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Technology helping lawyers save time, money

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From cloud computing and e-discovery to Skype and social media, technology is continually changing the way lawyers practice law.

And with the proper application, attorneys can be more effective and efficient while saving time and money.

“As a solo practitioner, it (technology) levels the playing field,” said Jim Crosby, a business litigation attorney in Poway. “The types and number of cases only big firms can handle is becoming smaller because of technology.

“But it’s about servicing my clients, being efficient and generating work. It’s a fast-paced world, and if you don’t keep up and have a nimble, fast-paced practice, you’ll lose business.”

But all the advances don’t come without their share of pitfalls. The enormous amount of information now available makes it a challenge for attorneys to manage the data and stay organized.

“If someone’s a bad lawyer, technology is not going to make them a good lawyer,” said Los Angeles attorney Rachelle Rennagel, the chief knowledge officer for Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.

“If you’re a good lawyer, technology will help make you a better lawyer or a more efficient and faster lawyer who can provide better client service.”

Attorneys and firms are moving to a paperless environment, converting documents to -- or producing them in -- a digital format.

“I think it saves overhead considerably,” said Crosby, who no longer employs a full-time secretary. “We don’t spend time filing. We don’t spend time indexing. I think the big losers in all this are legal secretaries and traditional legal staff.”

Law libraries and courts are moving in the same direction, storing information electronically and making it available online. All federal courts allow pleadings, motions and other case documents to be filed electronically as well.

This has been a big help for boutique firms and solo practitioners, who lack the money and manpower to maintain comprehensive libraries like the big, national firms.

Also, with files readily available online, attorneys now can work anywhere they have a laptop computer and an Internet connection.

The concept of cloud computing has further enhanced an attorney’s mobility, enabling files and databases to be updated on three or more devices simultaneously.

“I think the biggest benefit is geographic flexibility,” said Pat Swan, a San Diego partner with Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps who leads the firm’s technology committee. “I can essentially practice law anywhere, anytime with the technology our firm has and which is available to most firms.”

Luce Forward is experimenting with the idea of “hoteling,” in which a group of offices are not assigned to a particular attorney but rather are available to anyone who needs them. Swan said it could mean approximately 10-20 attorneys would share five offices.

Since the cost of leasing space is one of the biggest expenses for a firm, “hoteling” could enable a firm to save considerable money by condensing its operations.

Cloud computing also is used to store case files in an online repository so clients and attorneys can view the documents whenever they want. Clients can watch the progress of their case online while lawyers in separate offices or firms can access the same information quickly.

“That’s a big game changer because large firms used to have the capacity to set up extranets if they wanted to,” said Crosby, the solo practitioner from Poway. “Now there’s software so anyone can do that.”

The concept of cloud computing is promising but also problematic, according to Sheppard Mullin’s Rennagel. When a third party is storing the documents, there are questions regarding what is privileged, who can access the files and how safe they are.

“Firms are risk averse and treat confidentiality seriously,” she said. “Clouds are scary because we don’t control it. It has its benefits and its drawbacks. It’s an area where you’ll see some development.”

Another development as a result of technology is the proliferation of video conferencing. Depositions are being streamed online, allowing an attorney or expert witness to log on anywhere in the world and watch. And by using instant messaging or texting, an expert witness can give the attending attorney a question to ask during the deposition, according to Rosalie Kramm, president of Kramm Court Reporting in San Diego.

She said a lot of attorneys bring their laptops to depositions and can connect with the court reporter for a real-time feed, enabling them to annotate the record as its being spoken.

“They’re not writing on their yellow pads or taking notes anymore,” Kramm said.

Additionally, there are software programs that help with everything from dictation -- where you speak into a Bluetooth headset and the words are automatically typed out on the computer -- to billing and payment.

Complex search software allows people to find a particular name or topic among multiple documents within seconds. Sheppard Mullin uses a tool that ties litigation documents with the Westlaw database to help with searches.

“I think technology has opened up resources that weren’t previously available,” said Luce Forward’s Swan. “And I think it’s given attorneys the opportunity to practice more flexibly.

“On the other hand, it’s increased demands on attorneys in terms of having to be available almost all the time, whether they’re in the office or not.”

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are changing the legal landscape too, enabling small firms to increase their visibility.

“I think lawyers that don’t embrace LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter will see their market share, their practices, eaten away,” Crosby said. “It multiplies your ability to build business relationships with clients and lawyers.

“There’s a reason why CNN, the White House and big corporations are on Facebook and Twitter. It’s not a silly fad. It’s the way of the world.”

Kramm said social media is being used to help select a jury, research an expert witness or check on the opposing counsel.

“I think using social media is going to become a standard when it comes to litigation,” said Kramm, who teaches a course on social media.

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