Tech Audit

The Human Equation

Family Law Software Saves Time, But Too Much Technology Could Hurt a Practice

Posted Sep 29, 2005 3:13 AM CDT
By Jason Krause

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Family practice lawyer Adrienne Albrecht says personality often dictates why lawyers are in family law and not something more analytical, like a tax practice.

“One is comfortable and capable of dealing with highly emotional situations, and the other one is more comfortable dealing with abstract calculations,” says the Kankakee, Ill., lawyer. “I assume it has something to do with using different parts of the brain.”

However, Albrecht says, family law practitioners also need to do the cold, hard arithmetic that’s often at the heart of divorce and custody battles, including tax calculations. For that and other reasons, software is increasingly important.

“A lot of people think family law is simple, but it really isn’t,” she says. “The tax calculations alone can drive you crazy.”

Software, such as child support calculators, has been useful in divorce and custody cases for years. Companies such as West’s FinPlan and Floridom offer software that allows attorneys to determine interest on past due child support and other calculations without bringing in tax attorneys or actuaries.

However, Albrecht says, calculators will become increasingly important for figuring out things like arrearage because new federal guidelines have introduced more data into the equation. She says software will not eliminate the need for expert testimony in court, but it can lessen the need for tax accountants or other experts in negotiations. “There’s no substitute for a witness, but sometimes software can help get the other side to accept your numbers,” she says.

And following the lead of criminal cases, family law cases sometimes turn on electronic evidence as people communicate online, and via cell phones, pagers and all sorts of gadgets. But because of small budgets, family law practices are among the least well-equipped to use digital forensics.

Electronic-discovery experts say that it is probably too much to expect family practice lawyers to be able to find electronic evidence on their own, but that they should be able to make a forensic image of a computer hard drive. With a product such as Norton Ghost, which costs only about $70, lawyers can take a digital snapshot of everything on a computer. This can then be turned over to e-discovery experts, who will look for any incriminating evidence.

Know When to Say No

Sometimes in family law cases, clients push their attorneys to look for a smoking-gun e-mail or another message that may not exist or may not even be needed in a no-fault case.

“We’ll do a perfunctory search for poor clients just to let them know if it’s likely we’ll find something,” says Sharon Nelson, a lawyer and president of Sensei Enterprises, a computer forensics firm in Fairfax, Va. “Often we don’t, and we’ll tell them it’s not worth it. But sometimes we’ll find a smoking gun; you just have to know where to look,” she adds.

Because of the raw emotions involved, family lawyers have to be careful about relying too much on technology when communicating with clients.

“We have to make a better first impression than other attorneys,” says Randall Kessler, a family law attorney in Atlanta. “These are very sensitive matters. E-mail and [personal digital assistants] are great ways to stay in touch with clients.

“But people often tend to be informal” when using them, he adds, “Which might not be appropriate.”

And attorneys say there are some areas where family lawyers should resist relying on software. Experts are increasingly brought in to perform custody evaluations on individuals or to evaluate the mental state of a sex offender. Increasingly, the tests can be done with computerized personality questionnaires.

“That’s just a really dicey situation,” Albrecht says. “These are traumatic events that I don’t think should be entirely entrusted to a machine.” n

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