Cover Story

The Top Ten in Tech


Frustration Fighters

It might be hard to remember now, but not too long ago, the Internet was a great tool for business communication. Unfortunately, spam e-mail, spyware and pop-up ads sometimes have made using the Internet more of a nuisance than a convenience. The worst and most persistent problem has been spam. According to the research group IDC, spam e-mail accounts for 38 percent of the 31 billion e-mails sent each day in North Amer­ica in 2004, up from 24 percent in 2002. Spam filters help, but don’t solve the problem. Worst of all, if they are poorly set up, filters can block legitimate e-mails from clients or friends.

Services like ZoE-mail are designed to fool spammers by disguising your e-mail address. Other ser­vices force anyone sending an e-mail to you to reply to a prompt in order for a message to be delivered. Blockers that sort out spam e-mails have become de rigueur. Unfortunately, there’s no magical antispam technology, so IT professionals recommend law firms simply teach their employees to be smart: Disguise e-mail posted to a public place and use long e-mail addresses. Pop-up ads can often be minimized with a simple download like the free Google toolbar. And keeping spyware off of your computer can usu­­­­­­­­­ally be done by keeping firewall software up to date and by running regular virus scans.

“There’s no silver bullet when it come to things like spam and spyware,” says Ben Sherwood, a personal security adviser in Milwaukee. “But a lot of times, if people are careful and take a little time to keep their software current, they’d find out things run a lot smoother.”

The Virtual Client

Susan Keller, an attorney with Ed­wards & Angell in Provi­dence, R.I., has some not-so-fond memories of her days as an associate. That’s because she’d often be flying around the country to weed through boxes of paper until the early hours of the morning. “I remember sitting in this factory in Skokie, Ill., for three nights until four in the morning, then going to the hotel for some sleep just to come back and start all over again two hours later,” she says.

That was the way lawyers in the financial world had to work: When a big deal went down, they and their clients typically wound up stuck in a conference room somewhere, hammering out details. In the past year, though, Keller’s firm has begun using software from a company called Intra­­Links that puts millions of documents on a secure Web site. That allows law­yers and others involved in a deal to look at documents from their desks. “Now you can access any document you want online whenever you need to,” she says. “Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be up at four in the morning, but at least you can do it from your office or home.”

Increasingly, clients are expecting that their lawyers will be able to interact with them virtually. However, firms may find their clients are pushing them to use technology they are not always comfortable with.

For example, in the business world and the world at large, instant messaging has become a popular communications tool. “I’m going to have to say that we haven’t seen much IM use among lawyers,” says Charles Weeden, CEO of 17a-4, a New York City-based company that archives electronic information. “What I’ve heard is a general concern about issues like the security of IM.” (Unlike other electronic com­­munications, instant messages are generally unprotec­ted.)

Not only will clients pressure lawyers to use newer technology, but forward-thinking lawyers may find that virtual communications tools can be effective ways to court new cli­ents. Social networking sites like Friendster and Meetup.com have become popular for things like networking or organizing political events. A few software makers, including Contact Network, Zero Degrees and Inter­face Soft­ware, have created next-step social networks professional versions that could connect lawyers with other lawyers or even potential clients.

Such systems, usually sold under the title of customer relationship management software, will even read and evaluate e-mails and calendar entries and make them searchable. By using software intelligently, lawyers can learn more about their clients and be more responsive to their needs.

Edwards & Angell has learned that using the Net can make the firm even more responsive to clients without having to spend more time to meet them in person. “Once people see that you can get more work done and do more without locking junior associates in a conference room for days, it becomes an easy sell,” Keller says.

Wireless Lawyers

In the past year or two, there was something of a wireless revolution as workers discovered wireless networking could let them stay plugged in while out of the office and even at the neighborhood coffee shop. That change came largely as a result of the widespread adoption of Wi-Fi wireless technology.

But that revolution largely skipped the legal world. Ac­cord­ing to the most recent ABA Legal Technology Sur­vey, only 7 percent of respondents in the legal profession reported using any kind of wireless network.

Wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, is a type of network that lets anyone with a properly configured laptop connect to the Internet through a wireless signal.

Wi-Fi “hot spots” can connect anyone within 300 feet. And the technology may be on the verge of becoming ubiquitous. Phila­delphia and Cook County, Ill. (Chicago), have announced that they are con­sid­er­ing plans to turn their entire areas into Wi-Fi hot spots, while several smaller cities are already under “city clouds.”

When it comes to Wi-Fi, security is still a concern, although those who properly configure their hot spots or secure their mobile computers can mitigate the risks. And the Institute of Electrical and Elec­tronics Engi­neers, the main computer networking standards-making body, is work­ing on security measures to shore up any of Wi-Fi’s weaknesses.

For lawyers who travel a lot, Wi-Fi ought to be a useful tool. “To me, when it comes to mobile technology, the big issue is Wi-Fi and the effect it will have on the Blackberry,” says Kennedy, a solo practitioner in St. Louis. “With a Wi-Fi card for $50 or less, you can have the equivalent of a com­plete desktop computer with broadband Internet access wherever you go.”

Though lawyers have been slow to take to Wi-Fi, there are already a handful of even newer wireless standards in the works right now, though it is not clear which one or ones have a chance to become an accepted standard. One that’s gotten the most attention is Wi-Max, which will provide network connectivity up to 30 miles in any direction, so it will likely be an ideal technology for connecting office networks at a low cost. The spread of Wi-Fi and similar technologies may finally become too great for lawyers to ignore.

Whither The Blackberry?

After reading the last entry on the list, it might make you wonder why anyone needs handhelds anymore. Why not just carry an ultralight titanium laptop with a Wi-Fi wireless connection and have the equivalent of a desktop PC wherever you go? But many lawyers seem to prefer handheld devices like the RIM Blackberry.

“We’ve seen a dropoff in people wanting laptops with the onset of the Blackberry,” says Ryan McEn­roe, director of systems technology with Reed Smith in Pitts­burgh. “If you’re a road warrior and you need to work on documents, you might need a laptop, but most of our lawyers want the handheld.”

Like many law firms, Reed Smith has made a commitment to its cli­ents to respond to e-mails within a set amount of time, and handhelds make that possible. With the release of RIM’s newest software, the devices will soon be able to handle faxed documents, PDFs and other common formats for legal documents.

Voicemails will be delivered to the handheld, and lawyers can even download LexisNexis and Westlaw legal information. And small companies like Onset Tech­­nol­ogy are writing legal software for handhelds that will allow lawyers to do things like enter their time, no matter where they are.

Legal software companies are creating similar programs for Black­berry compet­itors Good Tech­nology and Micro­soft Pock­et PCs. Some of the new built-in features found in mobile phones, like FM radios or thermometers, might not blow your socks off, while other functions like digital music players might be cool but not exactly essential to a law practice.

But new standards like Bluetooth have made it possible for short-range wireless connection that lets handhelds (and computers and other devices) connect and share information.

Ren­­dez­vous from Ap­ple Com­pu­ter or Ze­roConf (Zero Configura­tion Net­work­ing) are emerging technologies that will allow a device to automatically recognize and connect with other devices on the network.

That means you can download a court filing on a handheld device, point it at a printer and print the document.

New Web browsers like Apple’s Sher­lock or Sun Micro­systems’ Wat­son, along with Micro­soft’s Digital Dashboard, will make it possible to get more information on ever-smaller devices.

“As a law firm, we’ve made a commitment to be as responsive as possible to our clients,” McEnroe says. “If you want to be as responsive as possible, I think the Black­berry is still the perfect tool.”

Tying It Together

There are two kinds of trends in technology: the kind that happens naturally when people find a new technology that works for them, or one that the industry tries to foist on the consumer. Software integration is one of those trends the industry has been trying to foster, but that does not mean it can’t be useful to lawyers.

Over the past few years, legal giants LexisNexis and West Group have been buying all kinds of different software systems, such as back-end bill­ing, and other products not related to legal research. And they’ve been working to integrate these systems into legal research programs. Smaller legal software companies have been making a concerted effort to make sure their systems can connect to systems made by other vendors. It’s not a surprising development it’s been going on within the rest of the software industry for a while. But as more legal software systems can communicate and share data, integrated systems mean law firms can do new things. The first thing these digital firms are hoping to promote is knowledge management, a system that can find information across different systems within a law firm.

“Right now, knowledge management is different from practice area to practice area or to different offices,” says Mike Wilens, president and CEO of West Group. “Most of the time it means [you] blast out an e-mail asking if anyone has the information you need, and you wait for someone to get back to you.”

Software makers believe lawyers and paralegals should be able to start work in the morning and not care about which system they’re using to do their work. For example, the time spent doing legal research or working on a document for a client could be noted automatically by the time-and-billing system. And basic functions within a law firm can become much more sophisticated. For example, Wilens thinks things like conflict checks will take one simple search that polls all of the systems within a firm to find out who has worked on which projects in the past. Right now, such an effort could take months and involve manual labor.

From a practical standpoint, it does not make sense for one practice area to have separate systems from another practice area within a firm. Once a law firm has all of its software speaking the same language, a firm can be run more like a business, with detailed business intelligence something few firms have today.

The E-Detective

Over the past few years, lawyers have probably heard countless dire warnings about how they needed to learn about e-discovery or risk getting into trouble in court. More than a few have even earned recent CLE credits on the topic. But for the most part, e-discovery was something most litigators could safely ignore.

But within the last year, the courts have had their say in many jurisdictions, making explicit exactly what is expected and what is proper behavior regarding the discovery of electronic evidence. A series of rulings in the Southern District of New York in Zubulake v. UBS War­burg, No. 02 Civ. 1243 (SAS), laid out an influential set of rules for handling e-discovery. The fifth ruling, on July 20, ordered sanc­tions against a company for deleting e-mails relevant to a discovery request. The next day, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered tobacco giant Philip Morris to pay $2.75 million in sanctions for e-discovery violations, including the deletion of relevant e-mails. U.S. v. Philip Morris, No. 99-2496.

Observers say lawyers can’t claim ignorance of e-discovery issues anymore. “In 2004, e-discovery went mainstream. It was no longer, ‘Yeah, yeah, I heard someone in another jurisdiction had to deal with that. I just hope it won’t be me,’ ” says Virginia Llewellyn, an attorney and director of industry relations for LexisNexis’ e-discovery service. “The courts sanctioned a few lawyers and have come around to say, ‘Here’s what we expect from lawyers.’ ”

E-discovery is still largely confined to big litigation cases and is too complex for firms to do in-house. Ac­cord­ing to Attenex, a litigation support company in Seattle, a small e-discovery job for them involves about 500 gigabytes of data. (One gigabyte is equal to between 50,000 and 100,000 printed pages, depending on the kind of computer files being searched.) Some cases now involve one terabyte of information, which, if printed to paper, would fill the nation’s tallest building, Chicago’s Sears Tower, four times. But lawyers used to discovery rules in the paper world don’t need to be put off by e-discovery. In fact, the prevailing court rulings have created standards close to the Feder­al Rules of Civil Procedure in most regards. And federal guidelines in the works are closely mirroring the rules being developed in court.

Not only is the law around this issue becoming settled, but the technology is also getting more and more sophisticated. Systems can eliminate redundant copies, and more sophisticated searches make it possible to find more needles in haystacks. “I really don’t think there’s a reason for lawyers to be afraid of e-discovery anymore,” Llewellyn says.

A Digital Warehouse

Since the collapse of tech companies like WorldCom encouraged fire-sale prices for Internet service, law firms now pay a fraction of what they did three or four years ago. And advances in technology have made storage equipment dirt cheap. Taken separately, some law firms might assume those two developments simply mean their tech costs are going down. But firms that can combine cheap storage costs and cheap bandwidth might also find some unexpected new ways to improve their practice.

Bandwidth and storage are so cheap that law firms are now able to solve two problems simultaneously find a place to store millions of digital documents and make those documents more accessible to more people within a firm. Consequently, a firm really has no excuse if a disaster were to take down a whole office.

Until recently, most firms backed up things like accounting, timekeeping, Web collaboration, human resources and document management systems data only in the office where they were created. But when a firm backs up its data in a data center, anyone who can get online can still access their workload. The idea is to both prevent downtime and to make any information owned by the firm accessible in one convenient place. And with improvements in scanning technology, cheap storage media, and cheap bandwidth, law firms could easily become almost all digital. They should never need a warehouse or physical storage space again.

But one thing is keeping law firms from moving their data into off-site locations: fears about security. According to Wilens of West Group, law firms are reticent about letting outside technology companies touch their documents. “We do knowledge management for the Big Four accounting firms,” he says. “But the big law firms don’t want us to do it for them. I don’t know if it’s culture or what, but there’s no real difference in what they do from the accounting firms, so I think this fear is misplaced.”

Wired Justice

In the past couple of years, more courts have quietly begun rolling out something they’ve been threatening to for year’s electronic court filing. Like e-discovery, e-filing has finally reached a point where many lawyers can’t ignore it. In some places, it’s an option; in others, it’s become the mandatory way to file all court documents.

According to Gary Bockweg, project manager for the Elec­tronic Case Files system at the U.S. Courts Adminis­tra­­tive Office, 35 percent of documents in federal courts are now filed electronically. He says that figure is closer to 60 percent to 70 percent in bankruptcy courts where the high volume of files involved has led courts to embrace the technology.

All a lawyer needs to be able to e-file is a computer, high-speed Inter­net access and Adobe’s Acrobat PDF writer soft­ware, which costs around $120.

But depending on how sophisticated an e-filing system is, lawyers can use it to do more than just file briefs; they can gain an advantage over opposing counsel.

The federal court system keeps records of who looked at what documents and when. That means lawyers who know their way around the system can quickly see what documents their opponents have been researching. The system notifies lawyers via e-mail when a document is filed, so a lawyer who keeps on top of e-mail has the latest information. And if law firms can tie their document management system to the court docketing system, the firm can stay ahead of all filings and know everything that comes down from the court as soon as it is posted. More interesting, in some jurisdictions it is possible to serve opposing counsel electronically, which means no more chasing down people and verifying that documents have been received by the other side.

With effective e-filing, firms suddenly have an entire electronic case file. “Fully functional e-filing goes way beyond just filing documents,” says Tobias Hartmann, vice president of market planning with Lexis­Nexis’ File & Serve. “For lawyers and the firm, it means more control over delivery and more information management you can have in a case.”

Really Special Stuff

RSS Really Simple Syndica­tion feeds are available from most major legal Web sites like law.com, major news services like CNN and The New York Times, the White House press office, and most Web logs. All it takes is a free RSS reader like NewzCrawl­­er or AmphetaDesk, then a click on a link or button on a Web site that says “XML,” and the software will begin feeding you articles on topics you request.

RSS is a great tool for lawyers who want to stay on top of news and events in their legal field, but some law firms could find it useful as a way to impress clients or as a marketing tool.

For example, a law firm can create special RSS feeds to announce seminars, services or news from the firm to its clients. Within a firm, RSS feeds can be set up to distribute documents, presentations or announcements of upcoming events. And RSS makes it harder for anyone to fall out of the loop, because messages aren’t bounced by spam filters the way e-mail may be.

But what’s more important, law firms that persuade their clients to set up an RSS feed can make clients feel important as they receive free news and updates from their lawyers. And as a marketing tool, law firms who make information on their Web sites available to RSS feeds know that anyone who subscribes is interested enough to actively seek to read your feed, something e-mail can’t promise.

“RSS gives the clients what they want: easy access to information from their lawyers,” Kennedy says. “And the firm suddenly gets an online knowledge base for anyone to draw on.”

Safety Zone

This is the item most law firms wish would disappear from the list. Hackers and viruses cost firms millions of dollars per year, and the problem seems to be getting worse. And as more lawyers log onto wireless networks, firms need to make sure they have proper security in place.

For a profession priding itself on confidentiality, law practice is relatively lax in its security precautions. According to the latest ABA Legal Technology Survey, just over half of lawyers report knowing whether they even have firewall software on their firm’s systems. A firewall doesn’t require someone to flip on a switch. But if lawyers don’t know such protection is there, can they be using it properly?

“A lot of firms just don’t have the resources to do security well,” Sher­wood says. “Solos with two or three people on staff are often the people who get burned.”

But security doesn’t have to be a major burden or expense. The most important things lawyers need to do are to find out where their data is stored and how it’s vulnerable, and then put a firewall in place to protect it. Good firewalls can be had for a couple hundred dollars.

And once in place, someone needs to make sure those firewalls are kept current with the latest virus protection information.

“It doesn’t really take expensive software to secure your computers,” Sherwood says. “Security is a process: making sure the software you have is set up right and having the proper policies and practices in place.” Jason Krause is a legal affairs writer for the ABA Journal. His e-mail address is krausej@staff.abanet.org.


Correction

December's (2004) cover story, "The Top Ten in Tech," page 34, mistakenly states that "lawyers who know their way around the [federal court] system can quickly see what documents their opponents have been researching." In fact, lawyers cannot see what their opponents have been researching. That information can be accessed only by authorized federal court staff if they need it to resolve a security or billing concern. What the feature article should have said is that lawyers can see whether their opponents have received documents and filings associated with a particular case. The Journal regrets the error.

Previous:
The Subtle Art of the Party

Next:
Office Design on a Dime


We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy. Flag comment for moderator.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.