March 15, 2002 Assistant Editor Regular News Technology is reshaping the practice of law Technology is reshaping the practice of law Amy K. Brown Assistant EditorMany seasoned lawyers remember hand-writing lengthy briefs on carbon-copy paper. Far more remember when secretaries clicked at lightning speed on rickety manual typewriters to get stacks of documents to the court on time.For these lawyers, technology has come creeping into their law offices over the last 50 years. The benefits of these changes have been tangible and easily justifiable.It was easy to see that the cost of a typewriter was justified by the increase in work product. And, the cost of a word processor or computer and the brief training time to use it outweighed time and money spent making typewritten copies of documents.But today’s technological innovations have not been so easily justifiable — “Why do I need an expensive document management program when I’ve got a secretary and a file cabinet?”On the opposite side of the spectrum, young lawyers have witnessed only booming technology, growing up with copy and fax machines, the Internet, and e-mail.For many, the real legal technology question is two-fold: Why should we care about what’s new? How do we get our colleagues and clients to use new technology?A special committee of the Bar — the Technology Task Force — was created last year to help lawyers answer those questions. Chaired by David Welch, the task force is charged with researching and disseminating information about important topics, including e-filing and Application Service Providers (ASPs), with the interests of all Bar members in mind — the tech-savvy, the computer-illiterate, and everyone in between.While it may seem like the legal profession is drowning under a tidal wave of electronic growth, experts predict only a handful of changes will palpably affect attorneys, and those changes could be a long time in coming.The innovations can be organized into three categories: law office management issues, “the virtual courtroom,” and information exchange.Some of the most significant technological advances have been in law office management. Billing programs are tied into phone systems. Document production programs help draft personalized state- and practice-specific forms. Document management programs collect, file, and search through thousands of files in a split-second.“We are at a point of acceleration in technology,” said J.R. Phelps, director of the Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service. But many lawyers may not be keeping up with the latest technology, he said, because the reality is, “lawyers really just want to practice law.”Programs designed to streamline the law practice are gaining popularity, Phelps said, but using new technology is not as widespread as it could be. Many lawyers who employ new technology may not have invested enough time and money to learn to use the programs efficiently.“It’s not like writing a check for a dishwasher,” he said. “Buying the software or hardware alone is not going to get you the productivity you expect.”One of the biggest complaints attorneys have about law office management computer products is they don’t feel they’ve gained enough productivity to justify the cost.“There’s always a learning curve,” said Marty Cohen, a solo practitioner in Plantation and member of the task force.“There’s always a reluctance to spend the time on the learning curve,” Cohen said. “You can be very good on the computer, and you’ll still have to adapt to a new program.”Phelps, along with task force members Andy Adkins, director of the Legal Technology Institute and executive director of the International Center for Automated Information Research at the University of Florida law school, Rick Georges, a legal technology expert and author of the FutureLawyer columns, and Cohen all offered comments on technological developments in law office management. • Billing programs . While many larger firms may have a convenient computerized billing program in place, many medium or smaller firms still calculate these figures by hand or use antiquated programs. However, up-to-date versions of the programs are becoming more popular and more cost-efficient for smaller practices. Newer billing programs can tie into your phone systems and calculate time spent on calls with clients, and print out detailed bills with a click of the mouse. • Document management software . Packages such as WorlDox or DocsOpen are designed to safely store and catalog various types of program files without having to retain paper versions of original documents.“They can increase productivity,” Phelps said, “But you have to have standards throughout your law firm.”In the time it takes support staff to find a specific memo in a file, a WorlDocs user could perform a computerized search, e-mail the memo to a colleague, and move on.“Training is key,” Phelps said. The purchase of the software is not enough to ensure good results. • Document assembly software . “One of the scary things we see in law firms is when lawyers try to create new documents from old files,” Phelps said.It’s not just an embarrassing mistake to forget to remove Mr. Johnson’s name from Ms. Smith’s trust account agreement — it can be a costly legal blunder. Software such as ProDocs and HotDocs do the time-consuming work by creating personalized state- and practice-specific forms step-by-step, leaving more time for attorneys to devote to practicing law. • ASPs. Nailing down what people mean when they say “application service provider” is difficult, but generally the term refers to an off-site provider of computer technology. For lawyers, this could mean off-site data storage, or, more likely, the outsourcing of legal software.“This still hasn’t caught on yet,” said Adkins, who also sits on the task force’s ASP subcommittee. “I think the main problem is that firms are not comfortable with the subscription-based software and the location of client information. Security, plus client confidentiality, remain the main issues of resistance.”Georges added that, while the problems Adkins mentioned don’t have a quick remedy, lawyers are moving in that direction.“From a software point of view, ASPs are really where law firms should be going,” Cohen said. “If you’re specialized, you need the absolute best software that drives your cases.” • Smaller offices and fewer support staff . Increased technology decreases other office expenditures. Fewer paper files mean fewer file cabinets and less secretarial time spent filing. Computerized document assembly and management means less secretarial time spent on creating and maintaining routine paperwork. The Virtual Courtroom Innovations come barreling into the law office, but changes in the way lawyers interact with the court typically sneak in on tiptoe. Changes are inevitable, experts say, but they tend to be a touchier subject. • E-filing . In Seattle, courts no longer push paper. A handful of Georgia courts are testing e-filing programs. Manatee and Sarasota county courts are the first in Florida to test e-filing, and, if all goes as planned, other courts in the state will follow.Proponents of e-filing tout the savings and speed for both practitioners and clerks of court. Opponents argue the information is vulnerable and electronic storage of the data is still a gamble. Some Florida groups, including the Judicial Management Council, worry that putting public court records on the Internet will open them to misuse, and they have urged the Supreme Court to consider placing a moratorium on posting those records online. At the same time, current Florida Statutes require clerks of court to create and maintain an electronic version of public court records.Either way, “It’s coming,” said Welch. “Lawyers are going to wake up and realize they need these kinds of tools.”Supreme Court Clerk Tom Hall warned that the switch to e-filing is moving quicker than most lawyers realize. Lawyers may benefit from filing legal documents from home or office, but “the real benefit to the courts is when the records become electronic.” Electronic records are easier for clerks of court to search, retrieve, and maintain. Compatibility of software from circuit to circuit and the willingness of court clerks are still issues, but experts say these are speed-bumps, not roadblocks.“This will become increasingly important, as courts solve the problems of standardization and security,” said Georges. “In the future, pleadings will be able to be filed from any desktop.” • Wireless networking . “High-speed wireless networking and Internet access will be the telephone lines of the future,” Georges said.For some lawyers, the future is now ( see sidebar ). Courthouses and law firms are becoming more mobile, as computers unplug while still staying connected. Wireless connections, utilizing antennas to keep computers tied into a system, not only allow users to stay connected to the Internet or a network at any location within range of their antenna, but they lay the groundwork for smaller computerized devices.As the size of equipment needed to maintain these wireless connections shrinks, the size of computers will continue to decrease. Some experts predict PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) will become “smarter” devices, used for calendaring purposes, as well as a portable office. Information Exchange As lawyers become comfortable with the security of information on the Web, information they put online will become more personalized and interactive. • Extranets / Intranets . How do lawyers create a website that not only gets the word out about their practice, but can keep a client informed about a case while keeping information secure?Utilize an extranet system, experts say.“Firms are still trying to determine if extranets can help improve the bottom line,” Adkins said. “Many firms try to figure out if these will bring in extra money or additional clients. Firms are coming to understand that there are three types of extranets.”An extranet can “push” documents to a centralized repository which specific users can access using a username and password. This type is useful for class action suits, or cases with a contact list of hundreds, Adkins said.An extranet can “push” information — documents, links, case law updates, calendaring information — to a centralized Web host and provide clients with a username and password, helping keep the client close to the firm.And, extranets provide “authorized” direct access to the firm’s databases, such as the document or case management system, or the financial management system. “This could be a double-edged sword,” Adkins warned, as you’re providing your clients with “real-time data.”If a client accesses billing information, but her attorney hasn’t yet calculated the total time spent on her case, the result could be an angry client.Many attorneys question the safety of putting sensitive client information in a viewable electronic format.“Just as we, in the past, have had to lock our doors and secure our file cabinets, the Internet world requires virtual locks and security devices,” Georges said.Intranets are essentially the same as extranets in that they restrict the viewing of data to a certain group of people, but with intranets, access is limited to an affiliated group of users (an internal web). If the Internet can be imagined as a web connecting every computer in the world, picture an intranet as a handful of computers connected within that web behind a protective firewall. These intranets are only logically internal to an organization — users can be separated by oceans but still be part of the same network.With all that’s swirling around in the high-tech world to help lawyers and their support staff do their jobs more efficiently, even technophobes are encouraged to take the plunge — or risk being left behind.The Bar’s LOMAS has researched the best tools of the trade, and their practice management advisors are trained to increase the profitability and efficiency of law firms in the state. To contact a LOMAS practice management advisor, call 850/561-5616 or visit LOMAS online at www.FLABAR.org.