PIM was the hot computer program ten years ago. Examples of these programs included ECCO Pro, the full version of Outlook, Lotus Agenda and others. No program was specifically designed for lawyers. Then about 5 years ago, two programs emerged, Amicus Attorney and Time Matters. The objective of these programs was to take as much information about your cases and practice and make that information readily available. These programs are not calendaring programs per se, but each have elements of calendaring programs and are very useful in the overall ability to practice law. I cannot tell you which is best. They are different. They each have their own advantages. I use Amicus, but if I had started with Time Matters, I would probably use that program, not necessarily because one is better than the other, but because whatever you are using, there is a learning curve which must be overcome. Since I use Amicus Attorney, I will discuss that program. Amicus is easy to start with since a slimmed down version of it is available for about $100. That provides a good taste of the program. A more expensive version of Amicus Attorney is required to link with Palm PDA's. Look at the websites, www.amicus.ca and www.timematters.com. Both programs are available for a 30 day free trial.
What others say is that Amicus might be better for smaller firms, while Time Matters permits greater customization for larger firms. Let me give some examples of how some aspects of the Amicus Attorney program works. You have 50 cases. Each case has a folder. Each folder and case has various witnesses and individuals associated with the case. A visual image of a folder appears on the computer screen. On the left hand side is a list of the witnesses in the case. Clicking on one of the name brings up the contact information. On the right hand side of the screen is the right hand side of a folder. As with a real world physical folder, notes on the case can be written down. But we also have the opportunity to click and see a record of all telephonic communications or e-mail communications and obtain a running record of all communications involved in the case. If you take the effort to use these features, the value to your cases can be substantial. Or by clicking on events, all appointments can be identified which are or were associated with the case. A contact database is also available which links to your Palm. Amicus Attorney has a calendar which allows the quick insert of an appointment or event such as a deposition date. the left side of the calendar provides a to-do list of events. The right side shows a calendar either by day, week, month or otherwise. Amicus does not use a rules based calendar system with predefined calender events of the type which is available, for example, with Abacus, Compulaw or Legalex (now a part of Prolaw).
One of the most useful devices in Amicus is a "do" button. One of the benefits of technology is that it helps overcome inertia of doing things. The "do" button allows several things to happen. If you have taken the effort to connect your computer to a phone line, by clicking the do button, the do button can be easily set so that it dials a phone call to an individual identified on Amicus. The inertia of looking up a phone number and dialing it is eliminated. On dialing, a screen comes up allowing you to take notes on what was said, and if you care to, print a copy of the member, do a time entry, or set a callback reminder. The "do" button can also be set to create a variety of documents. Amicus also integrates with the Hot Docs document assembly program, but more recently has developed its own document assembly program.
After a document is generated and sent out, a photocopy is usually placed in the client's file. The Amicus program uses the file folder metaphor with documents electronic documents. Digital "documents" are normally fixed on the "virtual brads" of the right side of the virtual file folder. You can keep either WordPerfect/Word documents attached to the folder for immediate review or they can be digitized images in pdf form that still can be instantly retrieved. Again, the inertia of either having someone else or yourself seek out a document in the folder is greatly reduced.
Setting up Your Own Domain, E-mail and Website
I have been using the Internet since about 1995 and about that time, was told about another lawyer whose practice was somewhat similar to my that had his own domain name. I thought that was intriguing and looked into it. Obtaining the domain name was not difficult. What was more complex, I thought, was creating my own website. Having someone else do the website seemed far too expensive, and would not embody what I wanted to put on the website. Why would I want my own domain? First, it can be more personal. It can include your name. Or in your area of practice, it may have the pneumonic or phrase that your clients and potential clients are likely to remember.
A domain is essentially a pneumonic address. For example, my domain is "supnik.com". And in fact, if you bothered reading your Los Angeles Lawyer magazine, for a fairly lengthy period of time, I advertised the domain name in the LA Lawyer magazine as supnik.com. I had business cards printed up that said only "supnik.com" and "copyright, trademark and entertainment law." What did that do? It told the user of services exactly what type of law I practiced. I had the advantage of having a unique name to begin with. And I was able to communicate that to the consumer. But my audience for legal services may not the same as yours. While many of you want to target the general consumer, my client is more likely to be the lawyer down the hall, across the state or in the next country. I found that as a result, I did receive benefits from the website. They included numerous calls from consumers who wanted free advice, and for me that was not particularly beneficial. Those were clients who for the most part could not afford to pay for legal services. But those clients may be your target audience. How do I set up a domain? Simple. Go to one of the domain registers. For example, you can go to Verisign.com or Register.com. You can register a domain name there for about $35 a year, if it is available. Registering for several years reduces the pricing somewhat.
What Domain to Register?
Take some time to think about what you want to convey. Is it your own name? Is the domain easy to remember? is it likely to be misspelled? Is it to have some significance? A memorable name is most important. Keep the number of syllables and words to a minimum. If there is more than one way the consumer is likely to type in the domain, then the domain is probably not very good. Avoid hyphens since they may feel awkward to type. Definitely avoid the underscore.
Avoid registering a domain confusingly similar to an existing name or trademark. If so, you may find yourself in an ICANN domain dispute resolution process in which the domain can be pulled from you in something a little like an abbreviated arbitration on paper within the space of a few months time with no jury and no live testimony. You also want to make sure your domain is renewed in a timely manner. If it is a particularly valuable name, you could find that someone else could hijack it at the end of the registration term.
Once you get a domain name, what can you do with it? First you can put a website on the domain. Second you can use it to establish e-mail addresses, and most likely a number of e-mail addresses. Why do you want an e-mail address from your domain? Because it is simply more professional. I submit that "firstname.lastname@example.org" simply does not sound professional today. It sounds makeshift and it sounds as if you do not have a real office or take practicing law very seriously.
How do you set up a website and e-mail with your domain? The next step is either setting up a server, or using a web hosting service. Unless you have very grandiose plans, my suggestion is to not waste your money or time with your own web server. Instead, use a web hosting service. These services, costing usually from about $15 per month to $100 per month do a more than adequate job of storing your website, and storing and forwarding e-mail to you. I have been paying 19.95 a month for web hosting for years and it has been more than adequate. More expensive hosting will permit you to include fancier features such as Real Audio streams so that brief interviews, commentary and even brief videos can be included on your website.
I am not necessarily recommending this to everyone, but I am telling you that it is possible to create your own website and that it is not that difficult to do. If you are recent law school graduates, you may already know how from a class in college. If you did not learn or take a class in college, I will tell you how I did it. I simply bought a book at Barnes & Noble, read it and did it. Software can be free. If you do not have it already, download Netscape Communicator from their website. You do not need to know how to write HTML. The site may not look perfect. But later, if you want to jazz it up, you can hire a college student to do so. Only you know just what you want to include in your website.
A word of caution about publishing your email address. Most spam comes from published e-mail addresses. So if you publish your most important e-mail address, you are asking for trouble. The e-mail address that I originally published, and did so everywhere, receives about 60 e-mails a day, probably 1 or 2 consisting of personal or real messages, a half dozen from list services I have requested to be on, and the remaining e-mails simply spam. It is very time consuming to go through and delete all the spam to get to the useful e-mails. Therefore, I would save for your clients and personal contacts your important e-mail address and avoid its publication.
The Benefits of Using Digital Documents and Scanners
Digital documents are inexpensive and useful. A digital document is a digital image which is typically made with a scanner, but may be created with something equivalent, such as a copier or something else that digitizes a page. The quality is significant. The storage space on a computer hard drive today is fairly minimal. A typical page which is digitized may take up less than 100K of storage space. That means that over 10,000 pages can fit on 1 gigabyte of storage. A typical inexpensive hard drive purchased today for a computer has 40 gigabytes or more of storage and that figure is on its way up.
What do the big firms do? With their sophisticated systems, they will regularly scan large quantities of documents in a lawsuit. If you consider that a Bekins box may contain 5,000 pages, that entire box of documents may fit on a single CD. You can have that done too, depending upon the nature of the case. You might find that the cost of scanning documents and burning a CD to be not too far from copy costs, such as 10 to 15 cents per page. How do you find out? Call up companies like Advanced Document Services and ask them for their cost. It is something like going to Kinko's and having a box of documents copied, but instead of copied, they are burned onto a CD. But that still is a significant cost. What are the advantage of putting the documents in electronic form? Convenience-you can access a document from your desk instead of looking for it in many boxes. The document can be linked into many programs so that when the document is referred to in some program, a single key click can bring it up on a screen. In any event, digitizing key documents is a very significant convenience, rather than digging through the file each time. And if you really want a hard copy, you can print them out directly when they are on the screen. Documents can also be set up for trial evidence much quicker if they can be accessed quickly on your computer. Digital documents can be OCR'd. That means that the computer can be used for text searching the documents. Digital documents can be sent to clients, cocounsel and opposing counsel over the internet. Digital documents can be "bates" stamped. Copies can be quickly made from your own desk.
On a more manageable scale, documents can be scanned in on a more limited basis in most cases. There are several types of scanners. There is the individual scanner which is small, low cost, and fine for the occasional document to be scanned, such as the Visioneer Paperport. Most scanners are not designed for the lawyer in mind. Most are designed for scanning in photographs and articles and are known as flatbed scanners. You open a cover, place the document to be scanned over the glass cover the glass and scan. The Visioneer Paperport was a pioneer in very small scanners that sit next to your desk so that you could feed a single page document. This is inefficient though fine for single pages. For lawyers, the best is a sheet fed scanner with an automatic document feeder, or if your copying machine is up to it, use the copying machine as a scanner. An intermediate approach can be had by spending about $700 to $1000 on a scanner for the law office. HP has a model 7450c sheet fed scanner with an automatic sheet feeder. Fujitsu has a Scan Partner 15c sheet fed scanner as well, 15 pages per minute, 50 sheet automatic document feeder at a price of about $1,000. Both of these scanners will take a stack of papers and allow them to be fed and digitized. The reason you want a sheet fed scanner with automatic document feeder (or a digital copying machine) is that documents we lawyers work with are usually more than one page. You can then take the digitized image scanned and have the digital images OCR'd. Scanners may be bundled with OCR software, which is not perfect, but usually pretty good. I have found that the main problem with OCR software for the most part is that it is too good. That is it will try to create formatting for you. But usually, the attempt to include formatting codes in documents simply means it takes a longer time and more effort to clean them up. For much of the use of OCR, it is best that no formatting is done by the program, and rather, only plain text is generated.
Why OCR? Lets try some examples. For written discovery, you can have written discovery converted to digital text and then be able to have the responses instantly converted. What about a wonderful brief that you though might be useful, but was not available in electronic form? If the documents are sent through OCR, it is possible to build an electronic index of the documents. Then, documents can be searched for key words and digitally selected and searched.
Dictation Services and Voice Recognition Software
The most important part of dictation is that it takes what is in your mind and places it on print quickly, and with minimal mental inertia. Sure, it is nice to have an assistant always available to transcribe your dictation. But often for the sole practitioner, that is not practical. For years I have found that someone who is there on a daily basis to be ideal, but not necessarily cost effective. So as sole practitioners, you are always having to look for less costly solutions. One approach is the dictation service. When I originally started practicing, there was a dictation service that would pick up your tapes, and then return documents to you fully typed. The presumption was that you were such a good dictator, that the documents would come out perfect. That was in the days when word processing was fairly new. No document was returned perfect, and the secretarial services at the time were thus less than satisfactory. As matters progressed, a dictation service in the building that I practiced would return documents to you on disk. One currently operating dictation service is CyberSecretaries. They charge a penny a word, which works out to about $2.50 per typewritten page (12 point courier) or about $25 per 10 page brief. You dictate into a telephone. You dial a number. You identify yourself with your code. The telephone keypad is used to start and stop dictation, to rewind and to listen to what you have said. You can phone in from anywhere. The dictation is transcribed, returned to you by e-mail in WordPerfect or Word and then you can make any edits or changes and your document is complete. Go to their website, www.youdictate.com for more information. They allow you a free test drive of their service.
Voice recognition software is the other possibility for the lawyer. I have been using Dragon voice recognition software on and off for about 8 years. I first tried it back when it was called Dragon Dictate when you had to speak words individually and pause between words. The program always required the fastest computer to use the software effectively. The dictation was certainly not very accurate, in fact far from that. It did to some extent help perform the primary objective of dictation, and that is to take what is on your mind and place it quickly on the printed page without mental inertia. Voice recognition software has continuously improved, though it still does not have the accuracy I find completely satisfactory. That being said, I do believe that it is viable for use in a law office, and in particular, in a small law office. One of the things that it can do is help put out a first draft quickly. Voice recognition spelling errors is not usually the problem, but rather other errors and there are many. If you use an assistant, you can have a first draft dictated with the software and have the assistant make initial corrections. A further approach is by use of Dragon Naturally Speaking with a digital voice recorder. Since the digital recorder is able to transfer digital files to the computer, it is possible to transfer dictation to a computer and then have the computer transcribe the dictation to digital text. One difficulty in connection with voice recognition software is that it tends to be sensitive to the consistency in which the microphone is placed to your mouth. If it changes, the dictation accuracy tends to radically decrease. It is probably easier to maintain a close and consistent contact using a digital voice recorder than a headset in which the headset microphone tends to move around a lot. On the other hand, the use of a headset for instant conversion of sounds to digital text, allows instant feedback concerning the accuracy of the dictation. Before purchasing, look at the website for compatibility with both computer sound cards, microphones, and digital recorders as voice recognition software tends to be sensitive to variations in equipment. Although far from perfect, it is worth trying. I have a tendency to use voice recognition software for a period of time, drop it and go back to it. Back in 1995 I predicted that it would become perfected in 5 years. It has not, but it is now useful in the law office. Maybe in another 5 years I can say it is the best way to get information from the lawyers mind to the printed paper.
My Favorite Uses of Technology - Litigation Support/Timelines/Outlines
But the best way for a solo or small practitioner can keep up with the big firms is the use of litigation support software which can put your case in perspective quickly. So far, I think that the best way of doing that is with the software put out by CaseSoft. The up-front costs of this can be somewhat expensive at the outset, but can really pay off for any litigation practice. Their website can be found at www.casesoft.com. Let me begin with CaseMap. When I first heard of this program, I sort of yawned at it, thought it was complex, was not particularly useful and ignored it. Then, I took another look. The program was developed by a company that was involved in doing trial graphics. They had another program which I will discuss which created nice looking timelines out of sequential events. So I tried the program out. You can do the same for free for 30 days, (and in fact many lawyer specific programs are available on company websites on trial for 30 days, after which time, the program may stop working after you are hooked on it). I got hooked on CaseMap, so the "free for 30 days" marketing apparently did work.
CaseMap might be considered to be a giant knowledge repository for your case. Everything about your case goes into CaseMap, and after only a little effort, the big picture in the case starts to emerge, while the little details of your case are readily accessible. I have not told you what those details are yet since they are extensive, yet they are very usable, accessible and displayable. You begin with a case by creating a cast of characters, the individuals involved in the case, the companies and other organizations and at least the key documents. The program is not simply a big database for storing documents, and although it can be used to store numerous documents and filter them, it may be used on a more focused selection of documents. That does not mean it is not used with big cases. CaseSoft has managed to license CaseMap to the justice department and numerous large firms.
At the beginning of a case, you may only cull a few of the persons, documents and facts as you initially visit with the client. As more conferences, investigation and phone calls are made, these pieces of the puzzle of the case become filled out. Spreadsheets are created for different elements or "objects" which are the persons, organizations, documents and other elements. The spreadsheet of persons, for example, allows you to identify the person by name, telephone number, their role in the case, and other information in columns or fields, which may but need not be filled out. The spreadsheet can be modified to hide and make visible various fields. Copies of the spreadsheets can then be printed out and placed in a 3 ring binder to help as the case progresses. For each object, a dictionary of objects with short names is created to maintain consistency.
The key to any case is to apply the facts to the law. You then create another spreadsheet of facts referencing different objects, and identifying the date of the fact or event. For example, on June 3, 2002, Joe Smith was injured at ABC Market. On June 4, 2002, Joe Smith went to see Dr. Jones. Joe Smith, Dr. Jones and ABC Market are all objects which have been identified on the objects spreadsheet. The first fact, that Joe Smith was injured on a particular date appears from an investigator statement. The fact spreadsheet includes a "source" field so that the source of the fact can be identified. The program also forces you to create an outline of issues involved in the case. In creating the fact spreadsheet, the issues applicable to any particular fact are checked so that after some work has been done on the spreadsheet, you are able to cull all facts relating to particular issues. As more information is input, the value of the spreadsheets to the case becomes clear. When it finally becomes time to prepare or oppose a summary judgment motion, a settlement proposal, or trial, that process becomes simple. Given a particular issue, all facts can be culled from the program relating to that issue. But the facts are not useful unless their source is available--and they are immediately before you. Moreover, the program even has the provision of having you identify the importance of the facts and whether the degree to which the facts are helpful to your case which can also be used to quickly size up the case.
A more recent addition to the program has been the inclusion of an authorities spread sheet which lets you organize your legal research. Each authority is identified by the columns or fields of name, citation, comments on the case and links to particular issues of the case. In preparing a motion based on the authority, it becomes a simple matter to cut and paste the authority and the citation, along with information into the motion, add some additional commentary and the legal brief is completed. In all of the spreadsheets involved, it is possible to link the source material, whether that be a particular document, or a particular case directly into the program. Thus, by moving the cursor over to the particular spreadsheet cell with the source, or the document, and pressing the F9 function key, the actual document, either in Word, WordPerfect or PDF format is brought up on the screen. For about $500, it is expensive to the sole practitioner, but if you use it it is well worth the price. The program is licensed per lawyer user. That means that the program can be placed on your desktop computer at the law office and on your laptop that you might bring home with you. This is not a program just for the paralegal to use. It is only useful if you use it yourself on a regular basis so that you can develop an intimate knowledge of your case.
I alluded to another program put out by CaseSoft, TimeMap. TimeMap, actually was the first program I tried out by the company. Years earlier, in an article which I had written for the Computer Counselor column of the Los Angeles Lawyer magazine, I suggested the use of a timeline program in the law practice. Then, all that were available were project management programs, primarily used in manufacturing and in the construction industry to plan the allocation of labor and other resources to enable a project to be completed within a particular time frame, based on particular milestones in the project. A byproduct of those programs were "Gantt" charts which would visually show when particular events were completed. But it was not quite perfect and no one seemed to have the answer. And this was an important type of program for the law office. What I wanted was to be able to readily visualize the sequence of events in a case. Virtually every case involves a sequence of events. Would it not be possible for a computer program to be able to receive a date and description of an event, and then display that in a pretty format? TimeMap was exactly what I was looking for. You type in the event and the date, and it creates a box on a timeline scale. You add the "source" of the information so that you are readily referenced to the source of the information upon which the event and date is based. Add a few more events and the relationship between the events on a timescale is readily visible. The program has now been around long enough to have improvements such as being able to collapse the scale and otherwise reformat the look of the visuals generated. The program also integrates with CaseMap so that upon pressing "control-shift T," a new timeline is created from all the facts in the fact spreadsheet.
Alternatively, only a few of the facts or lots of the facts can be selected. Facts can be edited and removed from the timeline so you can show just those which are persuasive to you point of view without confusing the viewer. And then the timeline can be printed out on a scale of from 1 to 20 sheets of paper. Once the timeline is pretty good shape, you can have a courtroom blowup of it. My recommendation is go to www.casesoft.com website and try it out for free. The cost of the program is reasonable.
One additional program worth taking a look at is an outlining program. As with most of the programs that I think are good for lawyers, is a program that reduces mental inertia and that makes doing work easy. An outlining program helps. An outline program in a sense is a brainstorming program in that it lets you put out ideas quickly, and rearrangement them in a meaningful way later. It avoids the necessity of numbering headings and allows headings or labels to be incremented by simply a carriage return, and changing the level of an outline by pressing the tab key. It allows you concentrate on an area of points by "hoisting" them and isolating them from the rest of the outline. An outliner can then move up and change the positioning of any point or groups of points instantly, while automatically changing the labels of the headings. Uses for outlining programs are for quickly developing a comprehensive outline for a brief, brainstorming outlines of testimony and cross-examination, developing collections of available evidence, and preparing checklists for trial. The first popular outliner program was created shortly after the appearance of the personal computer, originally as a shareware program and then as part of a program called Grandview. The concept was resurrected in a program called EccoPro. Now, the only outline program apparently available for the legal profession at this time appears to be NoteMap by CaseSoft. A 30 day copy can be downloaded at www.casesoft.com .
One Final Suggestion
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