How the Legal Desktop Can Increase Productivity
Law Technology Product News (p. 118, col. 1)
A true legal desktop is a powerful personal computer that fully integrates the applications and online services necessary for the practice of law.
By Carl Lee Sutherland
Imagine being 100 percent to 400 percent more productive in your job than you are right now. Imagine being able to conduct your business from any location in the world. Imagine a paperless office in which all the data you need is stored on, or is accessible from, a personal computer. Imagine having all these capabilities with out-of-the-box software and hardware.
Attorneys now use computers to type many of their letters and to prepare answers, pleadings and briefs. Some even embrace applications to manage matters, dockets and time. But a fully integrated, legal desktop with a computer incorporating all the tools necessary for lawyers to do their jobs and working as lawyers do, has yet to be realized in most law firms and departments. The promise that PC technology will enable law departments and firm productivity to make quantum leaps has yet to be fulfilled.
The Legal Desktop: A Definition
A true legal desktop is a powerful personal computer that fully integrates all the software applications and online services necessary to practice law. One screen displays all icons that drive integrated software and link to services. You no longer have to jump between applications or, worse yet, shut off the computer and head to the law library with pen and paper. The computer is networked to other users through high speed local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs).
Without leaving your desk, you should be able to tap into, among other applications, matter management, document management, document assembly, docket and calendaring, time tracking, billing, e-mail, imaging and such online information services as LEXIS-NEXIS.
It will no longer be necessary to, say, minimize your case management software in order to send e-mail. You will be able to send mail directly from whatever screen you are working in by clicking on an e-mail icon. You will be able to write a brief and link the brief to a matter. Later, when you want to edit the brief, you will access the matter, the documents related to it and edit the document. The history of the matter will track any change made in the brief and let you know who made the change.
In the near future, notebook computers also will let you bring this legal desktop anywhere you want to go. All you'll need do is connect to a high speed dedicated data line (ISDN)--and pay your hotel's telecommunication surcharge!
On the road, connecting your notebook to the firm's database, you will be able to view and make real time changes to the database. If you work off-line, you can dial in later and have your data synchronized with the database.
The Core: Matter Management
If we broaden our definition of matters to mean more than just litigation, and include claims, contracts, trademarks, regulatory compliance issues, etc.--essentially any legal issue--then working with matters encompasses the majority of a lawyer's daily work.
Matter management software that is well designed and truly user-friendly is the foundation on which a successful legal desktop is built.
Currently, most legal software consists of standalone applications, each performing a single function. Today, on the desktop, chaos reigns as a user is forced to move from one application to another in order to complete work that is logically a single task. Software vendors that supply applications designed to integrate with matter management software will be the winners. The result will be software that seamlessly integrates the individual parts. It is then that software truly change the way lawyers work.
Productivity Improves: Day in the Life
Document management absorbs a lot of firms' and department's productive time. Even with excellent document management software, people run around trying to find files. But the real killer appears to be working with physical files. Letters, briefs and other documents received by your department are usually retained in their original form and placed in a conventional file. In the world of the legal desktop, these files are scanned into the database, in a process called imaging, and they are indexed immediately upon receipt. Then they are instantly available for review by any number of people within the department. Collaboration is immediately possible.
Your day will begin by being alerted to important to-do items. Select the matter(s) you want to work on, and view the history of the matter. As you work, you will be able to electronically view any related document. You will keep track of the time you spend on the matter, review who else has worked on it and run searches to determine your response to the issues at hand.
Why Not Now?
The legal desktop is available now but most law departments and firms have resisted a transition to the full-blown automation. The resources required to combine all the necessary tools on a 16-bit legal desktop breaks most budgets. Some are reluctant because of the poor track record of available 16-bit integration tools. And, of course, there is great hesitation in the legal community to change time-honored ways of doing business.
What went wrong in the 16-bit world so that the true legal desktop was available only in those organizations willing to spend prodigious amounts of money, expend titanic efforts to implement, and then baby-sit these systems, using very talented and expensive information system (IS) people?
In the 16-bit world, integration tools included ODBC (open database connectivity), OLE (object linking and embedding) and API (application programmable interface). Both ODBC and OLE were considered radical new tools that offered much promise. These tools allowed applications to work with one another in powerful new ways.
For example, ODBC enables any compliant application to talk to an ODBC database. Different applications can talk to the same database. OLE compliant applications allow you to open other applications like Word, Excel or PowerPoint from inside the application you are working in. API allows applications to link to each other using a common interface.
While API has been much more successful, ODBC and OLE were saddled by the memory problems inherent in 16-bit architecture. The typical result was poor performance married to an unstable platform. Without a lot of work, the 16-bit world was simply too shaky a foundation to support reliable ODBC and OLE components. Today, several years after their introduction, ODBC and OLE have a reputation for slow, error prone performance. Because of these perceived flaws, database purists view ODBC and OLE with suspicion when building serious database applications.
Like many new technologies, these tools were overhyped and oversold to the market. Integration was difficult. Performance was poor without expensive, high horsepower hardware. The fragility of the system mandated significant, expensive IS involvement.
The difficulties exhibited by trying to integrate 16-bit applications convinced software development tool publishers of the need to standardize protocols for integration.
The World Has Changed
With the advent of Windows 95 and Windows NT software, the 32-bit world is rapidly becoming the standard. Windows 3.X is on the way out--and faster than most people think. Right now, organizations are noticing the vast improvement 32-bit applications offer compared to 16-bit applications.
In addition, the overall quality built into integrated 32-bit applications is impressive. A major reason for the improvement is the 32-bit architecture; it is fundamentally improved and more robust. Crashes and error messages are much less common.
Exhibited by Windows 95 and more accurately Windows NT, advanced 32-bit operating systems have been paralleled by the introduction of new software development tools that use common standards for integrating applications and also permit different software to talk to one another. In the 32-bit world, very different software and online services can be developed to work together, even if developers have zero knowledge of each other's applications.
Integration works better in the 32-bit world because the architecture was designed from the beginning to utilize integrated applications. Microsoft pushed for common standards with integration in mind. Developers have had time to get ready for 32-bit. The result has been a significant improvement in the quality of available tools. There has been ample time to refine and improve the tools like drivers and DLLs (dynamic link libraries). ODBC drivers are so improved that ODBC no longer significantly compromises performance.
Common protocols and small, highly task-specific applications (known as controls) are now standard tools in the 32-bit world. Controls are easily integrated using popular 32-bit development platforms. In a typical software maneuver to improve marketing, OLE, now called Active X, has been repackaged and improved and is generally thought of as a control. Other new tools include, Java, MAPI and VCLs.
Hundreds of new controls are being written every day. Some controls are tiny applets that are task-specific; others are more complex. Some examples include: A visual calendar that replaces date fields or an icon that allows you to launch e-mail from inside any application on your legal desktop. Controls are being created by software entrepreneurs everywhere on the planet. Posted on the Internet or a BBS, the applet is available for downloading by a developer. Controls are easy to find, simple to integrate, quick to test and very inexpensive.
The real benefit to using controls and 32-bit protocols is that software developers can quickly integrate hundreds of powerful new features into an application. Law departments and firms are going to be the direct beneficiaries. Powerful integrated applications are going to become the standard. The legal desktop will become a reality.
Networking Is Improving, Too
Networking also is becoming easier. Windows NT 4.0 represents the greatest leap forward to date in the alchemy of network installations. Because the skill set needed to install and maintain an NT 4.0 network is becoming less onerous, smaller organizations will be able to use NT's power and reliability. Of course, there will always be a need for a top notch network person, but your LAN administrators will be able to do more themselves.
WANs too are becoming even more useful. The cost to set up high capacity dedicated links like a T1 or 128 KB ISDN line has declined almost everywhere. Remote sites will be able to hook into centralized servers more cost effectively than ever before. Of course, many law departments and firms set up LANs and WANs years ago.
What has changed is the ease with which remote sites and users can connect to the central databases. Dial-up networking with modems is on the way out and will be replaced by high speed dedicated ISDN lines. If the cable television industry gets its act together, you will be able to hook up to your WAN from any cable connection. Cable television's enormous edge is the speed and volume of data that can be transmitted.
While 32-bit networks and 32-bit integrated software work much better than anything that has come before, setting up a legal desktop will never be cheap. Many decision makers who approve technology projects fail to understand the economics of software implementation. Incorrectly, they focus on the cost of the software and hardware. A sophisticated implementation is viewed as unnecessary or too expensive. Opting for a more economical job done half right, they fail to see the opportunity cost of a failed implementation.
The proper approach is to begin with an understanding of the business reasons for implementing the legal desktop. For example, is the objective to work more closely with outside counsel? Does a firm want to reduce head count? Next, conduct a thorough analysis of workflow and procedures. Realize that the firm is going to have to make decisions about which features are important to implement and why. Applications must be evaluated.
The skills required to analyze and assist with integration are at a big premium. Highly specialized consultants possess the skills necessary to evaluate your department's or firm's organizational structure, make implementation recommendations and see solutions through to the end. You can find them at any of the Big Six consulting organizations. In addition, top quality case management software companies offer consulting services in conjunction with licensing their software.
Finally, be realistic about the time needed to analyze and implement the legal desktop. Of course time is valuable, but take the time to do the job right. Don't rush the project. For a medium-sized law department or firm with thirty lawyers, expect that the project will take a minimum of six months. Larger departments will need to allow for much more time, often as much as up to 18 months.
Pulling It All Together
Integrated software developers are not going to have all the answers. They are going to look to integrate with applications that already have demonstrated popularity as standalone products. Typically, a software vendor will offer a customer several choices of software already integrated into their product.
For example, a case management software vendor may offer you five different document management packages, six different calendaring and docketing options, two electronic data interchange components and three e-mail selections. All you will have to do is load the software representing your choice, and the matter management system will automatically detect which application you are installing and make the proper system settings.
But, as you wade through all these options and the time it takes to convert, understand:
Matter management is still the foundation to a successful implementation. No single vendor will provide all the software; they will integrate. Putting the correct tools in place requires investment of time and money. And remember: You can be far more productive and mobile than you now are. Everything you need to do your job is coming to a computer near you. The legal desktop is a reality in the 32-bit world.
Carl Lee Sutherland is president of Dallas' Corprasoft Inc., which develops software for in-house
law departments. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com
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