High-Tech Tools Offer to Cut Paper Chase, Improve Productivity
IN THE NOT too distant future, law offices will be high-tech and highly efficient. Computers will do many of the tasks now done by humans. Lawyers will work in cyberspace. Clients will be happy.
At least that’s the theory behind this week’s Legal Tech trade show in New York, which drew more than 6,000 vendors, attorneys and law-firm technoids.
Take the Pleading Processor, developed by Legal Labs Inc. of New York. It is custom-designed for New York lawyers to crank out lawsuits for personal injury, medical malpractice, divorce, breach of contract, collections and landlord-tenant disputes. It can produce a blizzard of complaints, answers, motions, subpoenas, notices and orders _ all at the push of a few buttons.
``Five minutes, one-handed, with a bit of chatting in between,″ boasts Carey Singer, a Legal Labs salesman, as the Pleading Processor spits out a suit for a trip-and-fall injury.
``We don’t generate forms; we generate documents for your practice,″ Mr. Singer says.
AS ENVISIONED by the show’s sponsors, the law office of the 1990s will be tidy, paperless and ultra-efficient. But it’s also a little scary.
For one thing, the products on display at the New York Hilton hold out the promise of eliminating work hours that might otherwise be billable. Of course, that’s a plus in clients’ eyes. Mel Goldenberg, chairman of the National Association of Legal Vendors, says it’s cost-conscious clients who are pushing lawyers into the information age to cut their bills. ``The legal profession has to be cost competitive because clients expect it of them,″ he says.
One nagging question for lawyers is whether technology’s benefits justify the costs. Many lawyers have heard horror stories about million-dollar document-management systems and such that don’t perform up to par, and some aren’t comfortable with the generation of hardware and software they already have, not to mention its cost. At the trade show, help could be had for as little as $2.90 in the form of Fast Filer, a plastic prong to guide legal papers back into the metal clasps in file folders, but software that lets you talk to your computer cost $1,795 per desktop.
``The question for the attorney is, `Is that good for me?‴ Mr. Goldenberg says. His answer is yes.
For the lawyer who can’t type, there’s voice-recognition software that will translate 45 to 90 words a minute directly into a desktop computer. Users wear headsets with noise-canceling microphones, like helicopter pilots. They also must get used to speaking with a short ... pause ... between ... words.
For lawyers who don’t have the time, there’s a shortcut. They can create shorthand commands for boilerplate documents, says Kurt Lynn, vice president of Kolvox Communications Inc. of North York, Ontario. When one current user in England needs to prod a client who’s in arrears, he instructs his computer: ``20 ... keystroke ... dunning ... letter.″ Done.
If collecting receivables is a problem, there’s ``Collection Partner,″ a computer program offered by Jim Hubbard & Associates in Birmingham, Ala. ``Losing debtor files will be a thing of the past,″ a company brochure promises. Designed initially for law firms with big bill-collection practices, larger law firms now are showing interest in how the Collection Partner can help them track their client bills, says Terese M. Poore, vice president of operations.
ProSoft Corp.’s Carpe Diem for Windows tries to make it easier for lawyers to keep track of their billable hours by providing on-screen stopwatches that can round off time entries to ``the nearest 1-100th of an hour″ with the click of a computer mouse. That works out to 36 seconds, compared with the six- or 10-minute increments that lawyers typically use when calculating billable time.
A Carpe Diem brochure says the product helps ``larger law firms seize all the day’s billable time,″ hence the name. It does so by eliminating the need for lawyers to rely on memory to tally up billable time each day.
At a time when many clients suspect that their lawyers may be overestimating the time they bill, ProSoft says its surveys show that lawyers usually ``underestimate as much as 25 percent.″
To measure lawyers’ productivity, Omega Quality Software & Services, in Scottsdale, Ariz., offers ``peer-group comparisons″ of attorneys in a firm, down to billing increments of six minutes. End-of-the-month breakouts compare each lawyer’s dollar value to the firm by number of hours worked, hours billed and fees received. ``We’ve found it to be fairly effective,″ Omega President Don Gall says.
WITH ALL that pressure to produce, it might help to have a strong pot of coffee on hand. FilterFresh Corp., in Westwood, Mass., offers an automated machine that can brew two gourmet blends and cafe mocha in three different strengths, 24 hours a day. An added option, according to the company: It ``can be coin-operated at any price and even gives change.″ Filterfresh already fuels 200 New York law firms, according to the company.
There are some tasks that all the gadgetry in the world can’t replicate, however, like interfacing with clients. But gadgets can help. One application, Powerpoints, prompts lawyers through such delicate attorney-client discussions as ``communicating bad news.″
Step 1: ``State the bad news.″ Step 2: ``How did this happen?″ Answer: ``Original assumptions are no longer valid.″ List remaining options, Powerpoints suggests, recommend one and sum up on a high note: ``Give audience confidence or improve morale.″
For lawyers who can’t leave work behind at the office, there is a fully equipped car: a $120,000 black convertible Mercedes SL 600 with a dashboard cellular phone, laptop computer, fax machine and printer. Orthopedic seatbacks are standard equipment.
``Everybody,″ says salesman M.J. Goldberg, ``has a friend who has one.″