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    Thinking Techno(logically)

    Lawyers share their experiences with implementing technology in their law practices.

    Dianne Molvig

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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 78, No. 4, April 2005

    Thinking Techno(logically)

    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.


    man thinkingby Dianne Molvig

    Adopting 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 work.

    After the interview, she plugs the AlphaSmart into her desktop computer to transfer the notes, which she then can edit and save on her computer.

    "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 going back."

    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 says.

    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."

    Organization First

    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 less."

    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 network.

    "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 client files."

    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 remote access
    • GoToMeeting, Internet-based online meeting service with presentation capability
    • DataHEALTH, Internet-based computer backup service
    • PracticeMaster, electronic case management system
    • Time Matters, practice management tool
    • Microsoft Outlook, email, calendaring, and case management tool
    • ISYS, search engine providing electronic access via keyword to work product
    • Amicus, case management software
    • QuickBooks Pro, billing and accounting software

    Planning Pays

    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 me?'"

    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 time."

    Dianne Molvig operates Access Information Service, a Madison writing and editing service. She is a frequent contributor to area publications.