Vol. 78, No. 4, April
To remain competitive, you look for ways to streamline your law
practice, remain accessible to clients, and protect your work product,
among other concerns. Here several attorneys from solo, small, and
mid-sized firms share their experiences with technology, which may
inspire a few innovative ideas for your practice.
by Dianne Molvig
dopting the right mix of technology tools
takes time and effort, and perhaps some trial and error. "Often there is
pain before the gain," says Art Saffran of Saffran Technology, Madison.
"You can't avoid that entirely, but you can minimize it."
One way to do the latter is to learn from others' experiences. Toward
that end, we asked a few attorneys to tell us about the technology
they've adopted. Which tools have they chosen, and why? What rewards are
they reaping? How steep a learning curve are they enduring?
These attorneys practice in various areas of law and in different
sizes of firms - from one to 14 attorneys. We chose to focus on lawyers
from solo, small, and mid-sized firms, which typically have no full-time
technology professional on staff.
Some of these attorneys are technology-savvy, or at least curious,
while others say they have no such inclinations. Some have discovered a
few tools that are useful in specific aspects of their practices, while
others have introduced technological solutions into nearly everything
they do during an ordinary day.
In fact, as you'll see in the following case studies, attorneys'
opinions about how to approach technology can differ significantly, even
when they're aiming to solve the same problem. "One approach doesn't
invalidate another," Saffran emphasizes. "Rather, it illustrates the
ability to achieve some level of technology success in firms with
different cultures and different personalities."
Simple Solutions, Big Benefits
Gretchen Viney splits her professional life between a two-lawyer
private practice in Baraboo and a part-time faculty position at the
University of Wisconsin Law School. "Often I'll get a phone call
regarding a file that's on my office computer in Baraboo," she says,
"and I'm sitting here in my Madison office."
She used to carry computer disks back and forth, trying to anticipate
what she might need whenever she switched offices - until she struck on
a new solution, a Web-based service called GoToMyPC. If she's in her Madison
office and needs a file from her Baraboo computer, she simply goes to
the GoToMyPC Web site on her Madison computer, enters her password, and
clicks to gain access to her Baraboo computer.
"I'll actually be looking at my Baraboo screen," Viney explains. "I
can just click a button and transfer a file to my Madison computer. It's
not bells and whistles at all. It's so easy."
For this to work, the Baraboo computer must be on, so Viney's Baraboo
staff sees to that first thing each morning. While she's accessing her
Baraboo computer from Madison, the Baraboo screen goes black and locks,
so no one can see what she's doing while working on the computer from
the remote location.
Viney asked attorney friend Mark Pennow, Green Bay, to investigate
the site's security before she subscribed. Satisfied with his findings,
she pays less than $150 a year to have two computers on the service. She
uses it not only to transfer computer files between offices but also to
access her office computers when she's away at conferences. Plus, she
can check email from anywhere.
Another of Viney's favorite technology tools is an AlphaSmart Neo, a portable,
lightweight keyboard with a 1.5" by 5.75" display screen, which she uses
for taking notes. The device runs for 700 hours on three triple-A
batteries, allowing Viney to use it in diverse settings, such as at
seminars or in the courtroom. Her primary use of AlphaSmart, however, is
during client interviews.
Finding it difficult to take legible notes, Viney needed another way.
She ruled out using a laptop because the screen creates a barrier
between her and her client. "The AlphaSmart is not at all obtrusive,"
she reports. "And it's less distracting than writing because I don't
have to look down at my notes. I can maintain good eye contact" with the
interviewee, which is especially critical in her guardian ad litem
After the interview, she plugs the AlphaSmart into her desktop
computer to transfer the notes, which she then can edit and save on her
"I'd been looking for something that would not interfere with
rapport-building with clients," Viney says, "but that still would allow
me to take reasonable notes. The AlphaSmart has been wonderful."
To the Next Level
A couple of years ago, Schober Schober & Mitchell faced a dilemma
common to many small and mid-sized law firms. "We had clients who were
growing," says Tom Schober, "and we knew we were going to begin to lose
the ability to take care of all their needs. We didn't want to lose them
to the next-size law firm."
To be able to retain those clients, Schober and his partners turned
to technology to boost efficiency and productivity, while also
maintaining work product quality. In January 2004, the firm installed a
Citrix server and software (www.citrix.com). All the firm's work product
is now on the Citrix server, where it's accessible from anywhere via the
Internet. "It seems like you're right in your office working on the main
server," Schober explains, "even though you might be across the ocean."
Indeed, using Citrix enabled him to work on office files while visiting
his daughter in Italy last fall.
Citrix is equally useful, however, in the firm's day-to-day
operations involving 14 attorneys in offices in Oconomowoc and New
Berlin. Before Citrix, moving to the other office meant toting along "a
huge box of stuff," Schober says. "Now I carry little with me because I
can get to everything I need over the computer."
Also, before Citrix each branch had to have its own server, software,
and backup system. And it was difficult for lawyers in different offices
to share files. That problem vanished with Citrix, because all the
firm's work is on the server. What's more, all files automatically get
backed up on the server every night, no matter where those files were
created. "I can be working on a document at a client's office, at home,
or in Rome," Schober says, "and I don't have to worry whether it got
backed up. I sleep much better at night."
To further enhance its ability to serve clients, the firm took on
several other projects at about the time it purchased Citrix. These
included converting from WordPerfect to Microsoft Word, implementing a
practice management software called Time Matters (more on this in a
later case study), and installing Adobe Acrobat to be able to convert
documents into portable document format (pdf). All this added up to a
"fairly significant learning curve," Schober says, although he says it
takes only five minutes to learn to use Citrix.
As for cost, he says a Citrix server for a firm with 25 users runs
about $25,000. Add to that the costs for loading whatever software a
firm uses, plus roughly $10,000 to $15,000 for installation, including
setting up remote office connections and training.
"I have no doubts that Citrix has given us the ability to move to a
new level of service to our clients," Schober says. "It's an expensive
route to get into, but the payback is fairly quick. We're starting to
see the rewards in approximately a year's time. I can't imagine ever
My Place and Yours
Appleton attorney Anne Ertel-Sawasky works with many business clients
who prefer not to come to her office. "They're too busy making a
living," she notes. Teleconferences are one answer to save everybody
travel time. But communicating over the phone about numbers on a
spreadsheet, for example, can be cumbersome. Ertel-Sawasky found an
easy-to-use solution in GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com). "My clients
love it," she says. "They view this as a real time-saver."
With GoToMeeting, Ertel-Sawasky and a client can hold an online
meeting from their respective offices. While they talk on the telephone,
she pulls up information on her computer screen that then appears on the
client's screen miles away. She uses her mouse to direct her client's
attention to specific information on the screen. If she needs to view
information on the client's computer, she simply hits a button to
transfer the "presenter" capability to her client.
Although one of Ertel-Sawasky's primary uses of GoToMeeting is to
review numbers and other data with business clients, she sees potential
applications in other types of law practice. "I think anyone would find
it useful," she says, "when you're doing a teleconference and you want
to give someone handout material."
Like Viney, Ertel-Sawasky also finds GoToMyPC to be a useful tool in
her two-attorney firm. For Ertel-Sawasky, it's a way to stay connected
to her office when she's traveling, with less need to cart along her
laptop everywhere she goes. "I've learned that any public library has
Internet access," she says. "That's one of the first things I ask in my
travels: `Where's the library?'"
Still, she cautions that lawyers must be careful about what they pull
up on screen in a public place, such as a library. When she's using
GoToMyPC to access confidential documents remotely, she does so on her
laptop in privacy.
One other technology Ertel-Sawasky relies on is DataHEALTH, an Internet-based
service that backs up her entire system each night automatically. Her
backed-up files end up in two data mines in different parts of the
country. "The odds of both of those locations going down are incredibly
remote," Ertel-Sawasky says, noting that DataHEALTH meets high
confidentiality standards and is compliant with the Health Insurance
Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Backing up files to distant locations, she adds, is more secure than
a common practice among solos and small-firm attorneys - putting back-up
data on an external hard drive and taking it home with you. A major
disaster, such as a flood or tornado, could destroy both the office and
home - and all your data.
"My whole system is backed up every single night," Ertel-Sawasky
says, "and I can always get it. It's such a burden off me to know that I
don't have to worry about my files."
Investing in Possibilities
Like many law firms, Hill, Glowacki, Jaeger & Hughes, a
seven-attorney firm in Madison, has struggled to find the optimum
solution for electronic case management. Several years ago, the firm
bought CaseMaster (since discontinued by SoftWare Technology Inc. and
replaced by PracticeMaster, www.stilegal.com), but no one in the firm
used it much. Usage was so low, in fact, that when the firm bought a new
computer system a few years later, "we decided to cut our losses,"
recalls Jim Jaeger, "and not reinstall" CaseMaster.
Still, Jaeger didn't abandon the idea of someday using electronic
case management in his firm. He continued to learn about what was
available, especially the Time Matters product (www.timematters.com). Then about
five years ago, when the firm switched from a Novell operating system to
Windows 2000, thus necessitating a change in the calendaring program
anyway, "we decided to take a second hard look at Time Matters," Jaeger
The firm bought the software, but this time around it took a markedly
different route to implementation. "We thought about it a lot more,"
Jaeger says, "and got buy-in from the staff and attorneys." He refers to
this part of the implementation process as "integrating your human
systems with your technology." Missing that step was "the mistake we
made in our CaseMaster days," he notes.
Another key element has been investing in staff training. Today the
firm has one staff person, affectionately known in-house as the "crazed
zealot," who has had in-depth training in Time Matters and knows what it
can do for the firm. "She's a real believer in it," Jaeger says.
He readily admits, however, that his firm isn't using Time Matters to
the fullest. While it's now the firm's calendaring and billing tool,
Jaeger is banking on the potential uses yet to be fully explored, such
as linking electronic files and document assembly.
With Time Matters, he can create for each client an electronic file
that contains every bit of information related to that client's case -
letters, emails, meeting notes, documents, contact information, and so
on. In turn, that information could trigger the creation of a document
at the click of a button.
Say, for instance, that he wanted to create a power of attorney for
health care for a client. All the information needed to generate that
document is already in the client's electronic file. "You enter that
information once," Jaeger explains, "and never have to reenter it."
One of the hurdles is to figure out an efficient way to get all data
into Time Matters initially, Jaeger concedes. "I keep putting this on my
to-do list to improve my life," he says. "I should be getting all this
information into Time Matters so it's there to use."
Even though the firm still isn't reaping all possible benefits from
its case management tool, it's "a worthwhile investment," Jaeger says.
"It is taking time to get people into using this. Slowly but surely,
we're getting there."
Monroe attorney Rex Ewald's approach to technology could be summed up
in four words: do more with less. "There's no escaping the effort you
must invest to understand what you're doing," he says. "But once you
make that effort, you'll find you can make do quite nicely with
Ewald admits he hasn't always followed his own advice. Seven years
ago, his four-attorney firm, Voegeli & Ewald, paid $7,000 for two
practice management software packages. "After a while, we dumped them,"
he recalls, "because of all the problems."
Today his firm's approach to technology centers around two key
pieces: Microsoft Outlook
and an ISYS search engine (www.isysusa.com). Most firms, Ewald
says, use Outlook primarily for email and perhaps calendaring. But his
firm has turned it into a case management tool, as well, by using
Outlook's "explore Web page" feature to link to files in the firm's
"We have 518 names in our client contact file (in Outlook)," Ewald
explains. "Each of those is linked to an individual folder we've created
for that client. So we use Outlook as the electronic way to access our
The prime motivation here isn't to save money otherwise spent on case
management software, Ewald emphasizes. Rather, it's to avoid the
problems spawned each time you add a software package to your repertoire
- more bugs to work out, more upgrades to buy, more integrations to try
to make work properly so different programs will "talk" to each other.
"When you start layering software," Ewald contends, "it complicates your
life, in my judgment."
The firm's other key technology component, the ISYS search engine,
provides electronic access via keyword to the firm's work product dating
back to 1981. "I use this a half-dozen times a day," Ewald says. As an
example, he types in "1986 Ford Taurus" and instantly gets a listing of
52 documents in the firm's system in which the phrase appears.
"Having that kind of search capability," Ewald notes, "is incredibly
powerful for a lawyer after you've accumulated a few years of work
product. You can share the cumulative knowledge of your law firm." That
means an attorney can find an existing document quickly and adapt or
replicate it easily for a new client matter. Conflict checks also are
quick and easy.
The search engine currently costs $570 for a single-user copy, or
$1,000 per server and $100 per seat for multi-user purchases. "Measure
that against the power it gives you," Ewald says. "Once a firm has this,
I guarantee they won't know what they did without it."
In his view, Outlook and ISYS give his firm the technological
capabilities needed to access work product and clients' files
electronically, without buying a case management software package. All
this depends, of course, on everyone's work being saved to a central
location in the first place. "I'm not pitching our system," Ewald says.
"I'm pitching fundamental organization, period. And whatever you choose
to use, learn to use it. If you do, you'll probably choose not to buy
things you otherwise would."
To Learn More...
Products and services mentioned in this article include:
- GoToMyPC, Web service for
remote access of computer files
- AlphaSmart Neo, portable
keyboard with display screen
- Citrix, server and software for
Internet-based online meeting service with presentation capability
Internet-based computer backup service
- PracticeMaster, electronic
case management system
- Time Matters, practice
- Microsoft Outlook,
email, calendaring, and case management tool
- ISYS, search engine providing
electronic access via keyword to work product
- Amicus, case management
- QuickBooks Pro,
billing and accounting software
After 20 years total with two large law firms, Michael Allen launched
his solo practice in Sun Prairie in January 2004. In setting up his own
office, he faced the challenge - and the opportunity - of choosing a new
suite of technologies. "I was starting with a clean slate," says Allen,
who practices in energy, business, and real estate law.
Allen describes himself as "a deliberate guy," and so was his
approach to selecting technology for his new practice. Long before he
went shopping, he invested weeks in planning. He began by attending
local and state bar seminars and talking to technology professionals,
which, he says, "helped me get focused."
But Allen says the most important stage in his early planning was
self-examination. "I sat down," he says, "and mentally took an eraser to
the chalk board, wiped everything off, and asked, `Why do people hire
After a lot of thought and analysis, he wrote out three sentences
that answered his question. Stated briefly, his clients hire him for his
judgment, to negotiate and generate contracts, and to find the answers
they need when they need them.
Allen's next step was to shape a technology vision statement. To
create this, he blended what he'd learned from his "why do clients hire
me" analysis with some of his own business objectives. The latter
included such goals as generating as little paper as possible, keeping
overhead low to benefit both himself and his clients, making sure his
system had enough built-in redundancy so that no single point of failure
could bring his office to a halt, and so on.
"I wrote out what I wanted technology to do for me and what I wanted
it to do for my clients," Allen says, "and I married those into a
technology vision statement. Then I took that statement and gave it to a
consultant. His reaction was, 'Great, You're further along than most
businesses. I'll give you a shopping list.'" The consultant helped Allen
choose hardware, and interviews with other attorneys helped him select
software that would meet his needs.
He ended up with a two-computer network (a desktop and a notebook)
linked to two printers and a scanner (all documents that arrive at his
office get scanned into his network for electronic storage), plus
various software, including Amicus for case management and
QuickBooks Pro for
billing and accounting. Now, a year and some months into his new
practice, Allen says he's where he wants to be, and technology helped
him get there.
"The learning curve was pretty steep the first two weeks," he says,
"because I was simultaneously learning different software systems. But I
had help. If I were to give others a couple of tips, the first would be
take time to plan, whether you have a month or a day. And secondly, pay
for training in how to use your software. It will save you a lot of
Dianne Molvig operates
Access Information Service, a Madison writing and editing service. She
is a frequent contributor to area publications.