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July 2000

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Foment a Revolution in Your Law Firm: Start A Movement to 'Think Backward'

It may sound illogical, but consider redefining your practice around your technology.

By John L. Mellitz

Foment a Revolution in Your Law Firm: Start A Movement to 'Think Backward' ARE YOU one of the attorneys who loves "living on the edge." Say you have a general practice. One day a client walks through the door with a story about some guy who "stole" his property -- that property being a short story he had written for a local literary publication about two years ago.

It seems that a story with striking similarities suddenly appeared in that well-known publication named "The National Journal of Literary Works by Unknown Authors. [Never heard of it?" Boy, are you ever out of touch.]

The prospective client wants to sue the bad guy for plagiarism, better known as copyright infringement among the cognoscenti.

Of course, you're very familiar with the problem. [You are well aware of the fact that the little "c" with a circle around it means copyright.] You take the case, and suddenly a wave of panic courses through your body. For the next two days you sequester yourself in a corner of the law library and surround yourself with hornbooks and law review articles dealing with intellectual property rights.

Eventually, you manage to settle the case and recover something along the lines of what your client really expected to get, (although only about 10 percent of what he claimed was due to him). You collect your fee of $1,000, (eminently reasonable), representing an effective hourly rate of $20 for the 50 hours you spent on the case.

[Along about now you're asking, "What does this have to do with "Law Technology News?"]

Cut to the last meeting with your computer expert. It seems she can't show you a program that can help streamline your divorce, corporate, real property, estate planning, workers' compensation, traffic and dog bite practice.

She recommended something that sort of covered about 60 percent of the practice, but it cost more than $250. Hardly worth it. And now you've added intellectual property law to your areas of expertise.

Almost every lawyer who even contemplates the idea of automating a practice embarks on a quest for the holy grail of legal technology: a program that does it all, the way we've alwaysdone it.

Time for a Change

Maybe it's time for "backward thinking."

Not everyone is capable of backward thinking, and of those who are, very few are willing or able to execute the results of such an exercise. I'm talking about specialization of your SO/HO practice.

In Missouri, (and probably in some other states), the name of the General Practice Committee was changed to the Solo and Small Firm Committee. We realized that a substantial portion of our target population was excluded because they weren't general practitioners.

Rather, they were specialists and boutique firms. What's more, they were generally quite successful, and could contribute a great deal to the committee by providing CLE programs to educate the general practitioners about the basic concepts of their specialties.

What makes this "backward thinking" is the idea that one should change one's law practice to accommodate the computer's greatest strengths: The ability to perform repetitive tasks quickly, easily, accurately and at very little cost. Contrast this with the holy grail of the perfect, all-purpose program.

Consider this case study: A lawyer with a practice that is almost exclusively Workers' Compensation had reached the end of his rope. He was working 12 to 16 hours a day trying to keep up with the volume of work he had taken on. His secretary was working 10-12 hours per day, and the overtime premium was back-breaking.

What's more, he was interviewing paralegals with the idea of spreading the workload over more people. This, in turn, would dictate a move to a larger office with a corresponding increase in rent. To top it all off, he felt that he was not giving his clients his best shot, because there just wasn't enough time.

Today, this attorney is handling a substantially greater case load. He moved his office into his home where his wife, (a nurse), helps out by providing 12-14 hours per month of incidental services that enable him to better serve his clients.

He has time to pursue his hobby, and takes his children to karate lessons twice a week. He is one happy camper, with a stable of happy clients.

The Difference?

What was the difference? Case management software, coupled with his word processing program, to form a document assembly system. It runs on a network of three PCs feeding two heavy duty laser printers, each with an envelope feeder. A label printer contributes to the efficiency of the system by spitting out one or two labels at a time, which are used to categorize his files.

There is just no way that a general practitioner can realize these economies of scale. Likewise, some areas of specialization limit the results that can be achieved through automation, such as sophisticated antitrust, securities, appellate, and other practices that are not forms-intensive or that deal with unique problems that demand constant unique thinking and problem-solving skills.

At the other end of the spectrum are practices that dictate paper attacks, such as criminal defense, where almost every case launches a barrage of motions that if not filed would expose the attorney to charges of incompetence or failure to effectively represent the client.

I realize there is a big hole in my thinking here, because very few general practitioners can afford to turn away business in the interest of accommodating their computer programs.

Nevertheless, "the times . . . they are a changin'.." Again, in Missouri, more than 250 solo and small firm attorneys have joined what is called the Missouri Bar Small Firm Internet Group. This rapidly-growing group is breaking ground in several ways.

In one case, a general practitioner is challenging the practices of the Missouri Division of Child Support Enforcement on constitutional grounds. He has enlisted the uncompensated help of more than 30 other solo and small firm attorneys (many with heavy domestic relations case loads) to research the statutes, rules, regulations, and practices of similar agencies in all other states.

Attorney participants in this Bar- supported listserv discussion group regularly refer cases to one another on the basis of their areas of expertise, as well as their location and reputation for superior work. I see no reason why such a group can't facilitate or stimulate the formation of specialized practices among its members.

By "thinking backward," attorneys can improve the profitability of their practices and their quality of life by adjusting their behavior so as to capitalize on the strengths of computers in a law firm settings.

John L. Mellitz is president of Mellitz & Associates, a legal technology consulting firm with offices in St Louis, Mo., and San Francisco, Calif. He is a Timeslips certified consultant and a Time Matters authorized independent consultant.

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