PAUL BERNSTEINS INTRODUCTION
In many ways, these are troubling times for plaintiff trial attorneys. Indeed, in a recent mailing to ATLA members regarding the annual convention in Washington, DC this month, July, 1998, ATLA quoted from a paper by David R. Bossart from Fargo, ND. Quoting, in turn from a North Carolina survey, were the following facts:
This is clearly a sad state of affairs, particularly for a learned, sharing and educational profession that is committed to excellence, life-long learning and a total fealty to our clients.
Why these statistics in a newsletter directed to law office automation and technology? To be sure, technology is not the total answer to these problems, but it is part of the solution to this sad situation. We lawyers spend far too much time doing ministerial tasks, keeping manual time records, looking for paper based files, dodging clients calls until we can find the file, worrying about whether or not we have remembered each and every statute of limitations and discovery cut-off date and all the other functions that go to running a successful law practice these days.
So, part of the great value of computers is to:
The secret? (Everyone asks about the secrets)
There are a few, clear secrets and lessons we all need to learn:
Its really easy, and we are the beneficiaries of sharply reduced costs for computers due to good old American competition.
If we become "lean and mean" and get our administrative houses in order and if we dont have to devote such huge amounts of time to administrative functions of one kind or another, we, of course, clearly use our time to be better advocates for our clients. As important, today, however, is to give us more time for friends, family, fun, frolic and fighting those who would oppress the legal profession and take our legal rights away from us. Our mission is clear. Technology is part of our achieving our goals. Today should be the day you make the decision to do what you need to do in your practice to use technology to the greatest extent possible. Remember, today we no longer need the pony express to deliver the mail we use electronic mail. You wouldnt think of riding a horse 50 miles to take a deposition you jump in your car. You wouldnt think of going cross-country via wagon train to attend a seminar you would hop an airplane.
Similarly, you must use technology to the max. Just do it!
How Do You Measure Return On Investment From Technology?
I am constantly amazed at what I read in what are supposed to be authoritative publications about lawyers and the legal profession. I suspect that most of these "surprises" come from very fancy publications that cater to, of course, only the very large law firms.
A recent example is an article that appeared on Law Journal Extra, having first appeared in the National Law Journal on May 25, 1998, entitled "Slowly But Surely, Lawyers Reap Real Returns on Tech Investments". The article starts out with the questions: "How much is this technology going to cost, and is it worth it? When will the investment pay for itself?" The next sentence reads: "These are the questions that law firms ask, again and again, before buying so much as a new fax machine or printer."
My hope is that I am right that it is the large law firms, mostly, of course, defense oriented, that are asking these questions. As I am also a CPA and both my father and older brother were also CPAs, I am hopeful that these investigations by our big law firm brothers and sisters at the bar continue. Do those spreadsheets folks! Apply those statistical norms and do your analysis. Get paralysis from analysis. To be sure, this attitude is all good for plaintiff lawyers.
This is a topic weve explored here before, but reading this article online on LJX made me realize that the topic is worth discussing again in Computers For Lawyers.
Obvious Benefits of Technology
There are obvious benefits of technology to plaintiff lawyers. The first concept we all are aware of is that we are in a service business. As such, and because we work on a contingency, we must be very efficient, very productive, must save time each time we can, and we must be responsive and communicative with our clients. We have all been involved in situations where clients call and we cant find the file, or our paralegal has the answer to the clients question but the paralegal is in court, or we cant tell our referring attorney the status of the matter they referred to us. It is therefore clear to see that when lawyers look at the Return On Investment (ROI), that they are looking in the wrong place. What they should look at, in regard to technology, are the obvious benefits that cannot be measured in ROI terms. Examples:
Statutes of Limitations
The statute of limitations in a high-value matter is coming up fast, but the lawyer whose client is involved in on vacation, or the staff person who was to prepare the pleadings for timely filing is out sick and no one else knows what is going on. However, because the firm has a dual system of tracking statutes of limitations both the "book" entries and a case management program on the file server of their computer system, a warning about the statute of limitations for this case pops up on partners computers and another attorney files the case in a timely fashion.
Suppose the case was worth $300,000.00 and the firms fee is $100,000.00. Lets suppose you went all out last year and invested $50,000.00 in that new case management software product that, happily, saved the day in my example. Now, the old saying is figures dont lie, but liars can figure. Does this example mean that in just one case I got a 200% ROI, because I earned a fee of $100,000.00 with only a $50,00.00 investment? Well, I suppose you could say that, could you not?
And, as of yet, weve said nothing about saving the anguish, cost, tension and investment of time and effort that the firm would have to invest if we blew the statute of limitations and our client filed a malpractice case against us.
Communications With Clients
Files have a way of "walking" around the office and finding them is often difficult to do. So, as another example, lets suppose that a client calls and wants to know the status of their case. We have them put on hold (something no one likes to have done to them) and look for the file in some offices, the looking is done by shouting, yelling and screaming. Most times, the file is not to be found and we have to call the client back. This takes time and effort which, of course, for contingency fee lawyers, is a total waste of time. But we do it.
Suppose, however, that instead, we not only have a physical file stored safely somewhere in the office, but we also have everything about the case on our computer system. Thus, when the client calls, we can immediately bring up on our computer screen, not only the last offer in settlement made just late yesterday afternoon, but some personal information about the client (their spouses name, childrens name, etc.). That client will believe, as all clients want to believe, and as we want to believe when we go to our doctor or dentist, that they must have the most important case that your office possesses. They get this impression because you know everything about their case and their family.
This public relations and efficient, good business practices means that your client likes you, trusts you, you save time and the client will probably be so pleased with you that they will recommend you to many more clients. Can that be measured by our CPA friends via a ROI analysis? I think not.
Avoiding Disciplinary Complaints
The Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois just came out with their Annual Report for 1997. As usual, the types of misconduct most often complained of are: Neglect of matters in the office or lack of diligence 41% of cases filed (Which can be guarded against by having the computer system remind us of critical dates, regular dates to call and write to our clients on the status of their matters, etc.); Improper handling of funds 40% (which could also be taken care of by a computerized accounting system), and; Failing to communicate with clients 40% An easy task for a computer to remind us to write that letter to the client or to allow us to take that first call from the client about their matter and tell them where things stand. (The total percentages exceed 100% in that most complaints to the ARDC involve more then one type of misconduct.)
If our computer system investment of $50,000.00 saved us from just one complaint to our disciplinary authorities, the savings in time and therefore money might be equal to 50 grand another 100% ROI.
I wont go further on this topic as we made this the main theme for our November, 1997 issue of Computers For Lawyers where we had two main articles on the topics of: "Ten (Or More) Ways Technology Can Reduce Your Risk of Legal Malpractice Claims and Help You Make More Money and Compete in the 21st Century" (page two), and; "Avoiding Malpractice With A Computer" (page 9).
ROI is the Wrong Place to Look
The accounting sense of ROI is clearly the wrong place to look when you are trying to justify an investment in technology. Indeed, if you are looking at a potential investment in technology from an accounting and statistical approach, you will never make the investment. Today, all lawyers need to use technology to the maximum extent, consistent with their capacity to learn to use new technologies. This means learning and educating yourself as to what can be done, planning to do it with written plans and then budgeting for the cash out-of-pocket in doing so. Whether it is one of the benefits mentioned above, or doing that last minute research at home on Sunday night before arguing an important matter on Monday and finding a new case on Westlaw and downloading it to present to the Court and your shell-shocked opponent, there is no way to measure the ROI on technology investments.
What it takes is smart lawyering to know and understand that these technology investments are the second best investment you ever made in the practice of law. The first and best investment, of course, is the investment you made to become a lawyer in the first place.
Microsoft products buggy? So says John C. Dvorak and I agree
Elsewhere in this issue you will read my hair-raising account of my newer Pentium screamer crashing and it taking my daughter, son-in-law and myself several days to resurrect the hard drive of the computer. We thought, from experience, it was Microsoft and Windows and the other products Microsoft puts into the market. And, to be sure, this fine lawyer put a bit of stress on my son-in-law who suffered this system crash of mine while I was out of town on business for the day and while he was, at my request (foolish as I may have been to have it done while I was away) backing up my system.
I was therefore very, VERY pleased to see the comments of computer guru John C. Dvorak in the May 26, 1998 issue of PC Magazine, at page 87. His article is entitled: "Bill G., Come Home." He describes HIS system crash and comments that: "It looked as if something had happened to the Registry, which is essentially voodoo; nobody at Microsoft knows anything about the Registry except the guy who designed it, and nobody seems able to find him." He comments further: "Has Bill noticed (in report after report from PBS, newspapers, and user groups) that people believe Microsoft products are inferior? Then there is the perception that Microsoft only copies the ideas of others."
John comment further: "Why, oh why, is Microsoft spending time and manpower on copycat gizmos, when the error handling in Windows stinks and the machines are crashing more often as they get older? Fix this first!"
Strong comfort for me, but even stronger comfort for my son-in-law who opined while we were fixing the results of our crash, that it probably had something to do with the Registry! Hey, John, better look out for my son-in-law, David Nemeth!
Your Calendar via the Internet
Want to see an exciting, new technology on the Internet? How about your law firm calendar on the Internet?
Ive found a very delightful resource, thanks to the May 18, 1998 issue of Internet World. On page 33 there is a small bit of an article on "Free Web Service Tracks Schedules" and discusses WebCal Corps offering. You can find all the info at www.eventcal.com and in an accompanying article I give you a lot more info; however, I tell you now to take a look. So too should the virtual office on the Internet vendors who have been sorely lacking a good calendar.