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True confessions--computing `goofs' to learn by.

Trial lawyers are quick to react and like to be in complete control of every situation. However, the complexity of computing means lawyers need to slow down and take the time to master the machines. I have learned some lessons the hard way. I hope reading about my computing "goof ups" will show you that we all have a lot to learn.

Beverages by the keyboard

If there is one rule that you must always follow, it's never, ever keep any beverage by your computer keyboard. This rule I enforce, firmwide, at all times among all personnel.

Nevertheless, one day I arrived extra early at the office with a cup of hot java to get me going. As I raced to create a pleading, my hand brushed the cup, and its entire contents spilled onto the keyboard.

Happily, no one else was in the office to hear me howl. I ran for the paper towels to clean up the mess and tilted the keyboard perpendicular to the desk to let the coffee flow off. After a few hectic minutes, all seemed to be well, and I proceeded with my work.

However later that morning--when two staff people were working in my office and others were milling about--my computer began beeping rapidly, in almost a single, high-pitched tone, and would accept no input from the keyboard. At first, I had no idea what was wrong, nor did my staff. I called my technical guru, who suggested that the machine not be used until he could get to my office, which might not be until the end of the day.

Then it hit me: that coffee spill! And there I stood, with my techie on the "squawk box" and my secretary, paralegal, and another staff person listening in. I had the choice of owning up to what had happened earlier or keeping my mouth shut to avoid embarrassment.

So I made an opening statement about computer-literate lawyers following their own directives, and then, with hat in hand, confessed my guilt. I got a few snickers from the folks in my office and a friendly rebuke from my technical person, but I had a new keyboard attached to my computer in a few minutes (we had an extra on hand), and the computer worked flawlessly, immediately.

You will never again see any liquid on my desk by the computer keyboard--no matter how badly I need it.

List server e-mail

ATLA maintains helpful discussion groups, or list servers, for sections, litigation groups, and committees on its Web site. Basically, these are areas where, for example, Small Office Practice Section members can automatically receive electronic mail from other subscribers--and each member's message is automatically stored and forwarded to all the others. Subscribers can reply to messages, too.

This is where you must be careful. Some list servers are configured so that replies do not go only to the sender of the message. If I get a message from a list server that appears to have come from ATLA CEO Tom Henderson, and I think I am going to reply only to Tom, I might hit "reply," type a personal message, and hit the "send" icon on my screen. However, on many list servers this message will actually go to every person on the list.

I've been there and done that. While my response to his message was not confidential, sending it to everyone when it was clearly intended for Tom was embarrassing. So when responding to e-mail from a list server, be careful to know who your response goes to.

Document paths

If you are not running case-management software, you might store your documents by file names within "folders" on your computer (as I advised in a previous column). But what if you're working on a document stored on a floppy disk and you hit "save"? Two weeks later, when you go back to make some revisions, you might search your hard drive in vain for the file. When you saved it, the PC would have saved it to the floppy.

To avoid misplacing a document, insert the "path"--the folder, subfolder, and sub-subfolder it is stored in, followed by the file name--in the document before you store it in the first place (I do this on the last page). Then a glance at the printed copy will show you where to find the electronic version. All staff in your office should do this routinely.

If I am preparing a motion for summary judgment in Jones v. ABC Trucking Co., the path might be "D:\client matters\ clients G to M\ABC Trucking\ motions\ draft summary judgment."

In WordPerfect, you can automatically insert the path by selecting "Insert" from the top menu bar, then choosing "Other" and "Path and Filename." The path will be inserted in your document where the cursor is placed, so make sure it's at the bottom or the top, as you prefer.

In Word, go to the Insert menu, then select "AutoText," "Header/Footer," and "Filename and path." Again, this will insert the path where the cursor is in the document (despite the Header/Footer designation in the command).

Monday-morning quarterbacking

You were too busy to take an active role in selecting your firm's case-management software. Your staff worked hard on the selection process, considering the lawyers' tolerance for learning new tricks. Like a benevolent despot, you allowed your staff their "toys" and hoped that the new program would increase office productivity.

You were proud of yourself for sitting through five minutes of a meeting to discuss the attributes of the software, but then you had to take a client's phone call--surely more important than the final decision on what software to purchase.

After the software was installed, you skimped on training and, worse yet, as the firm began implementing the program, you became critical of what you had, compared with what you knew you really wanted. So you criticized your staff, yelled at your partner, and fired your consultant. And the effort to automate your firm took one huge step backward--never mind that you reduced the staff members' confidence to the point where they probably will never offer you a positive suggestion again.

Here's how to avoid such a disaster. Be proactive in selecting case-management software. Realize that no product will do everything you want it to do exactly the way you want to do it, and recognize that automation is trial and error. Be a good leader and a positive, enthusiastic thinker--not a Monday-morning quarterback.

New software and upgrades

Let's assume you got this far the right way. You have your personal computer and network working well. But now you read about some new software that sounds great--or, while surfing the Net, you find "patches" or an upgrade for software you already use--and you must have it immediately. Do not follow your impulse.

In my experience, "things happen" when loading new software or new versions of existing software onto the computer. Programs that used to work nicely no longer run smoothly, if at all. New programs and software upgrades often make unintended or unanticipated changes in your hard drive and computer settings. Downloading and installing upgrades or new programs is not a job for you. And it is an absolute no-no to muck with the file server in your office: Do not do it without the advice of a consultant who knows you and how your firm operates. Working with the "brains" of computers is a job for the experts.

Time records

Contingent-fee lawyers think that all the math they need to know is how to divide a settlement by three or multiply a recovery by 40 percent--and that keeping time records isn't worth it.

But don't make the mistake of losing track of the time you spend working. Good firm management requires keeping accurate time records. They show you what paralegals and associates are working on, and analyzing these records by type of case, or for effective hourly rates when cases are settled, helps you decide which areas of law are most productive for your firm.

Some case-management products keep time records automatically, tracking cases and the date and time that changes are made, along with a brief description of the work done and by whom. With time entry this simple, I suggest you try it for a few months, then analyze the data to see if you agree with the concept.

Document assembly

One of the greatest benefits of law office technology is the ability to create standard documents, pleadings, and correspondence instantly. Letters to clients enclosing interrogatories or status reports, letters to update referring counsel, and many standard pleadings can be generated with a few mouse clicks--if the documents have already been created and coded to tell the computer where to insert information such as client names, addresses, and case numbers.

You can create a document-assembly system on your computer by using the merge function of your word-processing program; integrating a database program with your word-processing program; using the merge resources of a case-management program; or buying a product like HotDocs or Ghostfill, designed specifically for document assembly. Just choosing the documents you want merge-coded is time consuming--doing the actual coding and ensuring that the system is easy to use usually requires hiring an expert, which will also free up your staff for other projects.

This is no trivial pursuit. Merge codes must be consistent from document to document, and you must consider good grammar when the subject of a sentence may be either one or multiple plaintiffs and either male or female. For nontechnical folks, like most of us, an expert is required. You might also consider talking to your state trial lawyer association about creating a state-specific library of merge-coded forms.


Do you know the password to your file server? How about the passwords for Lexis, Westlaw, and your e-mail program?

Many of us store the password in the program it opens so we can automatically log in--and quickly forget the actual password. Others have a staff person get their computer systems running in the morning and enter all the necessary passwords.

If you do that you might as well give your staff the combination to your safe, the keys to your home and car, and all your credit cards. You must be the only one who knows your passwords.

I store documents online and once gave a staff person my password. The staffer changed it so I could not access my own documents. It was a quick lesson in the importance of controlling my passwords and systems. Keep passwords in a secure location that only you can access.

Data conversion

You might overlook the value of data already stored on your computer systems as you move into case-management software. The data may be in databases, WordPerfect files, Word files, presentation programs, and more. You already have lots of information about client matters (pleadings, correspondence, records of costs advanced, and so forth), not to mention what is stored in your computerized address book.

In implementing new case-management software, you'll probably spend lots of time determining which product will be best for your firm, but you need to consider that existing data. How much of it do you want to fold into the case-management program? Will the vendor help you with this effort, and does it have the experience to do so? If the vendor will not help you--and you should find this out before making the purchase--should you buy that product? If the vendor will help, has it examined the data you want to convert and given you a firm cost estimate and timetable for the integration?

You may also want to consider adding a provision to the contract allowing you to withhold a good percentage of the initial licensing costs and 100 percent of the first year's maintenance fees until the conversion is accomplished and the system is installed and working. Specify that if this does not take place on or before a certain date, the full purchase price must be refunded.

Most of my "wisdom" stems from hard experience, as does learning to ride a two-wheeler or strapping on your first ice skates. But that is also true of becoming a smart trial lawyer. Just as you practice to hone your courtroom skills and retain experts to testify in cases, you should hire a knowledgeable computer technician--and learn from the mistakes revealed in this column.

Paul Bernstein is an attorney and law-office automation consultant in Chicago. He can be reached by e-mail at The views expressed in this column are the author's and do not constitute an endorsement of any product by TRIAL or ATLA.
COPYRIGHT 2002 American Association for Justice
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Author:Bernstein, Paul
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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