Law Office Technology Helps and Hinders Professionals

Adding technology, specifically law office automation technology, is supposed to help the legal process. But can law office automation impede the practice of law, create dread for attorneys, and inadvertently become an obstacle to justice? Is law office automation technology the problem? Are there positive, justice affirming alternatives?

Excelling in areas like history, anthropology, political science, and communication, most prospective lawyers, during their period of educational preparation, assiduously avoid unnecessary technical/technology related curriculum; however, the days where a practicing lawyer can avoid automation technology are gone. Today, if they hope to help clients achieve justice, consummate transactions, and negotiate settlements, law firms not only have to be masters of substantive and adjective law, but also must excel in the application and use of technology. There's little choice.

First, the inter-firm market competition for clients is cutthroat. Second, the breadth of services a law firm must offer coupled with the shear volume of cases necessary to profitably practice law screams for increased productivity. Finally, there is the intra-Associate competition for recognition, for cases, and for billable hours constantly whispering to all lawyers "Do more!" The demands, both screams and whispers, occur during a time period when there are ever more technological tools available. During the last thirty years those demands and the evolving tools offered through automation technology have transformed the law office.

Automation was first introduced into the modern law office in the early '70s with the electric typewriter. It wasn't until the late '80s that automation truly emerged into the law office when PCs with WordPerfect became the gold standard and the term "software" became part of everyday language. Since then, lawyers have witnessed an ever accelerating pace of technological change: PCs, networks, internet, email, wi-fi, mobile -- and more. Technology has not changed the essence of what it is to be a lawyer but it has changed how law is practiced.

Twenty years ago only the largest law firms had the capital and human resources necessary to effectively use law office automation technology. In many respects automation technology became a barrier to legal justice in that only the most well-heeled, best connected individuals and corporations benefited because they alone could afford the largest firms. Technology further impeded justice because newly minted lawyers had to choose. Large firm equaled more time to actually practice law because time freeing/liberating technology tools and resources were standard fair. Remember the dedicated word processing pool, or dedicated case research team or other support infrastructure only available if you practiced in a large firm?

If the newly minted lawyer desired a solo or small firm practice you were choosing to soldier through mountains of compliance paper work, conquer daunting trust accounting requirements, deal with and create voluminous, repetitive and tedious filings and/or pleadings for each case/client, every real estate closing, all family/marital law actions, all personal injury actions, and on, and on. . . As a small or solo practitioner you didn't have ready access to the firm's mainframe, the firm's compliance department, the firm's research team or the firm's army of word processors. Historically, solo and small firm practitioners were at a disadvantage.

Because of technology, more precisely unequal access to technology, both clients and law practitioners had to choose between levels of advocacy or types of law practice. Largely because of automation technology the access to justice and the practice of law was stratified between large firms that could afford both the capital and human resources automation required, and small practitioners who might provide intimate client relationships but were fundamentally disadvantaged by a lack of automation technology.

Until recently, there existed a rational and compelling argument that law office automation impeded justice. While the dedicated firm resources, IT, research, tax, word processor pool and the like insulated the large firm law practitioner from directly interacting with automation technology, dread manifested in the mere fact of having to choose large firm versus small firm - a choice sometimes driven by dread or fear of technology rather than passion for client service.

Because of technology, today both small firm and large firm law offices can and often do look the same. Desktop PCs, laptops, networked servers, Blackberrys plus 24/7 internet access to client files and court schedules are the new normal for both large and small practitioners. The same automation technology, that a few years ago stratified the profession while simultaneously impeding the access to justice, now offers to be the salvation and great equalizer for small and solo practitioners. The automation technology that's emerged during the last few years has and continues to make it possible for small firm and solo practitioners to erase the technological advantages held by large firms. By automating the paperwork, accounting, computations and tax code effects, automation allows the solo practitioner to focus on using his or her mastery of substantive and adjective law to help clients. To achieve the potential equality of resources and a truly client centric practice the small firm or solo practitioner needs to keep several automation principles in mind.

What to Look for When Automating Your Practice

Automation technology is a tool and as with any tool, the tool should serve you. That means first you must know yourself (your strengths, weaknesses, needs, habits) and you must know your practice before you purchase automation products. Second, there are two distinct but interdependent components to law office automation: hardware and software. Third is timing. Don't purchase automation technology you don't plan to implement immediately. Fourth is focus forward. When adopting automation driven system/practice change, focus on developing new data not on converting old data. Finally, get started but start small. Implement automation technology in bite-sized pieces being sure that each piece solves a problem. Solve one problem and then move on to the next.

You don't serve the automation tool. The automation tool serves you. Software should be flexible to your needs. Be careful of software that seems to do a lot of things, but does few things well. It is likely the software will not do things "your way." Complete office suite products are programs that often tend to do too many tasks - calendaring, trust accounting, document management, case mapping, outlining, family law, personal injury, real estate, bankruptcy, estate planning you name it - all in one. Sure they work but they rarely have the flexibility to meet your individual needs, your practice's unique way of doing things. While you should be willing to make some adaptations to software, your automation technology choice should be flexible to your needs.

Timing is everything. Just as it is essential to know your practice and how you work. It is essential to have a good feel for your ability to assimilate technology. Wherever you are in your automation adoption, remember to never purchase automation in bigger chunks than you can efficiently absorb. Also, because automation technology is changing so rapidly it is like fresh produce. If you buy it and don't use it immediately it starts to stink. Buy and implement in bite size pieces. Whether it is hardware or software remind yourself to only buy what you need and not to fall into the trap of purchasing all of the extras. Generally your automation purchase should pay for itself within one year. Never knowingly purchase automation tools with a greater than three year payback.

Like a living organism there is a symbiosis between software and hardware. We've all tried using the latest operating system software from Microsoft or Apple on last generation's hardware from Dell or HP or Apple. It is not a pleasant memory. All software is bad when it's forced to perform on underpowered hardware, so be sure to solve any hardware problems first That said, there are automation software solutions available that are conscientiously designed to maximize performance while minimizing hardware requirements.

Finally, remember to focus forward. Once you've started the automation process and decided on the first step you must fight the temptation to convert old data. When you convert old data in mass, most of what you convert you will never use. For instance, even though you've maintained your attorney trust account since day one of your practice there is really no reason/benefit to converting trust data older than the audit window. It almost always makes more sense to just establish a new trust account and focus forward, converting only what you need. You save time and quality is maintained. The same holds true for old word processing files or data from your old time and billing program. It might be nice to import all the old data but it is usually easier and more productive to just start over.

So it is through law office automation that lawyers, in firms large and small, have the ready means to help clients achieve justice, consummate transactions, and negotiate settlements. Advances in ease of use and affordability mean automation technology need no longer cause dread for law practitioners. Today's automation technology is the equalizer that's enabling all lawyers to use mastery of substantive and adjective law to focus on increasing their level of service to clients.