Paperless law firms, law blogs, law professors teaching with movie clips and instapolls, trial lawyers instantaneously locating and displaying witness’ prior conflicting testimony, illustrate the new, bold technology legal professionals utilize despite their popular image as traditional and conservative attorneys. But every aspect of the legal profession relies on technology from office-to-office correspondence to man-aging data to attracting new clients.
“Last year, I was a speaker at an international law conference in Zurich,” says Paul Durham, a corporate and real estate lawyer and former managing partner at Durham Jones & Pinegar. “By day I attended the conference and at night I sat in the hotel’s empty restaurant, which had a wireless connection, and used my laptop to work on documents and email clients in Utah. I had complete access to my firm’s document management system and an iPhone with which I could make calls anywhere in the world.”
Durham describes other high tech tools that make his business life efficient. He has Bluetooth technology in his car, so answering the phone requires no headphone and is as easy as pushing a button. His firm has dual wireless connections, including a secure system linking firm attorneys and all firm data, and a separate, courtesy system for visiting clients and opposing attorneys, which does not allow access to the secure data. Durham anticipates using wireless connections on airplanes.
His brother, Cole, who is a law professor at BYU, frequently travels around the world working with leaders of various countries on constitutional issues. “When he’s away from Provo, Cole sometimes gives lectures to his BYU students by means of his laptop and videoconferencing technology,” Paul Durham says. “He can see and hear his students and they can see and hear him even though he’s thousands of miles and eight to 12 time zones away.”
Managing the Barrage of Paper
“One continuing challenge for law firms is the proliferation of electronic data that is overwhelming the practice,” says Ray Etcheverry, managing partner at Parsons Behle & Latimer. “We are putting systems in place that efficiently catch, sort, review and retrieve data.”
Parsons Behle is moving towards a paperless storage system, although, as Etcheverry acknowledges, “The reality is that, a few years ago, we had everything on paper with some electronic storage, and now we have everything in electronic storage with some paper.” Etcheverry, a trial lawyer, stores his pleading files and files documents with Utah’s federal courts electronically. He uses a firm software system which sorts through all the pleadings and other documents collected electronically by firm personnel, and automatically eliminates the duplicates. “Several lawyers working on a case may put the same documents into the system,” Etcheverry says, “and the software cleans out the overlap.”
Reliance on electronic files requires foolproof back-up systems, but the existence of those back-up systems provides security for firm documents in the event of a natural disaster. “We now have multiple offices in Utah and also in Nevada,” says Etcheverry. “The document systems for all those offices are backed up electronically, and documents from any office are available to all the other offices. If there were a disaster, attorneys could work from home or from another firm office and use the same range of files available to them before the disaster.”
“E-discovery is becoming a larger and larger issue because of the amount of electronic data every client has,” Etcheverry says. “Parties to lawsuits are often organizations with two to three thousand employees, each with their own PCs.” At the outset of litigation, decisions regarding the extent of e-discovery are made, and relevant documents are burned onto disks and delivered to the opposing attorney. Gone are the days of stationing paralegals and young associates at the opposing attorney’s office to spend days or even weeks physically searching through boxes of old files.
When Etcheverry goes to trial, important depositions go with him. “The new software allows us to sync the written transcript with the video transcript, and to very precisely counter the questions and answers of any witness,” he says. “We have the deposition video immediately available, and can easily show pieces of it to the jury at trial.”
Brad Parker, a Utah malpractice and personal injury lawyer with Parker & McConkie, has worked with Siegfried and Jensen to develop a high tech model courtroom where attorneys can practice their trial skills. The courtroom equipment and facilities can also be rented to produce professional-looking video depositions, settlement brochures and video mediation submissions with high quality sound and with relevant documents projected as part of the video.
Changes in Court Systems
“The state courts use technology to improve access to the courts and to bring down the cost of litigation,” says Ron Bowmaster, chief information technology officer for the Utah state court system. Online filings are available in some types of state court cases already, and the state courts plan to have pleadings in all civil cases filed electronically by the end of the year. “In one August 2008, day the Department of Revenue filed 11,000 collection cases electronically,” says Bowmaster. “The court system could not have handled that volume with paper filings.” Bowmaster notes that online filings alleviate the various costs of paper files, runners bringing documents to court and of court clerks physically managing the flow of paper.
“Eventually,” Bowmaster says, “the official court record will be electronic, certification of the record will be done electronically and old files will be scanned onto the system to create a comprehensive electronic filing system.”
The state court system is experimenting with using interactive video in lieu of in-person court appearances. Video arraignments are already available so that the Department of Corrections doesn’t have to transport prisoners from the jails. Bowmaster will demonstrate new technology to the state court judges this fall for interactive hearings with the prisons, as well as with the jails. Once that technology is in place, the courts will have the capability for remote testimony on any sort of hearing. If a witness is incapacitated, his evidence can still be submitted to the court. Actual use of the video technology in a particular case must, of course, be approved by the judge of that case.
Another state court initiative is the development of online forms. “In some cases, such as divorce, protective orders, stalking, evictions, small claims and guardianships, individuals often represent themselves, rather than using attorneys,” says Bowmaster. “We’re putting forms for those types of lawsuits online, at www.utcourts.gov.”
Other Legal Records
Attorneys often search government, business and real estate records to solve legal problems. Now, more of those records are online. “There are now more than 21 million electronic document images for Salt Lake County online and available through a subscription service,” says Rick Baker, GIS Web administrator for the Salt Lake County Recorder’s Office. “We receive three to eight thousand new images per day, which are stored electronically, and we are also scanning old images from microfiche and microfilm. We’re back to 1985 now in our online records and will keep pushing backwards in time.” The Salt Lake County Recorder’s office is working with other county and state agencies to “layer” information. Eventually, a lawyer may be able to input a street address and find all sorts of data about that parcel, such as the legal description, subdivision plat, hydrology (nearness to rivers or canals, applicable water rights), zoning and county appraisal and tax information.
“This generation of law students grew up using the Internet,” says Dan Medwed, professor at the University of Utah Law School. “The curriculum must be adjusted to their learning style.” Medwed notes that, “Hiram Chodosh, the law school dean, is one of the most innovative, forward-thinking deans in the country, and has inspired many of us to think about technology.” In conjunction with Aspen Publishing, Medwed is developing a web-based teaching tool to complement a textbook on legal evidence. It includes sample exams, the ability to take course exams and links to various legal tools and reference sites. “In class, I may show a scene of a trial from a movie,” Medwed says. “And then discuss how evidence issues were handled.” In the future, “instapolls” may be used in law schools. The professor could ask, “How many of you would object to this evidence?” and instantaneously have the data on student answers flashed in front of the class.
Research and Marketing
As high tech legal products proliferate, there will be continuing pressure for law firms to stay up to date. There will also be the continuing questions: Which innovations really add to client satisfaction and attorney profits? Which innovations simplify legal work, rather than adding another layer of complexity?
Attorneys still seek new clients during golf games, but they also attract them through high tech Websites and attorney blogs. Kim Jones, founder of Verite, has designed Websites for several law firms. She says that law firms can use innovative color and design on their sites to express firm values and expertise, and may catch and retain attention through such innovations as streaming video or links to attorney articles and blogs. Etcheverry says that Parsons Behle has already adopted a firm “blog policy” to make sure that blogging attorneys acknowledge that their views are their own, rather than the firm’s, and that they are not dispensing legal advice.
“We have two blogs, one on business law and one on insurance law,” says Matt Fankhauser, marketing director of Strong & Hanni. “Clients like blogs because they’re current. Also, blogs are visited by Internet search engines, and, if content is updated regularly, the Website is higher in the ratings.” Presently, Strong & Hanni posts articles on its business blog once a month and on its insurance blog on a quarterly basis, so the firm has four or five posts every quarter. “Ideally, we’d post a couple of times a week, with interactive comments,” says Fankhauser. “The postings might be shorter, just three or four sentences rather than five or six paragraphs. It’s hard, though, to get attorneys to commit enough time to do it that often.”
LexisNexis is a prominent online research tool for attorneys, the place they go to search for cases to support their arguments and recently, it has expanded its offerings. “LexisNexis now has online tools for managing cases, networking and client development, as well as research,” says Sami Hero, vice president of Open Web for LexisNexis. “The new generation of lawyers grew up on Google, so we’ve launched a vertical search engine for legal content at www.lexisweb.com
. It searches the web for legal information and is a free Web tool.” LexisNexis has developed an online trial management system, Total Litigator, with case assessment tools, management lists and templates for associates who are not sure how to draft various motions. Attorneys can network through www.martindale.com/connected
or through www.lexisnexis.com/communities
, or they can comment on practice management topics at www.martindale.com/blog