Computer Counselor - May 1999
The Benefits of Building a Paperless Law Firm Office
Everything-text,images, sound-gets digitized and organized for ready reference
By Daryl Teshima
Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Law Office Computing. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Norman Gregory Fernandez first went solo, he discovered he had to solve one major problem before he could practice law efficiently: how to cope with the mountains of paper that bombarded his office daily. Unfortunately, after spending many hours and dollars trying to handle the administrative, organizational, and professional demands of his law office, Fernandez realized that without an efficient solution, he was headed for failure. Without a support staff or adequate storage space, Fernandez found that he was spending too much time trying to tame his office's paper beast instead of doing what was most important-practicing law. "The solution I came up with was simple. Digitize all paper in my law office, and use paper files only for original pleadings, evidence, and signature documents," he explains, so "I could compete with major law firms."
Fernandez first had to find a program to serve as his digital secretary and office manager. If he truly planned on scanning and digitizing all documents, he would need a computer traffic cop to keep everything in order.
There are several computerized case management systems on the market, all with varying approaches and prices. After researching numerous systems, Fernandez decided that Gryphon's Law Office and Case Management System was the solution for his many needs. The Gryphon system performs many tasks found in other case management programs, such as detailed client accounts, case management, and rules-based calendaring. What caught Fernandez's eye was the Gryphon system's ability to organize documents and other computer files by client and matter. Using this program, Fernandez's dream of being a mouse click away from all client documents became a reality. "Gryphon has allowed me to substantially become a paperless law office without having to rely upon many different programs," Fernandez notes. "Gryphon has solved most of the problems that I faced with running my paperless law office."
Another part of becoming paperless was scanning documents and images into the computer. Of the two types of scanners on the market, sheet-fed and flatbed, he chose both. Sheet-fed scanners are ideal for the business cards, handwritten notes, letters, and other random scraps of paper that blanket an attorney's desk. All that Fernandez needs to do is feed the paper into the scanner. In seconds the text is digitized and ready for digital filing. For his sheet-fed scanner, Fernandez got the Visioneer PaperPort.
Unfortunately, not every document will feed through a sheet-fed scanner. In addition, feeding page after page into sheet-fed scanners can become quite tedious. To solve this problem, Fernandez purchased a Umax Astra 600p flatbed scanner, which can handle legal-size documents, photographs, and multiple pages with its document feeder.
Both scanners allow Fernandez to scan documents and evidence into his case management system. Having an electronic version of each document and item of evidence makes all the difference when it comes to staying organized. When he meets with opposing counsel, he can summon a piece of evidence within seconds. Fernandez can also annotate his digital files, cataloging them by such criteria as case number, document type, sender, and date received.
In his quest for complete organization, Fernandez did not stop at the written word. Many of his cases involve evidence that needs to be photographed, videotaped, or recorded. Since Fernandez records all depositions (as well as voice mail and phone messages), he wanted to be able to play them back instantly during trial. To accomplish this, Fernandez converts sound and video into digital format. Once they are converted, he inputs the portions he needs into a database, assigning a bar code to each audio and video clip. During trial, Fernandez uses a bar code wand to retrieve the appropriate information in the database, then presses the play button on the laptop or remote control. Fernandez does not have to fumble with tapes and various players. To input audio, Fernandez uses a SIIG SoundWave 128 PCI sound system capable of CD-quality output.
For video, Fernandez purchased a high-resolution digital camera from Best Data, which came with a video capture and output device and Ulead Studio 2 video software. With this package, Fernandez records video directly into his computer from a VCR, camcorder, or the Best Data camera. The package also can output video to a television, monitor, or VCR. With this package, Fernandez is now able to make studio-quality video presentations directly from his PC. The software also lets him place digital pictures of evidence and portions of videotaped depositions into his case management system, where they are linked to the appropriate client.
One downside to Fernandez's multimedia approach soon became evident: hard drive storage. "Recording audio and video on my PC required vast amounts of disk space," recalls Fernandez. To solve this problem, Fernandez archives audio and video footage on recordable CD-ROMs. He bought an Acer 6x2x2 CD-ROM recorder to record all the video and audio he needed on blank CD-ROMs that cost less than $2 each.
The final addition to Fernandez's paperless law office was a computerized law library, which gave him the ability to copy and paste statutes and citations into legal pleadings. Fernandez's library was created with a combination of CD-ROM and online resources.
Fernandez currently has a library of more than 90 CD-ROMs from West Group, Matthew Bender, and other library providers, with such titles as Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement, California Reporters, Federal Statutes and Rules Annotated, California State Statutes Annotated, and practice guides on CD-ROM.
For his legal online service, Fernandez chose Lexis-Nexis, which has a fixed-fee monthly payment schedule that allows him to budget his time. Furthermore, Lexis-Nexis has Sheppard's online, which, according to Fernandez, "is the standard in the legal world for checking to see if a case is current." Most of Fernandez's CD-ROM library uses the Premise search platform from West Group, with which he stores his library on a hard drive or runs it directly from the CD-ROM. Fernandez has found that storing his library on a hard drive is convenient and allows for faster searches than running it from the CD-ROM, so a substantial portion of his law library is on his system's hard drives.
Another portion of Fernandez's law library is the West Group's LawDesk, which must be run from a CD-ROM. For this system, Fernandez installed two NEC 6x4 CD-ROM jukeboxes to access eight CD-ROMs at a time. He cannot access all the CDs in his library at once, so from time to time he must manually insert a CD-ROM. This is a minor problem, however, because his current setup has greatly decreased his research time.
Fernandez realizes that his quest to run a paperless law office has not been easy. "A major problem with such a system is the computer itself. If my computer fails, my law office is down. To account for this I have to regularly back up all of my data," he notes. Fernandez also keeps a small paper law library with titles such as West Federal Reporter, West's Federal Supplements, and West's California Reporter, although he confesses that they are used more for decoration than research.
Fernandez's paperless law office has helped to make his solo practice a match for the major law firms he battles. In bottom-line terms, he explains that his system "has helped decrease my overhead to an extent where substantial profitability can be achieved with minimal outside resources."
The Cost of Going Paperless
Going paperless requires capital investment. The total cost of Fernandez's system, software, and library is roughly $16,000.
Custom 128 MB RAM, 20 GB HD computer
Two NEC 6x4 CD jukeboxes
Umax Astra 600p flatbed scanner
Visioneer PaperPort sheet-fed scanner
SoundWave 128 PCI sound system
Video system (camera and software)
Acer CRW-62606A CD-RW drive
HP Laserjet 6P printer
HP 600C InkJet printer
Gryphon case management system
Microsoft Office 97 (professional)
Windows 98 (upgrade)
Lexis-Nexis subscription (per year)
CD-ROM collection (estimated)
CD-ROM subscription/update charges (per year)