Law Practice, Then and Now

The long time Vice President of STI Software, the makers of the award winning Tabs3 software, retired, and while cleaning out his desk, he found some articles that I wrote in 1988 for the National Law Journal and others. Besides making me feel like an old man, I chuckled at how things really haven’t changed all that much since 1982.

Oh sure, the equipment, the software and the use of computers has changed, but it is still the same old practice of law that we all know and love.  One of those articles talked about “Why Computer Systems Fail in Law Firms.” The reasons are as valid today as when they were set to paper almost 30 years ago.

When I first started this practice in 1982, the late Ross Kodner and Bruce Dorner were newbies just like myself. We all wrote for many different publications, lectured, taught and generally became known as the ‘experts’ in our field of law office Consulting. Recall that was the same year the IBM PC was released…..the computer that changed the world.

In those days, the IBM PC was a 64k (expandable to 128k) system with dual 360k floppies, a green monitor, and an optional 20 MEGABYTE hard drive cost $10,000. WordStar was the dominant word processor, then WordPerfect came on the scene. DOS was the operating system. Networks were in their infancy with DR DOS and Novell being the main players. The toughest technical issue in those days was which DIP switches to set for a particular printer.

Life in the law firm really was simpler then. Support staff still used typewriters in those days, I even saw some that used carbon paper, and the IBM Selectric  typewriter was the best there was.  Add some memory to the Selectric via memory cards and you had from documents to store and work with.  Just tell it to stop at the name and you type it in…..document assembly in its infancy.

The issues with billing system, keeping in mind that most of these billing systems were quite simple and really didn’t do a whole lot for the lawyer and staff, really have not changed. Lawyers then, as now, don’t take time to record their time. Today it is easier with remote iPhone and iPad access, but they still, as a whole, don’t do it very well. Unless they started their legal careers in a firm that had that discipline, they just never learned to do it.

There HAVE been some major improvements in productivity through technology. Legal research has been revolutionized with technology. What used to take hours now takes minutes, and is far more comprehensive and accurate. I remember seeing tables in conference rooms with books spread out all over the conference table with one referring to another.

Document assembly has been made almost a necessary application in a volume law firm. Banging out demand letters, complaints, correspondence, letters of representation, and many others is simple, quick and accurate.

Couple the document assembly with Practice Management (PM) systems, and THERE is where some organizational improvements can happen. Email management (in which email did not even exist in 1982) is the prime benefit of a practice management system, along with notes to the file and linked documents. Basically a PM system takes the physical file and puts it onto the computer.

But the one thing that has not changed is the unwillingness of most lawyers to embrace technology, and to develop the discipline to provide the software with the information needed to make it work.  “…I’ll add that contact later….” Just does not cut it when your system depends on having all the parties to a file linked to that file.

Over the next months, I hope to share my experiences with you, offer advice and tips on technology, software, lawyer/technology interface (boy I hate the buzzword) and productivity in the law office. You will start by having to provide your firm with a physical. We call that a “systems  audit”.

I am looking forward to sharing my experiences with you. I welcome all questions or comments either here or via email. Feel free to fan the flames….I wear asbestos undergarments.

Featured image from shutterstock.

About Donald Coker

Donald Coker

Donald Coker is a 32 year national consultant to law firms. He works from his farm house in Strafford, NH, but still travels all over the country even after all these years. He welcomes your questions or comments at fish4bugs@metrocast.net.

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