How Document Management Can Accelerate Law Practice
By Fred Wolgel – April 10, 2012
What do we mean by “the high-velocity law office”? Outside counsel bill by the hour or fraction thereof. In-house counsel are being asked to do more with fewer physical resources, such as creating more value without creating more cost. Activities, whether billable or not, are either high value or low value. Thinking, strategizing, analyzing issues, writing, and communicating with the client are all high-value activities. Copying a document, recording billable time, waiting for a document to print, and waiting for a computer screen to respond are all low-value activities. High velocity means spending more time on the high-value activities and less time on the low-value activities. Technology gives us the tools to shift the percentages.
Lawyers and law offices tend to adopt new technologies slowly. There are some benefits to waiting. For example, technology companies often introduce products that still contain bugs or require updates. Also, there is an up-front time commitment to learn how to use and adopt new tools. Nonetheless, there are many productivity tools that are available today that will have a profound impact on your productivity. Any tool adopted that increases productivity facilitates the interactions between in-house and outside counsel. This helps bind the client to the lawyer, improving long-term working relationships.
In the past few years, networked copiers have added scanning capabilities. Libraries can be created of key documents that have been scanned in, organized by client matter, and kept in folders that can be shared with attorneys and clients. It is important to develop a folder structure on your computer that is coherent and tailored to your practice. If you are outside counsel and still bill your clients via regular mail, consider sending the bill as an email attachment to the client.
“Cloud storage” has moved from a novel and trendy utility to a practical data-management tool. You are no longer dependent on having your personal computer with you. You can access a key document from your smartphone, tablet, or any personal computer, not just the one you use at work or home. If your law firm or company has an intranet, consider establishing a secure and well-organized document library that can be accessed by all stakeholders on the firm/company intranet. Instead of spending time hunting for a particular email containing a critical attachment, navigate instead to the document repository on the company intranet to find the document in its logical subject-matter folder. Access to sensitive documents can be easily managed and controlled on the intranet. Typically, you manage “permissions” deciding who can access which libraries, or even specific documents within a library. If you are in-house, you can share the access with outside counsel as well as with internal clients.
If you don’t have an intranet, there are many services that can perform a similar function, such as Dropbox, Box.com, and SugarSync. The beauty of these services is that if you change a document on your hard drive, it “syncs,” or changes the document in the cloud as well as on any personal computer where you keep a copy of the files. The cloud services work with tablets as well. Many have a “history” feature that allows you to retrieve previous versions of the same file. These cloud services also serve the important function of always having the document files on your hard drive backed up. If the hard drive on your computer crashes, your files are not lost.
These services also allow you to easily share documents with others. It is important to organize your documents by folders and subfolders and to share documents with others at the lowest (subfolder) level. With some cloud services, if you share an entire folder with another person or persons, you can’t share only a subfolder within that folder with someone else. So if you have a big client, Acme, for example, and create an Acme folder with multiple subfolders for each important Acme matter, you must avoid giving anyone shared access to the entire Acme folder, or else you will be unable to share Acme subfolders individually.
I instruct recipients of shared subfolders not to install the storage-service software on their computer, but simply access the shared subfolder files directly on the Internet. Otherwise, installing the cloud storage-service software on a computer results in the service storing the shared subfolders on the shared computer, which is typically unnecessary and can quickly clog the hard drive of clients and coworkers with files that are needed only occasionally.
Stop Listening to Voice Mail and Start Reading It Instead
It is a lot faster to read transcribed voice-mail messages than it is to listen to them. There are several services that will transcribe your messages and send the transcription to you as an email message. The service also sends the message to itself as a recorded attachment, so you can listen to it if the transcription is unclear. Some examples of this service are Phonetag, Google Voice, evoice, and Onebox.
Further, in the event you are ever called upon to produce voice-mail messages in response to a discovery request, you have an easily accessible and searchable means of locating them.
Get Rid of Your Fax Machine
With the advent of scanning and email, the use of fax machines has declined dramatically. Nonetheless, there are times when it is necessary to send or receive a fax. Just as with voice-to-email services, there are numerous services that allow you to send and receive faxes from your computer using the Internet.
First, scan the document to your computer if it is not already there. Then log on to the service’s website, select the document(s) you wish to upload, enter the destination phone number, fill out a fax cover sheet, and hit the “send” button. No waiting or hovering over the fax machine is necessary. When the document has been successfully faxed to the receiving number, the service sends an email confirmation to the sender.
To receive a fax, the service will assign you a local phone number. Put this “fax number” on your business cards as well as on your signature block for emails. When someone sends a fax to this phone number, the service converts the fax to a PDF file and sends it to your email as an attachment. Some examples of this type of service include Maxemail, efax, and myfax.
The Tablet as Laptop: Get Rid of the Yellow Legal Pad
Since the introduction of the iPad in February 2010, a robust tablet market has been created with a wide variety of products and approaches. However, very few tablets have a built-in keyboard. This severely curtails its use as a serious device for the creation of content, such as taking notes, writing emails, and creating documents. However, several vendors have come out with cases that contain keyboards. There are several word-processing software products for tablets that allow you to create Word documents on the tablet. These products work with several cloud-storage services, so any document edited on the tablet, once saved and closed, is immediately synched in the cloud and with your local computers.
Document Retrieval and Viewing
I find myself retrieving and viewing important contract documents using the cloud storage application while simultaneously taking notes or editing different documents. In meetings, I am able to simultaneously look up documents to answer questions while taking notes on the issues being discussed. The payoff comes later when you go back to your office. The notes you have taken on the tablet, once saved to the cloud-storage service, appear on your office computer’s hard drive. You can then retrieve the notes and immediately go to work on the action items from the meeting.
Other Tablet Functionality
If you have a tablet-friendly IT department, you can access your calendar on the tablet as well as corporate email, and changes made to your calendar or email on the tablet are synched with the data that reside on your company laptop. You will find less need to bring your laptop with you.
Converting PDF Files to Word Files
Often, counterparties or outside counsel will send documents in PDF format. If you wish to propose changes to the document, it is a lot faster to use the “redline” feature in Word to make proposed changes. There are a few software packages that will convert a PDF file to a Word-format text file, where you can then edit the document in Word. When selecting a package, be sure that the software converts the PDF to a text file, rather than simply creating a non-editable image for insertion into a Word document. Given the formatting issues that occur in any document conversion, it is best to first simply ask outside counsel or the counterparty to resend the document in Word format.
When exchanging documents with a counterparty, for example in a settlement or negotiation, and even between in-house and outside counsel, it is always best to send your redline markup as a PDF file. In other words, convert the Word file into a PDF document. Also, send a “clean” copy of your changes in Word format. That way, the counterparty, client, or outside counsel, as the case may be, can see your changes in a separate document (the PDF version), but any changes they make will be in the document that has already incorporated your changes. That will expedite the process.
Google has a vast array of free tools that enhance productivity. While Google Maps, Gmail, and Google’s Chrome browser are well known, there are a few other lesser-known but equally useful tools from Google.
If you navigate to Google Scholar and select “Advanced Scholar Search,” there is a section at the bottom called “Legal opinions and journals” wherein you can use the familiar Google search engine to research all federal and state cases. Almost all states and the federal government have their statutes online. In addition, the federal government puts its regulations online, and it is considered official for citation purposes. For regulations that have recently been issued and are not the official source, there is also e-cfr.
Google Desktop Search
When you have trouble finding a document on your computer’s hard drive, consider installing Google Desktop Search. This is a desktop version of the Google search engine, and it will allow you to find documents that you know are somewhere on your computer but that you just can’t seem to find.
Protecting Your Data and Your Client’s Data
It is likely that, in the near future, all our documents and data will be in the cloud, which we will access from any of a multiplicity of devices, including smartphones, our desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and public computers that we temporarily use while traveling, such as the computers in the hotel’s office center. In that environment, the risks of data theft are real and increasing. One important way to mitigate security risk is to use better passwords. Consumer Reports recently instructed how to construct more robust passwords. Once you have improved your passwords, consider using a portable password vault to store all of them.
A business-card scanner, as the name suggests, scans the business cards you collect in meetings and organizes the data for later retrieval. There are many products in this category, differentiated by price and features such as speed and accuracy of scans, color versus black and white, and more. Once a card is scanned, you can enter notes if you like, and you can search for a contact by name, by company affiliation, or by categories that you can create.
The pace of change is ever-accelerating. The business cycle is compressing, in large degree due to the adoption of tools such as the ones mentioned in this article, tools that reduce the time spent waiting and searching, and getting the answer faster. Lawyers and law firms are historically conservative and slow to change. Nonetheless, business necessity and competition will likely force faster adoption of new technology. From the general-counsel perspective, outside counsel’s adoptions of new technology reduces the time we both need to spend on low-value and mundane activities and increase the amount of time spent on higher-value, and perhaps more intellectually rewarding, activities.
Keywords: litigation, technology, document management, general counsel, in-house counsel, cloud computing
Fred Wolgel is vice president and general counsel of Texas United Corporation in Houston, Texas.