|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JANUARY 2007|
Remember the promise of the paperless office? Those in the technological know assured us that, with the advent of computers, electronic files would rule. And yet in most law firms across the land paper prevails.
Or how about the whiz-bang voice recognition equipment that ensured attorneys wouldn’t even have to touch their keyboards to conduct business electronically? Still, the steady clacking of computer keys continues.
E-filing, another hot prediction of a decade or so ago, has begun to take off on the federal level. However, electronic filing in state courts remains at the "recommended" stage, with actual development and implementation still a ways off.
On the other hand, along with the crystal-ball readings that missed the mark, plenty were spot on. The emerging technologies reviewed in the American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center’s 1996 Survey of Automation in Smaller Law Firms included computers, laptops and Internet research. Today, those tools are indispensable for most in the profession.
According to the center’s 2006 survey, nearly three-fourths of all attorneys use a desktop computer and 16 percent use a laptop while in the office. Of those surveyed, 81 percent say they use laptops to get work done away from the office. And, 93 percent of the attorneys questioned say they do the majority of their legal research using the Internet.
Among Oregon practitioners, Forest Grove attorney Bob Browning has been watching the ebb and flow of technological trends since he started his practice in 1979. Voice recognition equipment — used by just 17 percent of firms in the 2006 survey — and the paperless office were a couple of advancements that grabbed his interest but failed to live up to the hype.
"The paperless office may work well for some practices, but not for ours because we deal primarily with real estate and business. Deeds still have to be recorded and contracts still have to have original signatures," Browning says. "The state has come a long way with respect to access to statutes and rules, but I’ve found I still can’t quite go paperless on the statutes and rules."
Statewide access to Oregon State Bar information through electronic bulletin boards and webcasts (Internet telecasts) also excited Browning when the idea initially arose. He looked forward to accessing CLEs, legal cases and other pertinent information online.
"It’s only just becoming reality in the last couple of years," Browning says. "It’s an important tool, particularly for people who live out in the middle of nowhere and don’t want to drive two or three hours to sit and listen to an hour-long CLE."
And e-mail, while hard to do without, isn’t always the time saver it first appeared to be. "I think we’ve moved backwards because of the spam problem, which will probably continue as long as it’s profitable," Browning says.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
An inbox full of e-mail messages seems to plague attorneys in small and large firms alike. Milt Stewart, client relations partner at Portland’s Davis Wright Tremaine, estimates he received over 1,000 messages during a two-week vacation to Greece. Fortunately for Stewart, who began using a personal digital assistant (or "PDA") about eight years ago, he was able to weed them out on his Blackberry. Unfortunately for Stewart, the Blackberry nearly ruined the vacation.
"I will tell you candidly that it’s a huge issue for my wife and I. She was understandably upset and said, ‘This is your vacation,’" he says, adding the pair found a compromise that allowed him to check e-mail without infringing on their time together. "She’s right that you have to master the technology or it will master you.
"It is the best and the worst aspect of technology. The best because you can be accessible 24 hours a day," Stewart says. "The worst part is that you can be accessible and work 24 hours a day if you are so compelled. Technology has made it easy for some people to work all the time."
Despite the drawbacks, technologies such as PDAs, laptops, wireless networks and videoconferencing have proven invaluable for attorneys such as Stewart, who work in large firms with offices and clients around the world. According to the 2006 ABA tech survey, 27 percent of firms now use online conferencing capabilities, including audioconferencing (82 percent) and videoconferencing (58 percent).
"I can’t tell you how many train and plane meetings videoconferencing has saved me in practice group trainings, client meetings and even client pitch meetings," Stewart says, noting the technology has greatly improved from the herky-jerky images and inferior sound quality that once limited its use. "There are people who say it’s not as good as being there, and they are right. Seeing people eye to eye is vital. Most of my clients, throughout the life of my career, have not been in Portland, and they certainly wouldn’t stay engaged if they never saw me."
To that end, Stewart’s remote office ranges everywhere from hotel rooms in New York to the train station in Philadelphia. His Blackberry, which works everywhere except Japan, allowed him to download messages and access them from Delhi during a recent business trip to India. "I can work from anywhere and it’s exactly as if I’m at my desk in my office," he says.
Such technology also is essential in managing a firm with 450 attorneys in nine offices. "The only way a firm of our size works is to have the ability to connect with everybody through technology," Stewart says. "Technology is an indispensable element in bringing the offices together to communicate seamlessly."
Everyone in the firm uses WiFi — short for "wireless fidelity network" — on a secure network to ensure privacy, and a virtual private network is called into play when they must travel to areas where an open network is used, such as a local coffee shop or airports.
A New Kind of Networking
WiFi and broadband cellular networks also play a key role in daily business functions at many firms. The ABA’s 2006 tech survey shows 77 percent of firms have intranet and/or extranet networks established, and 23 percent have wireless networks. Such networks have increased efficiency at Miller Nash, according to Howard Sigler, the Portland firm’s director of information technology.
"The network has been a great productivity boost for a lot of our guys. For instance, we have one of our attorneys in Seattle who has his wife or daughter drive for him, and he’s in the passenger seat wired up to our office in Portland so he can be productive on his way here," Sigler says. "Then, when he’s home he’s able to spend time doing non-lawyer stuff."
The firm’s document hub — a private network that allows people to share information via the Internet — also has shown extraordinary value. For example, a mergers and acquisitions deal that requires hundreds of documents for due diligence now is shared electronically among lawyers, co-counsel and other relevant parties.
"Maybe five or 10 years ago, you would send a team out to gather a bunch of documents and then you would run copy after copy and FedEx boxes of documents all over the place," Sigler says. "You’ve ended up chopping down hundreds of trees to provide these documents, plus spending the money for copies, FedEx and someone’s time."
It’s a major paradigm shift within a profession that traditionally has been slow to join the movement.
"Certainly I think the legal industry as a whole is a little bit conservative in its adoption of technology in relation to the business world, but that’s been changing in the last couple of years," Sigler says. "The computer was viewed more as a toy than a necessity. The old guard would dictate and give it to the secretary to transcribe. Now there’s an understanding that there’s some competitive advantage in being able to leverage your technology."
A Basis for Blogging
Lori Irish Bauman, of counsel at Portland’s Ater Wynne firm, can testify to that fact. She initiated the firm’s web log, or "blog," which went live last August.
"I think law firms, like a lot of businesses, know that it’s important to have a presence on the Internet. Just in the past few years there’s been a variation on that. It’s not enough just to be on the Internet and have a static website," Bauman says. "A lot of Internet search engines, from my understanding, use Live Search technology. That means they look not only for the most relevant hits or websites but also the most recent. They combine the two, so where blogs are updated pretty regularly, they have a higher profile.
"The thinking in establishing our blog was, ‘Hey, this is a way for us to get out there as a firm with a high profile that is tuned into that technology and is comfortable with it," she adds.
The blog, called the Oregon Business Litigation Blog, is tailored as a resource for in-house lawyers, clients and business people such as human resource managers who follow business litigation. Its format is consistent with the firm’s website to ensure consistency in look and quality, a "Marketing 101" must. As various blog writers within Ater Wynne post their entries, they are reminded to avoid ethical pitfalls such as giving out legal advice or reporting on issues that may be confidential to the firm or its clients.
"We have to be sensitive about what our clients may or may not want reported," Bauman says, noting authors tend to write about neutral subjects such as industry trends. "It’s a new world and we’re kind of learning as we go along."
Though the blog is fairly new, it already draws from 15 to 60 hits a day, she adds. "We have a lot of clients who said they have a lot of information cross their desk and it’s helpful for them to have a way to distill it down."
Blogging has been a positive move for Stoel Rives attorney Ted Bernhard, as well. "I’ve gotten several new clients who said they read my blog, so it’s been excellent from a marketing point of view," he says.
It’s All About Transparency
Like most large firms, Stoel Rives uses various forms of technology not only to market its services but also to communicate across geographic locations. With offices in Portland, Seattle, Boise, Salt Lake City and the Bay area, such tools as videoconferencing, webinars (online seminars), portable data and remote access are essential to its daily operations, Bernhard says.
"A substantial number of people are using either laptops or Blackberry (devices) or both, so that’s a substantial piece of our communications technology. And the thing I’ve noticed is that it’s very transparent to the users. People are using Blackberry (devices), webinars and videoconferencing without ever having to think about it," he says. "I think we’re fortunate at Stoel Rives to have an excellent IT infrastructure. I came from a small venture capital firm and I was basically the IT department, so I can appreciate what it means to have that IT infrastructure and support."
Stoel Rives is exploring ways to use technology as a means to further disperse information, including internal and external websites that allow people to share articles and a customer relations network. The firm is also considering how to use technology to further expand on the electronic presentations it offers.
"We’ve hosted educational sessions, whether they are CLEs or teleconferences on business topics, that let people participate. We distribute the materials by webinar or PowerPoint that people can look at remotely while the presentation is going on," Bernhard explains. "We haven’t pushed podcasting yet, but I imagine that’s coming next." (Podcasting is the technology used to provide audio content to consumers so they can listen to it later, much as people use a VCR or digital recorder to record television program for later viewing.)
With consideration to security, Stoel Rives uses the Citrix system, which incorporates encryption and firewalls among its privacy protection products.
"It’s a very important issue because legal documents are so sensitive. It’s on par with someone’s medical records," Bernhard says. "But I don’t think there’s been heightened awareness here because we’ve always been sensitive to that."
Whose Space Is It, Anyway?
Another touchy issue for law firms is the use of MySpace and other social networking sites as a means of gathering information. While such sites may be okay for research and investigations, the jury is still out on whether they are a viable resource for employee background checks, for instance.
LaJean Humphries, library manager for Portland’s Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt, is among those who believe MySpace and other social networking sites do have a place within contemporary research tools.
"What those of us who do a lot of research — myself and others in the library, paralegals and our investigators — have found is that sometimes this is a good way to track down witnesses and find information that you wouldn’t normally find through traditional research methods," she says.
However, the firm does not allow access to social networking sites for anyone except its librarians and investigator, and it’s strictly to be used for research purposes. Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt does not use the technology for employee background checks, Humphries emphasizes.
"I think that brings up a lot of ethical questions. We do a lot of trainings on interview techniques and what you can and can’t ask a potential employee. Things that you would never ask during an interview situation…, many employers are finding that information on MySpace and other social networking sites," she says. "People don’t recognize that the Internet is an open book and that once something is there, it’s there forever. I think young people in particular exaggerate or say things that aren’t true, and it would be a shame if they lost a job opportunity or a scholarship because of something flaky they did or said."
On the whole, however, investigative tools such as social networking sites and search engines have proven to be invaluable for those involved in legal work, Humphries says.
"One of the things I do in the library is teach classes on how to use the Internet, not only for legal research but other kinds of research as well," she says.
Newer tools on the horizon
Technology watchers such as Browning see a new generation of tools that, while intriguing, remain uncertain. Among the more promising is Blu-Ray, a format that allows the recording, rewriting and playback of high-definition video along with storing large amounts of data. According to Blu-Ray’s website, the format offers more than five times the storage capacity of traditional DVDs.
While there are always plenty of new products for the picking, small and large firms alike must discriminate between those that are legit and those that are but a flash in the pan.
"There’s a fine line between leading edge and bleeding edge," says Davis Wright Tremaine’s Stewart. "If you go too early, it can be a waste of time and cost a lot of money.
LAWYERS AND TECHNOLOGY: FACTS AND FIGURES
Here’s what lawyers are using to get their jobs done, according to the 2006 American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center Survey:
Tools of the trade
Hardware in the courtroom
Managing the mojo
Top five sources of information about legal technology
Legal research trends
Keeping up on current events
Odds and ends
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2007 Melody Finnemore