Building an automated practice: it's not so tough
by David Bilinsky
The Practice Management Advisor
David J. (Dave) Bilinsky is the Society's Practice Management Advisor. His focus is to develop educational programs and materials to increase lawyers' efficiency, effectiveness and personal satisfaction in the practice of law with a special emphasis on technology.
His preferred way to be reached is by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org (no telephone tag). Alternatively, you can call him at the Law Society office at (604) 605-5331 or toll-free in B.C. 1-800-903-5300, or address mail to the Law Society office.
Technology offers lawyers choices, not answers. When updating the core systems in their law firms, lawyers need to know their own priorities in practice to select the right tools. This article is based on a paper presented by Dave Bilinsky at LegalTech Toronto in November, a paper available on the practice resources page of the Law Society website under "Services for Lawyers" at www.lawsociety.bc.ca.
As a Practice Management Advisor, I frequently am asked "What should I get to automate my practice?" This question reflects a tacit belief that there is one "set" of products that, once installed, will transform the lawyer's practice.
Some even imagine a Jetson-like world where tasks are performed by robots that understand spoken commands and work endlessly doing whatever needs to be done - almost by magic. In reality, high-tech tools can help create a better product, a faster product and a cheaper product - but rarely can they achieve all three at the same time.
For that reason, you must choose your reference points to use technology effectively and efficiently. Your strategic goals will focus on how to deliver a clearly and consistently superior product, meet client needs in a timely fashion and offer your services at a good price (in other words, how to work better, faster and cheaper). Once your priorities are clear, you can choose the appropriate set of tools that take you towards those goals.
No tool will do all things for all lawyers. Take speech recognition software (SR) for example. The commonly held belief is that, once SR comes into widespread use, the need for secretaries will diminish, overhead will drop (= "Cheaper"), the lawyer will be able to churn out work in less time (= "Faster") and hands-on control of the work by lawyers will result in higher quality (= "Better"). The reality of SR is much different. SR requires substantial time from the lawyer, not only to learn the software, but to train it to the nuances of the lawyer's voice to achieve a high-recognition rate.
Furthermore, SR does not know how to do the formatting and other "prettying-up" of a document that transforms it into a professional product (this requires the creation of precedents and other pre-formatted documents or the input of a secretary who transforms the raw product). Last, SR requires high-powered computers and other associated hardware and software. Unquestionably, for certain lawyers SR can be a godsend (those who do not touchtype and for whom traditional dictation doesn't allow them to get "hands on" with the document).
The core systems
At the core of every practice are five automated systems that, in my opinion, form the foundation for an automated practice and, when implemented, go a long way towards achieving this objective. These core systems are: financial software, word processing software, case management software, research software (browsers and internet capability) and communications software (email and fax). What is interesting is the increasing interconnection of these systems, either through integration of two or more systems within one product or the linking together of more than one product.
Accordingly, I will look at the tools in each area and how they work along the axes of "better, faster, cheaper" to allow you to determine which tool or tools would work best in your practice.
Every firm must have a financial recording and reporting system - yet all financial systems are not created equal. Furthermore, while accountants need access to accounting tools that produce balance sheets and yearly income and expense statements, lawyers need access to financial tools that produce meaningful monthly or weekly reports for managing their law business. We are also seeing a trend in traditional accounting systems, which once focused only on general and trust accounting, now integrating into other systems and offering such features as the production of management resources.
Conflicts checks and calendaring features, including bring-forward systems, are now appearing in accounting systems. PCLaw, for example, has expanded its client database to include expanded contact management. This feature allows you to create a database of contacts - clients, lawyers, experts, witnesses - so these references will pop up in a conflicts search. Case management has been linked to accounting software to share resources (client and file names, billable time links) for several years now. For example, Amicus Attorney and Time Matters will link to accounting software such as PCLaw or ESILAW and now Quickbooks, and some vendors have developed one product that does both (for example, ProLaw and the Integra Office System).
This integration falls along the "Better" axis - you can eliminate the paper systems in the office and do more with your existing automation system - and "Faster," since BFs and conflicts checks take less
time using a shared database. To the extent thatsharing data eliminates repetitive keystrokes, it can also be "Cheaper." But there is an offset - integrated accounting systems cost more and take more time to learn and apply in practice than basic systems.
Word processing software
The two leaders are Word (www.microsoft.com) and WordPerfect (www.corel.com), with a handful of other programs out there. While the choice of a word processing program may seem a rather routine matter, the choice of word processing vendor and product can have a direct impact on how you automate your office. Each product has a different focus, and each product integrates with other products in different ways.
Many law firms seek to have the same program as their clients (which usually leads them to Word). Compatibility with clients, however, is but one issue and not necessarily determinative, as the ability to work in one product with documents created in another is increasing all the time. Here the productivity gains can be quite high if you wish to invest time and effort into creating precedents using styles, merges, macros and other "higher order" functionality to build sophisticated precedents and further integrate these precedents using databases. Each product does this slightly differently.
Case management software
These products have matured and now incorporate some higher order functions.
The leading products here are Amicus Attorney and Time Matters. Integra Office System and ProLaw are two products that have incorporated some or most case management functionality, reflecting the greater integration between applications.
These products fall along the "Better" and "Faster" axes. They start by taking the traditional file orientation of a law office (thereby distinguishing them from the contact managers such as Outlook, Maximizer, GoldMine and others) and mirroring this through an electronic file system. Case managers then take this electronic file system and populate it with all the people associated with the files (other lawyers, clients, witnesses, experts, adjusters), thereby providing contact management capability. This information integrates into an electronic calendar, a billable time module, a communications centre that tracks and logs all incoming and outgoing calls, messages and emails, a document management system and more. These different systems work together to provide a law office with most of the essential systems (conflict checks, BFs and To-Do's, detailed time entries for billing purposes and the like). The integrated file and contact database allows you to search any potential client's name to see, not only if that person has been associated with any file in the office in any capacity, but also to see the file on which the reference arises.
The file and calendar modules allow you to maintain your To-Do list and integrate this into your calendar, alarms and BF reminders. The "chaining" and "bring forward" precedent ability in case management allows you to build a series of reminders. For example, in advance of a trial, there are production of evidence dates, certification of trial forms, pre-trial hearings, witness preparation. All these dates and reminders can be placed into one pre-trial reminder precedent, which automatically enters the requisite dates into your calendar (once you know your trial date).
I have seen one intellectual property lawyer use this "chaining of dates" feature in ProLaw's BF/Calendar module to establish over 200 future date reminders and deadlines, once a patent filing date is known. Moreover, since his procedures are standardized, these reminders in turn generate documents to clients and to patent filing offices that move the patent application forward. No question that this is a superb example of automating a practice along both the "Better" and "Faster" axes.
Furthermore, case management products are now integrating email capability (Time Matters and Amicus Attorney), document management and knowledge management. Amicus Attorney in fact calls itself "The Law Office on a Computer," and this motto is apt.
It has become trite to say that lawyers are knowledge workers. Lawyers need access to both legal and general research sites. A high-speed internet connection is required with appropriate internet search software (Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator) and security firewalls and anti-virus software. Also important are subscriptions or bookmarks to research sites as appropriate to your practice: (Quicklaw, e-carswell (www.ecarswell.com), CANLII (www.canlii.com), Supreme Court of Canada decisions, federal and provincial statutes and CLE providers.
These days a working understanding of on-line legal databases, search methods and search engines is a good idea, for example, when is it appropriate to search on e-carswell, www.lexis-nexis.com, www.findlaw.com or Quicklaw? (For more on this, see a comparison of collections of Lexis-Nexis, Quicklaw and e-Carswell prepared by Sue Beguin and available on the Practice & Ethics page of the Law Society website.)
If the other side has proffered expert testimony, you can use www.google.com to "googlize" them - in other words, find out the expert's background. Research software is essential to quickly finding out about people, jurisprudence and general research without having to spend hours in a traditional library (assuming that a traditional library could hold all the information now available via the internet).
E-mail is the "killer application" of the internet - and the volume of email transmitted across the internet is truly staggering. The ability to share drafts and quickly move information around without couriers and slow delivery mail is astounding - especially when dealing with someone across the world. Yet email is but one communication tool available. Faxing by the internet is also possible.
More recently, lawyers have begun practising in virtual work spaces (extranets). Teams (such as litigators) can share drafts, work papers, pleadings, transcripts, photographs, notes, discussions, calendars - where many eyes must look at the same bit of information and make notations and changes that must be seen by all. This ability to work on the same project while in different time zones and countries, and bring in those who have an interest in the proceedings (such as tax accountants, local lawyers, affiliated experts), cannot be undervalued - especially these days when corporate and business travel is being curtailed.
These extranets lie definitely along the "Better" and "Faster" axes.
Carl Sandburg once wrote that "Nothing happens unless first a dream." Numerous studies by notable researchers at such schools as MIT Sloan School of Business show that one company can spend money on information technology and achieve a strategic advantage while another simply spends money.
To be effective in the application of information technology and thereby build an automated practice, you need a full understanding of who you are and where you want to go - and how spending money on infrastructure can take you closer to realizing your dream. Once you have that image firmly in mind, then you are ready to build your future.