Technology And The Legal Profession – A Perfect Merger

The law offices of yesterday were what are now known as “paper offices.” News stories, briefs, testimonies, and attorney billable hours were all recorded and displayed on pieces of paper. In today’s digital age, we know that paper systems can cause money, time, and efficiency to be lost. Additional staff must be hired to manage paper documents, to file legal briefs, and to search for and/or catalog evidence. Losing a vital paper means that extra time and money must be spent tracking down a copy. Compiling billable hours by hand is time-consuming. And, paper-based case filing systems require large amounts of storage space to warehouse – which is expensive – and can require long bouts of human searching to retrieve necessary documents, which is time consuming.

Enter the electronic law firm, the digital courtroom, and the virtual database.

Modern technology has digitized or automated most aspects of paralegal, legal secretary, and attorney job functions. From billing hours to retrieving evidence to filing briefs with a court of law, technology is helping legal professionals to perform an amazing amount of work cheaply and efficiently.

One of the greatest advances in legal work is the increased use of digital entities such as databases, e-mails, message board postings, and text messages as evidence. These types of records are invaluable in quickly enabling legal teams, judges, and juries to see evidence of crimes. Cyber-technology specialists are experts at deciphering and translating electronic records into testimonies and evidence.

Digital evidence can be especially compelling in intellectual property cases, murder cases, and white-collar crime debacles. For example, critical e-mails in the Enron case were used as evidence that the energy giant had partnered with its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, to produce faulty accounting and auditing records. These e-mails ultimately helped to indict Enron and Arthur Andersen associates in criminal wrongdoing. However, digital evidence has other legal uses, as well. For example, the contents of pop star Michael Jackson’s computers were seized for use against him in The People v. Jackson, a case during which he was accused of lewd acts involving children, in 2005.

Technology-based evidence is a great development for expediting trial preparation and procedures. However, technology can be used in law firms on a daily basis, helping to make the daily tasks of paralegals and lawyers easier to complete.

Legal hour tracking and calculation programs allow employees of law firms to partially or fully automate the legal billing process. Paralegals, lawyers, and other legal professionals are often billed for their work on an hourly basis. Therefore, they must itemize the tasks they perform on an hourly basis, as well. Specialized legal billing software allows legal professionals to bill for their hours; these bills might be submitted internally, as well, for payroll, firm budgeting, or accounting purposes.

Another area of legal practice in which technology is an asset is document control. There exist several proprietary legal software packages that streamline the document imaging and preservation processes. Paralegals and lawyers are able to scan paper documents and convert them into electronic files; compile databases of evidence, facts, or statistics; code litigation documents for quicker retrieval — and in some cases, restore the quality of damaged electronic documents. These document-control programs allow legal professionals to work more efficiently while saving immeasurable amounts of space – and, therefore, costs — by eliminating the need for bulky paper organization and filing systems.

There also exist special software packages to manage cases and litigation. These packages can include features for client interviews, the management of evidence, and the presentation of litigation and case evidence. Some law schools and paralegal training programs instruct students in the ethical uses of these software packages. Law firms are increasingly requiring new hires to be proficient in these types of software.

Electronic filing is another use of technology in the legal profession. Before the advent of electronic filing, firms had to submit hard copies of all documents and evidence to the courts to be used in trial. Now, case materials can be sent to court via e-mail, with many pieces of evidence scanned in or digitized. One drawback is that compliance and system compatibility can be difficult to establish for these programs; however, compliance and compatibility are improving greatly, and will only continue to improve. Legal professionals might have a thorough education in this area of legal technology prior to beginning their legal careers.

Legal research has also been made more efficient by the use of electronic information storage and retrieval systems. Since the Internet became widely available to Americans, legal professionals were able to expedite their research – they can request, track, and research documents online. Now, online archives such as LexisNexis act as storehouses for court decisions, news stories, and legal precedents dating back many years. This saves legal professionals time and money by cutting down on trips to courthouses, state departments of records, law libraries, and the like. The use of LexisNexis and similar databases has become an integral part of paralegal and law school educational curricula.

Finally, technology can be an asset in the courtroom, during civil or criminal proceedings. Graphics and slide show programs are available to streamline and enhance court presentations in electronic formats. Attorneys, paralegals, and clients can also present some forms of evidence electronically – computers and other electronic devices are being used more often during trials to present the facts of a case.

The advent of technology has provided paralegals, lawyers, and other legal professionals with a vast array of time- and money-saving programs and devices with which to perform work. Because legal professionals are able to access, dispense, and display information faster, they free up their work days and their departmental budgets for other necessities.

Do What You Do Best – Realistic Technology Tips For Paralegals

You may have heard so much about e-discovery in the last few years that if you see another article, webinar or seminar you might burst. You may feel overwhelmed with technology and that it’s moving faster than the speed of light. You may be frustrated with those you work with, because they expect you to be educated on the latest and greatest technology tools, but when it’s time for their document review, you’re told to make multiple copies or print all the documents out!

The reality is that paralegals are expected to find a unique balance for each case, each legal team and each client. Paralegals have always been required to be flexible, creative and able to juggle many different projects. However, those traits are becoming more challenging as the management of cases becomes more complex. Here are some tips to consider while managing the balancing act as we survive the evolving practice of law.

Understand your role and gather the resources you need to do your job

Paralegals work in different environments. Some have a litigation support professional available to assist them with the complexities of managing electronic data; others are expected to add those responsibilities onto their existing job description; and there are those who are somewhere in between. Wherever you are on the spectrum, you should make certain that you understand the expectations placed upon you and that those you work with understand your capabilities. Your job responsibilities are varied and learning new technologies is an added expectation. Have you been relieved of other tasks with the advances of technology? Likely not! It’s okay to be an excellent paralegal and have a skill set whereby you add value and efficiencies to the management of the case, yet not necessarily be the technical processing guru. As a matter of fact, it may be that a paralegal who doesn’t have the expertise to internally electronically process productions ends up spending more time doing so – and therefore costing the client more money than if they work with an specialist who does have the expertise. Paralegals need to have a solid understanding of the capabilities of technology, but don’t need to be the expert who performs each task. If it’s more efficient to delegate these tasks in the best interest of the client because it will lower cost and time involved, then it’s your role to recognize that and surround yourself with the appropriate resources. Knowing the appropriate resources is important. Technology is becoming so complex, that specialists are evolving in all its different aspects. You may be someone who is an expert in all areas of technology, but if you’re not, stop beating yourself up. Highly qualified paralegals can manage their cases and the electronic component of them equally effectively if they understand their role and surround themselves with the appropriate resources. A simple cost benefit analysis is a good tool to help determine the best approach to a task.

Reality Check – we are not a completely paperless society

Despite the daily blogs and articles about electronic discovery, there is still paper in our world and in the world of our clients. Discovery, in the majority of cases, will include both. Paralegals need to help the legal team with the best management solution. Logic tells us that having our entire discovery in one place, despite its original form, is the most effective. Early on, this was done backwards. Electronic data was received and printed out. It did not take long to realize that it’s more efficient to scan to image the paper and keep the electronic data in native form, then load all of it into a litigation support database. Managing litigation documents in litigation support databases is becoming a requirement with most cases today. Paralegals need to understand the processes and have the ability to work with the legal team to ensure that these databases are established for the efficient review and management of discovery. The initial set up of a database and proper collection of documents is the most important component in a productive litigation support database. Data collections that do not capture important information at the outset will be less useful and can leave a negative feeling with those forced to work with it. Likewise, knowing when it’s appropriate to print out of the database is equally important. For example, printing deposition exhibits is appropriate. Printing boxes and boxes of documents to put in chronological order for attorney review – probably not. This leads to the next tip.

Be an advocate

You don’t have to be the expert on how everything is electronically processed, but having a solid understanding of the capabilities of technology and the ability to communicate with the legal team and clients will add value and efficiencies to your role. It’s frustrating to be given an assignment that is so logistically complicated that it throws your entire workflow in chaos. I don’t believe that anyone has that intention when requesting deliverables that are either not possible or unduly overwhelming and burdensome. To the extent that paralegals can be involved in the early stages of the case, they can offer suggestions on the most effective methods involving technology and ensure a smooth and effective process for the client. That will sometimes involve educating the people around you and offering alternative solutions. I’ve heard paralegals say that they were asked to do something by an attorney, but knew it was not an effective way to proceed. They thought, “It’s the attorney who asked and I’m a paralegal,” so they did what they were told. It’s my belief that the better approach to that circumstance would be to offer an alternative solution, explaining how it will be more efficient and save the client money. This approach would be welcomed by the majority of attorneys. Offering alternatives to improve your legal team’s handling of a project is not argumentative or disrespectful; it adds value to the team.

Use technology as a tool to manage your matters – not to replace your knowledge

It’s cool to be able to search through volumes of documents and transcripts and to be able to sort all the discovery documents with a click. Back in the “day,” we spent weeks doing these tasks that require just a few key strokes today. It’s not so cool to have all these capabilities at your disposal and not take advantage of them so as to free yourself and others on the legal team to perform more substantive tasks. With each passing year, there are more advances with the latest and greatest tools being introduced into our world. They are designed to help legal professionals do their jobs better, not to replace legal professionals. Know what you have at your disposal; learn its capabilities and how to use it to assist you with your tasks to improve the efficiencies on behalf of your client. Use the tool of technology along with your knowledge and expertise. We are still managing volumes of data and the volumes of data are increasing, but we have tools to help us do that. One of the greatest pitfalls I see with legal professionals is that they fail to see technology as a tool; rather, they see it as another thing to “do” in the case. They end up performing their job they way they did before the tools of technology were available, as well as trying to use the technology. They end up doing everything twice and eventually cannot keep up with the double workflow. Technology is not designed to replace your knowledge. It’s designed to give you an advantage and a more efficient method to perform your responsibilities – providing added value to you as a member of the legal team.

Today, clients are looking for attorneys who have solid legal support teams to represent them. They need to see value added and cost savings. Knowing your strengths, surrounding yourself with efficient resources, maintaining a solid understanding and having the ability to communicate the tools you have to offer clients will be a benefit that your clients will recognize. Do what you do best.

Telephone Technology

Although telephones have been a law firm staple almost since their creation and patenting by Mr. Bell in 1876, they usually are not considered legal “technology”.

Using a telephone as the piece of equipment to check, route or forward communications or conduct “work” means one less item your firm needs to supply, maintain or explain to each new hire. Additionally, using a telephone removes the need to be “webby” or “techie” for end users as most staff are quite comfortable with this basic piece of office equipment.

Caution should be taken of any free calling service and end users truly need to beware of peer to peer networks as issues with overall collection of data, security and call quality are reported. Even large and slickly marketed VoIP services have growing reports of poor customer service, call quality and now difficulty terminating service. Remember, VoIP is an alternative to a traditional land line, not an equal!

Productive uses for any telephone include:

Long distance learning Long distance learning is a great option for those who work from home offices or those in remote locations who do not wish to travel hours to get to a “live” class. In many instances, classes offered through established associations provide CLE credit, making for an easy process for you to keep your practice and CLE credits up to date. 😉

Considerations – Take your “conference” to the “conference room” and ask others to attend and learn with you. They may not get the CLE credit but will still get an education.

Communication Management Pairing unified messaging with a cell phone gives unlimited flexibility for controlling the deluge of information received each day. Unified messaging provides a digital number which can be forwarded to a cell, home or other existing line or phone. From incoming call management, sophisticated voicemail and fax management, unified messaging is a great option for any mobile professional. Items to watch: available forwarding minutes and per page limits on incoming faxes.

Dial In Dictation For over a decade doctors and hospitals have used simple dial in dictation to process critical patient reports and administrative/insurance forms. Contract with an established legal transcription company or locate a reputable Virtual Assistant to compliment the digital dictation process with initial drafts transcription or more advanced secretarial functions.

Credit Card Processing New to the legal market, a company called Accept By Phone allows account holders to accept and process credit card payments with nothing but a phone.

Continued research into mobile technology means much of what you can see on the internet will be viewable on the small size screens of cell phones. Look for advertisers and “push” technology to capitalize on millions of trapped cell phone users in the not so distant future! Just one more reason I LOVE my Treo!) 😉

Make Legal Documentation Easy

We all use technology in some sort or fashion because it improves the way we communicate and the way we accomplish tasks. While technology is great in some respects, we don’t always use it to its fullest capacity because we are unaware of certain technology or we aren’t educated on how to get the best results from the technology. Well, now is your chance, especially if you work within the legal field, to learn about available technology and how it can be used to improve law.

Software developers have created a new and improved way to create and edit documents for legal professionals. Everyone in the legal field knows that documentation is tedious and time consuming, yet it is one of the most important aspects of legal work. Without documentation, no case has validation and no claims can be made. Documentation makes legal work possible. However, developers looked at the way legal professionals were producing documentation and realized there was a better, more efficient way to produce documents.

So, now there is a software that improves the way legal professionals create and edit documents. This software uses voice recognition technology and improves documentation in several ways:

-First, voice recognition software makes the documentation process fast. How so? It uses speech, which is much faster than typing. The average person can speak 120 words in a minute compared to 40 words typed in a minute, making speech three times faster than typing text. Developers found this difference and capitalized on its productivity.

-Legal professionals are now more efficient and productive because they can speak and create documentation. Saving time means having time for other tasks and working harder in other areas. Now, legal professionals don’t have to waste time writing documentation. All they have to do is speak and create the document in less time.

-Recorded documentation can be shifted from place to another easily. Using technology means connectivity is possible. So, legal professionals can create documentation with this software and share the documents through several devices. Other professionals can gain access to these documents from within a legal firm and make edits as necessary. Connectivity is also changing the way legal firms share documents from person to person.

Technology makes life easier and makes work much easier. If this type of technology–voice recognition software–is used in legal offices, then it will payoff in the short and long term. Productivity and profitability is guaranteed for everyone that utilizes this type of technology. Take a step forward in the legal world and make work more efficient.