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No. 13, February 2000  

What 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.

"Productivity Gains?"

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 business.

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 pervasive.

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 defect!

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 and completeness.

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

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.

Knowledge Management

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 modularity.

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).

Constraining Factors

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 their needs.
Heckman Consulting News

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 program.  

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