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February 2002
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I.T.@Masry & Vititoe

How to Improve Your Office Decor: Clean Up Your Documents

Adopting a document management system can help your law practice and might even change you image.

By Les Levine

Julia Roberts portrayed Masry & Vititoe's Erin Brockovich
Julia Roberts portrayed Masry & Vititoe's Erin Brockovich
ERIN Brockovich was an unknown file clerk in 1991, when I first served as a technology consultant at the California law firm of Masry & Vititoe. That was a few years before Julia Roberts won an Academy Award for portraying Brockovich and her battles against California's utility giant, Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Based on a true story, the film depicts Brockovich in dingy law offices strewn with wall-to-wall paper and misplaced folders, in which she discovers documents that lead to billion-dollar environmental lawsuits, and a highly successful major motion picture to boot.

In real life, Masry & Vititoe is a 10-lawyer firm based in Westlake Village, Calif. The firm's primary focus gradually shifted from accident-related cases to injury claims arising from environmental contamination. Today, we represent thousands of plaintiffs throughout the country in suits against some of the largest corporations in the world, including Fortune 500 companies, public utility, and oil companies. Over the last five years, we have resolved numerous environmental cases with settlements and verdicts totaling more than $500 million.

Even with Masry's success, interior decorating is not exactly a top priority. But decor was not the only reason we began looking for a way to electronically manage the firm's documents. Mother nature was the primary catalyst. The beginning of Masry's interest in electronic document management actually began after the Northridge earthquake in 1994. It was time to look for an easy, efficient and safe way to manage case histories.

Another dilemma we faced came down to simple physics: too much paper, and not enough office space. For example, if we had to locate a document relating to Chromium 6 (the toxic chemical that had seeped into resident's drinking water) we would have to find every piece of paper that had Chromium 6 written on it ­ a next-to-impossible task that would involve manually sifting through millions of papers.

And this dilemma wasn't just at our California office. We have co-counsel in New Hampshire, New York, and Mexico. That means that our California office must occasionally retrieve every relevant document, copy those documents, and ship them across North America.

As we began to grapple with this problem, I was working as an exclusive reseller of Westbrook Technologies' Fortis document management software. I was not only serving as Masry's I.T. consultant, but I was also overseeing document management systems at movie industry sites such as United Talent Agencies.

So our choice of vendor was obvious. But because of budgetary issues, the firm's technology adoption was slow. I analyzed their old filing system and storage requirements, and recommended a Fortis electronic document management system, which was not fully implemented until 1998.

Fortis document management software allows users to capture information from any number of sources: paper, fax, e-mail, the Internet and even handwritten notes.

The captured documents are then stored digitally on a computer system, simplifying storage and retrieval procedures. Users can file, store, copy, retrieve and integrate documents into their business applications at the desktop. Records are added to the system via scanning, importing digital documents, e-mail, fax, downloading, etc.

They are then indexed to a database where information can be retrieved in word, phrase or numeric searches. Users can attach notations to documents electronically, highlight areas of interest, redact confidential information ­ and forward that information to colleagues ­ allowing for instant collaboration and decision-making.

We run Fortis document management software on Compaq Computer Corp. servers, using eight scanners by Hewlett Packard, Canon USA Inc. and Ricoh Co. Ltd., configured on a Windows NT server and operating on Windows 98 workstations. Fortis and Fortis' CDExpress allow us to digitally retrieve documents, copy them on to CDs, and send them to co-counsels quickly and easily.

The money saved from copying and shipping costs alone has been significant. Recipients do not need Fortis or CDExpress to view the documents via CD, they just download a viewer for access to the documents.

Six Cases

At Masry, we're using Fortis to manage documents in at least six high-profile environmental lawsuits -- that's about 300,000 files containing about 9 million pages of information. Background investigations, comprehensive research and massive amounts of paper are common in legal legwork. Masry's specialty in environmental cases means that researchers must travel to various water boards, fire departments and legal departments of oil and chemical companies and obtain pertinent information regarding environmental contamination. They bring notebook computers onsite to locations nationwide and scan relevant documents directly into Fortis. Then, documents are immediately available for other Fortis users back at the law office to immediately view and utilize.

Other documents in Fortis include expert-witness testimonies, doctor's tests results and reports, correspondence from case parties and select personal injury claims cases. A staff of four scans and indexes documents each day, sending them to Fortis using the "Full Text" feature that reads a document and indexes all text found in that document. This allows workers to retrieve information instantly using simple key-word searches, without the need to drill down through digital folders, let-alone hard copy ones. Staff members type in a search using one or two words, and all documents containing those words appear on their computer screen.

Document management has allowed Masry & Vititoe an easier method of managing their environmental lawsuits by eliminating the mess typically found in a law office. One Fortis feature that is particularly helpful is an enhancement tool called, believe it or not, image enhance, which improves the appearance of documents that may have been scanned in with a less-than-perfect quality, making them easier to read. If a document is scanned in crooked or upside down, this function can straighten the document or turn it right side up, on screen. If a blemish appears on the document after it has been scanned into Fortis, image enhance can eliminate those stray marks. This function actually makes several-generation copies easier to read on screen rather than manually.

Glitches

Once we got the system up and running, of course we ran into some glitches. But most were not so much in the compatibility or system integration issues, but in the learning curve that users faced. The struggle to convert non-believers to the technology was undoubtedly the biggest hurdle I faced as I.T. consultant. Lawyers and legal clerks have a reputation of not being comfortably accustomed to software and technology gadgets. And Masry's staff was no exception.

When Fortis was first installed, I realized that few people were actually using it; workers still seemed to rely on paper files to retrieve information. Then one afternoon, I sat down with a few staffers and performed a search in the system, showing them the ease and power of Fortis. With that one demonstration, I knew I had convinced the staff how simple the system was to use, and they were off and running with Fortis.

We estimate that the return on investment of approximately $200,000 into Masry's document imaging system has been met many times over, but it has been challenging to measure. From an aesthetic standpoint, however, the R.O.I. is obvious. The offices have been completely transformed from their previous condition. Before Fortis, boxes were everywhere, piles and piles of paper made the place look awful. Now, the offices are immaculate, something hard to achieve at a law office. It's a great place to work.

As it turned out, my days as Masry's I.T. consultant were numbered ­ that's because I began working at Masry's offices so frequently, they decided to hire me fulltime as their I.T. Director. Although Westbrook Technologies lost a reseller, they gained a document management champion. As the move towards electronic records management gains momentum, the industry will benefit from more of my kind in the field, in law offices, showing staffers how easy and cost-effective the technology can be.

There used to be an old adage, 'he who accumulates the most paper wins.' In this day of advanced office technology, it's now a matter of he who absorbs the most paper wins. We're going beyond what a small law firm can do because of electronic document management.

Les Levin is I.T. director of Masry & Vititoe, of Westlake Village, Calif.

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