Does the Future Hold?
As the year 2000 opens, I will make the ritual
stab at guessing what the future holds. To do this intelligently, one must
consider not only factors promoting the spread of new technology, but also
the constraining factors, which are all too often neglected.
There has been endless speculation on whether or
not computers have led to "productivity gains." To a large extent, this
misses the point. The key fact is that the way, and especially the pace,
of doing business has changed dramatically. Fifteen or twenty years ago,
you could actually mail a client a document! Now, it has to be over-nighted,
faxed, or e-mailed. Twenty years ago, even with "advanced" memory typewriters,
the number of revisions that could be made to a document was limited by
the technology (a typewriter) used to produce it. Today, that is no longer
the case, and it is not uncommon for larger contracts, briefs, etc. to
go through dozens of revisions. Any productivity gains that have been made
pale in comparison with the dramatic changes in "standard" ways of doing
The bottom line is that firms must acquire technology
that will enable them to meet changed expectations or lose clients. For
one smaller firm, for example, the balance in favor of e-mail was tipped
when a deaf client said that if the firm could not communicate via e-mail,
he would find a firm that could.
The basic "product" of any law firm is a document
of some sort, be it a will, a brief, a real estate contract, etc. The practice
of law can be divided into three areas:
• Doing research and gathering
information about a given client's case;
• Applying the attorney's
legal experience and intelligence to that information to formulate conclusions
and an approach to the case; and
• Producing the relevant
documents, filings, pleadings, etc.
An intelligent application of technology seeks
to shrink the time required for the first and last areas, thus leaving
more time to do what the client is actually paying for: applying legal
experience, training and intelligence to the case. How can firms best do
this in the next 5-10 years or so?
It is self-evident that the Internet will be increasingly
important, both for communication and research. Case law and court information
is increasingly available online: within a few years, this will become
In addition, the Internet offers the ability to
expand research in ways that were previously prohibitively expensive. Take
the following actual example: a client was suing a manufacturer for product
defects. The manufacturer claimed this was a unique case, had never seen
the defect in question before, etc. When the attorney logged in to an Internet
user group for that particular product, lo and behold there was a whole
section devoted almost exclusively to complaints about that specific product
However, at present, the Internet has some serious
defects. First, connections are likely to be slow and unreliable. This
is changing with higher-speed cable and DSL connections, but will continue
to be a problem for several years.
Second, the information available on the web is
notoriously unreliable. There are research and official court and state
sites containing docketing, court cases, forms and similar information,
but most other information on the web must be checked carefully for accuracy
As a tool for serious research, Internet legal
sites enable attorneys to do more research in less time than was previously
possible. Web site information is more up to date that what is contained
on CDs. Equally important, attorneys can expand ways of accessing information.
Already, products such as West's CiteLink allow you to jump from a citation
in a brief you are drafting on your computer to the case cited on the Internet.
Internet access and having a Web site will be as much a requirement for
doing business as a fax machine and a Martindale listing is today.
Integrated Information Systems
Today, the first products are being introduced
that offer combined e-mail, telephone, voice-mail, fax and Internet access.
E-mail programs such as GroupWise have had this capability for a number
of years (at considerable extra expense). What can best be described as
a combination of a PalmPilot and a cell phone will allow users to make
phone calls, answer pages, send and answer e-mail, faxes and access the
Internet with a single device. The two limiting factors here are: 1) the
availability and cost of wireless Internet service, and 2) the keyboard/
screen size, i.e., how you enter information on such a device. If you can't
get information into a system, you can't get it back out either.
Voice recognition is just reaching the threshold
of practicability. When a combination telephone/palmpilot device gets voice
recognition, then Dick Tracey's 50-year old two-way wrist watch will become
a reality-and then some. It will become common for an attorney to dictate
letters, memos, etc. on a dictaphone-like device, take the digital "tape,"
plug it into the PC and have the PC transcribe it ready for final editing.
This is possible today, but is not fully ready for prime time.
What about organizing and producing documents?
The current buzzword is "Knowledge Management." What (if anything) does
this mean? "KM" refers to "meta information," or information about the
information and resources are available in a firm. In essence it seeks
to computerize the process (for example) by which a junior associate asks
one partner for advice concerning a certain task, and is then referred
to another partner with specialized knowledge in that area.
From a software point of view, knowledge management
can best be described as the fusion of a number of existing tools: case
management programs such as Amicus or Time Matters, plus document management
programs such as Worldox, and integrated e-mail/voice mail programs. Add
"thinking tools" such as CaseMap or similar products. What is currently
lacking is a framework to tie all these separate programs together.
The approach that makes the most sense is a kind
of "Swiss Army Knife" where you select which pieces you need and then plug
them together using some overall standard (such as improved versions of
MAPI, ODMA, or the XML markup language). The various products that exist
today are increasingly developing links to other products to approach this
All of this will be available on the Internet,
or, more likely a Virtual Private Network (i.e., a kind of network that
functions like the Internet without some of the security drawbacks).
However, the real problem here is human participation
and intervention. For "knowledge management" to work someone has to enter
all the information in the database and the corporate culture must be one
of cooperation, not competition. The culture of law firms is frequently
quite competitive, which can pose an obstacle to successful implementation
of knowledge management procedures.
The adoption of technology by the legal industry
is constrained by two major factors that differ substantially from considerations
facing the corporate world, namely a) the culture of law firms and b) the
U.S. court system.
Technological change in the legal industry takes
place at a much slower pace than in the corporate world and is measured
by the time it takes a graduating law class to begin to influence the decisions
of their law firms. Thus law firms are linked to generational change in
ways that publicly-held corporations are not, although the Internet is
changing this too: witness the recent "Internet raises" at major law firms.
Talented associates will increasingly demand new electronic toys.
Secondly, the needs of law firms are fundamentally
determined by the U.S. courts. The document structure required by the court
system, with its footnotes and reference to authorities, is not likely
to change very rapidly. This is a direct inhibitor to the rate at which
Internet-style documents will be acceptable in the legal industry. At present,
Internet HTML format has no mechanism to determine what is on page 19,
line 5 of a document and does not support footnotes (as opposed to endnotes).
While mechanisms exist today to make a firm's documents available across
the Internet, this will be slow to take off, for a number of reasons, perhaps
most importantly security concerns. In addition, at present, the documents
are available for browsing only; they must be downloaded for editing to
make any changes.
Use It or Lose It
Even if some favorite gizmos of industry technologists
are pie in the sky, how can you get a slice of it? The three basic components
of an overall integrated solution exist today as document management, case
management and e-mail/calendaring programs. In addition, there are a number
of practice-specific programs for, e.g., wills, real estate, bankruptcy,
family law, litigation support. These are increasingly being tied together.
Make a "wish list" of what you would like to be
able to do. Start with the program (or programs) that best fit the items
at the top of your list. Start anywhere, but start. Adopting key new technology
is a bit like beginning to exercise regularly: even a little bit can deliver
substantial benefit to the health of a firm. Firms that don't will, over
time, lose out to firms taking better advantage of technology suited to
Read John Heckman's article "Life After Reveal
Codes" in the current issue of the ABA's Law Practice Quarterly. See
John Heckman recently achieved accreditation as
an "Authorized Independent Consultant" for the Time Matters case management