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Computer Counselor - July August 2001

Microsoft Access Can Handle Time and Billing Plus Many Other Tasks

By Benjamin Sotelo and James A. Flanagan

Benjamin Sotelo is president of Legal Friendly Technologies in Los Angeles, and James A. Flanagan is a civil litigator with 20 years of experience.

Chances are many lawyers already have this powerful program installed and ready to use. Dozens of software applications that help lawyers automate their practices are being sold, but in many cases lawyers can save substantial sums of money because they do not need to buy these applications. Many firms, for example, have Microsoft Access on their computers, and this excellent database program can do what other programs designed specifically for the legal market do. Lawyers who have Access only have to learn to use it. Most corporate clients use Microsoft Word, and so, even if many lawyers still prefer WordPerfect, their firms have Microsoft Access as part of a software suite. Even though Microsoft Word may be, from the perspective of many lawyers, not as good as WordPerfect, Access is another story. It offers a cost-effective option for any law firm or corporate legal department without an internal engineering staff familiar with legal-specific applications. Additionally, Microsoft has included some steps to help lawyers learn Access.

In order to make Access more lawyer-friendly, Microsoft has created various templates and wizard features. Two templates, contact management and time and billing, apply directly to lawyers. In addition, wizards assist users in constructing the tables, forms, and queries that can add legal-specific features to a template. And, as is typical with Microsoft software, users who are learning on their own can press F1 and search for help topics. An attorney who spends some time learning Access can avoid spending both money and time buying and learning legal-specific software.

Even those lawyers who already use legal-specific software or who do not have Microsoft Access on their computers may still wish to consider the usefulness of databases. For example, information about evidence, witnesses, contacts, and reference materials may all be profitably imported into databases. This adaptability, however, comes with a price. Before launching the first wizard, users who are new to databases should learn what a database is and how it works.

Database software uses fields, tables, forms, and queries to organize information. Data is stored in fields, which are the basic building blocks, and fields are organized and contained within tables. An address table, for example, may contain a field for first name, one for middle name, and others for last name, number, street, and so on. (Tables are similar to spreadsheets, but do not attempt to use a spreadsheet as a database. This mistake causes serious problems that you can explore on your own if you are curious.) The most common way to display the fields contained within tables is with a form. Forms are a picture of the fields contained within the tables in a database. When you look at the screen display of a database program, what you usually see are the forms, which present fields in ways that make them easy to interpret. Forms can also display information gathered by queries, such as a request that the database list all parties named Smith. Queries search through the fields, extract the data being sought, and display the results in forms. For example, a query could generate an address list of parties named Smith (along with whatever other information, case name, telephone number, that the user has specified or a default setting has created).

While the user sees the fields arranged in various ways, behind the scenes the software keeps track of the relationships of the fields to one another. This largely hidden operation gives the database its power and its potential for professional embarrassment. Users need to remember that human error is ultimately responsible, for example, for mass mailings that contain letters addressed to Mr. Smith Joe and Mr. Joe Smith, both of the same address, that ask him if he is aware that his valuable home, located at post office box 1234, may make him eligible for inclusion in a class action. No database is more intelligent, coherent, or logical than its plan and planner.

Once the user is familiar with database structure, a foray into the time and billing database template of Access can begin. When the program launches, note the dialog box that has the option to “Create a new database using:” (This dialog box can also be used to open any database after a database has been created.) Close this box by clicking Cancel.

Next, select File/New at the top left of the Access menu display. Select the Databases tab to generate a dialog box. Each of the icons in this dialog box represents distinct templates. Find the icon that represents the time and billing template, and double-click on it. Access will display a prompt for the location in which the database will be saved. Click “Save in” to make the location menu drop down, and find an appropriate folder on the hard drive where the new database will be kept. There is no harm in using the name provided (Time and Billing) for the new database. After the save is completed, the built-in wizard guides users through the rest of the setup.

Clicking on Next calls up a dialog box with fields and sample data. At this point the user is also provided with fields that may be added. Users should take the time to peruse the “Tables in the database” listed on the left and the “Fields in the database” on the right. Note that the fields on the right represent those fields that appear in each of the tables on the left. When users select different tables, different fields for each table also appear. The default relationships among the fields and tables are good enough for getting started. To preserve the existing setup, go down the list of tables on the left, highlight each table, and make sure that each field on the right is checked for that table. Once all fields on the right have been checked for the corresponding tables on the left, click Next.

Choose the Standard option in this dialog box and click Next. Then choose the Formal option and click Next. Do not check the picture option, and click Next. Make sure that “Yes, start the database” is checked, but do not check the box labeled “Display Help on using a database.” Click Finish. Access will now create the time and billing database.

The next two dialog boxes will prompt for the firm’s information. Click OK on the first box, enter the firm information in the second, and then close the second box. The new database opens with a dialog box, called the switchboard manager, directly in the middle of the screen. All the features built into the database can be launched from the switchboard. New users should review all the buttons on the switchboard, which correspond with the forms and queries that can be seen within a window that appears, minimized, at the bottom left.

Once the switchboard has been explored, open the minimized window on the bottom left by clicking the restore button. Note the column titled “Objects”, and the list of buttons along the left side listing tables, queries, forms, reports, pages, macros, and modules. Each of these options contains a wizard to help users.

After some practice, users can add the fields, tables, forms, or queries needed to customize the time and billing database and make it more suited to their particular needs. Customization, should it be needed, can be aided with a wizard and with the help features found under the contents tab labeled “Creating and Working with Databases/Create a Database.” Legal users may also want to use the contacts template to create their contacts database (and save money by not buying a specialized contacts database).

Access fulfills the criteria that law firms often use to review legal-specific software. Access is cost-effective, highly supported, expandable, compatible with other legal programs, and easy to use. The program is cost-effective because law firms often already own the suite that includes Access. The program is highly supported; as one might suspect of a Microsoft product, certified technicians and engineers are relatively easy to find. The program is endlessly expandable, offering an excellent platform for serious development work and nearly unlimited utilities and database tools for adding features as needed. Access is compatible because it uses an open database connectivity protocol. What this means is that almost any Windows-based legal software can be made to work with the Access database. Finally, ease of use is addressed with the templates, wizards, and help features.

Once familiar with the application, users can consider other legal-specific features that can be added to an Access database. Some examples include:

  • Document scanning and indexing for a paperless office or the production of large documents.       
  • Case chronologies or timelines.       
  • Decision strategies derived from cross-referencing case information for the weaknesses and strengths of a case.       
  • A client conflicts checking system.       
  • Case management.       
  • Cross-referencing video depositions.       
  • Automated deposition digesting.

Before making an investment in any of the hundreds of legal software programs available on the market, lawyers should spend a little time considering a powerful database program that most firms already own. Access contains templates that are directly applicable to the legal practice. Furthermore, an engineer can program Access to emulate any legal-specific database on the market.