William “Byll” Hess will receive the 2015 John Lederer Service Award this week at the 2015 Wisconsin Solo & Small-firm Conference for his years of leadership in the legal profession and for his role in creating the State Bar’s Law Office Management Assistant Program and the Practice411 elist.
Oct. 21, 2015 – Wausau Attorney William “Byll” Hess keeps a 25-year-old computer in his basement – the first touch-screen computer that he used in his practice in the early 1980s.
Comparing that with the touch-screen tablets and phones of today, it’s a reminder of how far technology has come in 25 years.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Hess said.
Hess will receive the 2015 John Lederer Service Award this week at the 2015 Wisconsin Solo & Small-firm Conference in Wisconsin Dells.
John Lederer saw it as his mission to help solo and small-firm lawyers master skills and technology to build their practices. Lederer was a visionary when it came to implementing technology into the practice of law.
“It’s an honor, because I worked with John Lederer,” Hess said. “It means a lot to me.”
Leading the Way
Named in memory of Oregon, Wis., attorney John Lederer, the award is presented annually to an individual, group, or organization exemplifying the leadership, spirit and dedication of Lederer, who saw it as his mission to help solo and small firm lawyers master the skills and technology needed to build their practices.
Hess is recognized for his “years of leadership in the legal profession,” as well as for his role in the creating the State Bar’s Law Office Management Assistant Program (LOMAP) and the Practice411 elist, said Melissa Mortensen, chair of the selection committee.
Who was John Lederer?
John Lederer saw it as his mission to help solo and small-firm lawyers master skills and technology to build their practices. Lederer was a visionary when it came to implementing technology into the practice of law. He served on and chaired the State Bar’s Technology Resource Committee (TRC). While serving on the TRC, he took on the copyright controversy with Westlaw and facilitated Wisconsin’s universal citation program.
The universal citation, issued by courts, prevents any company from claiming a copyright on the publication of cases, making them available to attorneys at no cost.
Lederer was key in creating the Solo and Small Firm Conference and saw it as an opportunity to better the practices and lives of Wisconsin’s attorneys.
LOMAP – also called Practice411 – helps lawyers reduce risk and improve client relations, and manage the business aspects of their practices, including the use of technology.
Hess, managing director of Hess, Reinertson & Brunner S.C., in Wausau, concentrates his practice in the area of business law. Since graduating from U.W. Law School in 1970, he has been active in several bars, including the Marathon County Bar Association, the State Bar, and the American Bar Association. He has served as chair of the State Bar Board of Governors, on the former State Bar Technology Committee, as chair of the former Law Office Management Section Board of Directors, and as a member of the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference Planning Committee.
On the ‘Bleeding Edge’
From the beginning, Hess has fostered a love for the latest in technology.
“I always liked innovation, new ways of doing things,” Hess said. And finding new and better ways to run the office and practice.
“I enjoy applying it to our practice. Sometimes it lead to headaches; we always talked about being on the ‘bleeding edge’ of technology,” Hess said.
Past Recipients of the John F. Lederer Service Award
- Nerino J. Petro (2014)
- Nancy L. Trueblood (2013)
- Paul Angel (2012)
- Roberta A. Heckes (2011)
- Lowell Sweet (2010)
- Ross Kodner (2009)
He began his practice using typewriters and magnetic cards. In 1979, he heard of a technology company looking for a law firm to try out their computer.
“It had a great big floppy disc that looked like a pizza crust,” Hess said.
In 1980, his firm bought a Hewlett-Packard “mini” computer. “The hard drive was the size of a mini refrigerator” with just 120MB of information – 0.00012 of the terabyte now used to measure hard drive capacities, or the equivalent of about 66 8GB microSD cards that fit in smart phones. It required a terminal to use, and cost $27,000.
And in 1983, it was the HP 150 Butterfly, with a green touch screen. “We’ve come back to the touch-screen again, now in vivid color,” Hess said.
It was not too far a stretch to connect his passion for the latest tech with his aim to assist fellow lawyers. “I had worked for a long time on trying to introduce opportunities for solo or small firm lawyers to become more technology savvy. Most of them could not afford to hire an IT specialist on their own, so we needed the services,” Hess said.
Hess was appointed to chair a committee that developed LOMAP – now Practice411 – in 2009. “We put together a long list of services that we felt solo and small firm lawyers would benefit from.”
First and foremost was to create the position of a practice management advisor – first held by Nerino Petro and currently held by Tison Rhine – to be filled by a lawyer with a strong background in technology. Hess was also involved with creating the John Lederer Award, approved by the State Bar Board of Governors in November 2009.
“It means a lot to me,” he said, “to actually be recognized somewhere down the line.”
Tortoise and Hare
The purpose of Practice411 is to help lawyers stay on top of the ever-changing world of technology.
“It’s basically now a mandate for our profession,” Hess said.
And technology changes quickly: The LOMAP program has gone from helping attorneys establish small office networks, to eliminating the server, to using cloud services. “There are challenges to cloud services – to manage the cloud ethically, following the rules, and learning how to live with the issues of cloud services.”
The lightning-fast changes in technology contrast with the much slower pace of changes in the Supreme Court rules. An example, he said, are rules regarding trust accounts and electronic banking: the rise in electronic banking and diminished use of paper checks make it more difficult for lawyers to comply with trust account rules. A hearing is set for Dec. 4 on the issue.
Quick changes “don’t come with our culture, and change is definitely not easy,” Hess said.
Now, it’s easy to take the office with you – on your laptop, tablet, and smart phones. “I’m always tied to my office no matter where I am – it’s hard to get away.”
But it is important to take that break. Emotionally it’s not easy to do. He recently experienced no cell phone service while vacationing in Door County.
He describes his feelings at first: going through a type of withdrawal and maybe a touch of panic, knowing that he couldn’t stay on top of what was going on.
But then he realized he could actually relax. “I was enjoying knowing there was nothing I could do about it,” Hess said.
Everyone, including clients, is so accustomed to near-instant responses that lawyers have to consciously make an effort to not respond right away when thought is required. You have to make time to think and ponder the situation – and it is important to let clients know that a response may not be immediate. “It’s a challenge to give adequate thought to the problems that you’re trying to solve for people,” Hess said.
Competing with the Robot Lawyer
Practice is changing with the speed of technology, as well as the needs of the public. With ongoing changes in technology, lawyers now have more than other lawyers to compete with. “We see a lot of technology producing law products without lawyers,” Hess said. “Some of it is very good because it meets needs at a price people can afford.”
Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.
But it also challenges the legal profession to provide those services competitively. “If we use technology right, we can provide the thought process and the product that goes along with it at an affordable price,” Hess said.
Technology makes it possible for small firms, like boutique or micro-specialized law firms, to compete and offer lower-priced services.
Yet, face-to-face contact between lawyer and client is something that is still important, according to Hess. “The bigger picture, the more involved problems, are not going to be solved by the robot lawyer,” Hess said.
Hess confesses to “drooling” over a new Microsoft computer that holds a terabyte of data and 16 gigs of RAM – a computer that is a far cry away from that first touch-screen computer from the 1980s.
“Sometimes I just have to go down to the basement and look at my HP Butterfly to remind myself: It’s amazing what’s happened in 25 years.”
Hess will receive the award at the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference during the networking luncheon on Friday, Oct. 23, in Wisconsin Dells.