Paul Bernstein, Attorney at Law
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Paul Bernstein, Attorney at Law
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By Paul Bernstein

I have a few pet peeves and decided that this month I want to talk about them.

They all relate to many lawyers attitudes about automation and computers.

I let my secretary deal with computers

It’s O.K. to let your secretary do the detailed input of data into your computer system, but it has to be the senior lawyer in the law firm that knows the most about computer applications, systems and software. You, the solo practitioner or senior lawyer in a firm of more than one lawyer, will have to be the one who decides to sign the check for the technology your paralegal and staff request. However, that can run into thousands and thousands of dollars. Unless YOU have the requisite knowledge and therefore the comfort of knowing what you are about to do, you will not be able to consistently make good decisions.

Training? Why do we need training?

Training is the almost-always overlooked ingredient in using the expensive computers and networked systems you’ve just installed in your office. Training is the key to learning to use and the effective use of these invaluable systems. Heck, you would not buy an expensive automobile for your own use if you didn’t know how to drive, would you?

Training is for everyone in the law office. To really get into case management software, the staff probably needs at least two days of training and then the senior administrator needs a third day to be taught the ins and outs of the software. But, let’s talk about you, the lawyer. You probably need more training then most because you know less then anyone in the office about the computers and the software.

Keep in mind that your loyal associate, Horace, may leave you for greener pastures and with hardly any notice. If Horace is the only one who really knows what’s in the case management or litigation support package….well…’re in for it, that’s for sure. And, the loyal secretary who always comes to work, but was involved in a serious automobile accident while coming to work early to finish printing your brief that is due by 4:00 today – you had best know where to find the brief, how to call it up in your word processing program, how to turn on the printer, insert more paper when its needed and print that brief out.

Lawyers need more training then most as it is catch-up time. You should be trained on the following: the theory and structure of the operating system of your computer; how to use a mouse; how to use floppy disks; the file and directory, and sub-file and sub-directory structure of your computer’s operating system; minor "trouble shooting" suggestions; the need for back-up; the need for ongoing training; the basics of Windows 95/98; the basics of your Internet browser; how to use the basics of your word processing program; the basics of your case management, litigation support and other programs you use in your office on a daily basis, and, last but not least; security, password protection and how to handle passwords and change them.

Your basic training might take two days, not all at once…perhaps a full-day to get you started and then two half-days to get you up to date on the basics. Then, you will need training on those specialized programs, perhaps another day or so.

The point is that the training is imperative. You MUST BE THE MASTER OF YOUR OWN DESTINY, ALWAYS AND FOREVER. If you don’t get trained properly, you are headed for massive trouble.

I’ve lived without it and can do so in the future

This doesn’t wash anymore. You must be automated to the extent you can afford and in today’s world, there should be no limits on what you can afford. In the mid 1970s, I bought two word processing machines at a cost of about twenty grand each, a total of forty thousand dollars. Adjusting for inflation, that might be equivalent to at least $75,000 today. Imagine how much computerization and automation you could bring to your law firm, today, for just 10% or 20% of that figure.

The fact is that we cannot live without computers and technology. We need everything they provide us with and we are blessed because the costs of the computers, hard disk storage, printers, modems, RAM (Random Access Memory) and many software programs has fallen beyond belief.

Contingency fee lawyers don’t need to keep time records

I have written a great deal on this topic in Computers For Lawyers and in the monthly issues of this newsletter. Is there anyone out there who still thinks that they don’t have to keep time records?

I’ve had the same secretary for years and this will never change

Death, retirement….whatever, hits everyone. And, when we read in the papers that someone we know has had thousands of dollars stolen from their firm, it is usually the long-term trusted employee who did it. Your secretary will change some day and it is just bad business to put too much temptation in anyone’s face. It is good business to keep track of your own affairs, cash records, trust funds on deposit and the progress of all cases in your office.

For those of us in practice as many years as I have been, these are bitter pills to swallow. We’d rather try the big cases, celebrate our winnings and then tell our friends about our successes. However, although that is still a fun part of lawyering for some, for more and more of us, we have to become very business oriented. Think about the advice you would give a business client about running their business and then reflect on whether or not those sound recommendations and good business practices are part of how you operate your firm.

I don’t need to handle the back-up, Harry does it

I don’t care if Harry is your brother-in-law! Brothers-in-law come and go. If you bring in the business, if you make the payroll each month, if you generate the clients and cash flow to keep your business profitable, then you had better operate with sound business practices. Every business backs-up their computers. Every business should be verifying, day to day, that the back-ups are in good order. Every good boss makes certain that the daily back-up is done and the back-up media taken off premises.

And, it should be the boss who monitors and controls all of this.

I trust my partners – why should I have to "audit" what goes on?

There are partners and there are partners. Husbands and wives talk about finances, plan, invest together and put money into various pots for things like vacations, the college education of the children, retirement and the like. You don’t necessarily do this to keep an eye on each other, but you do work together on common goals. In your law practice, it must be the same way. Don’t abdicate all authority to one person to handle all your cash affairs, balancing the books, grabbing the bank statement and being the one who administers to all the clients’ affairs and settlement fund distribution. You may think that your main role is to keep bringing in the business, but if you are not also attuned to the business aspects of running your firm, you’re headed for trouble.

Whatever my "techy" tells me, I do

Your techy is probably not a lawyer. Even if he/she is, they are not likely to be your equal partner. Techys don’t know what lawyers do or how they really do it. And, in any event, it should be the lawyer, as owner of the law practice, who makes informed and intelligent decisions as to what to do, why and with what resources. A techy should, in many respects, be like the Maytag repair man…only needed when rarely needed, because the system is so well designed and working so well, that repairs and maintenance are rarely needed.

Besides, in my experience, techys tend to be secretive and private people, more interested in protecting the security of their jobs then revealing all their secrets, fearing, deep down, that to do so is to set themselves up for being fired – instead of understanding that if they were forthcoming, open and totally honest, the firm would do much better and they would be rewarded for being great team players and helping the team win.

You, the lawyer, must be the Michael Jordan of your firm

You, no doubt, are the Michael Jordan of your law firm. But, when Michael Jordan first started playing for the Chicago Bulls basketball team, the Bulls did not win championships. As great as Michael was (and is today) there were no championships. Not until the Bulls had a team, a REAL TEAM and Michael learned more about teamwork and helping to manage his teammates, did the Bulls start to win and win consistently. So too, it is with the practice of law. You can be the greatest trial lawyer in your town, but if your files are out of order, if you can’t find those key documents you know you saw and read, if you haven’t done that last minute research on your CD-ROM or via Westlaw on the Internet, or if you could not compete with opposing counsel who had a computer in the court and was finding materials with the tap of a key while you feverishly search those boxes of files behind you, then you are behind the times.

We must all be much more efficient, much more productive, much more profitable, much more aware of malpractice claims and much more aware of our own sanity, comfort and happiness. Computers aren’t the total answer, to be sure, but computers and technology are a big part of the story. Do what you have to do to learn about technology, computers and law office automation. Then, with your knowledge and wisdom and ownership instincts, do what needs to be done. We can all win, but we need to do what we must do to have the abilities to be winners.

Paul Bernstein, Esq.


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