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Computer Counselor - January 1999

How to Get Started on Y2K Debugging in the Law Office

When it comes to checking for Y2K compliance, now is better than the next century

By Daryl Teshima

Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Legal Assistant Today and Law Office Computing, two bimonthly magazines published by James Publishing. He can be reached on the Internet at 
dteshima @netcom.com. 

Some predict that the year 2000 (Y2K) problem will bring disaster. Others label it as a bogeyman in the service of technology consultants. To many lawyers, Y2K appears distant, remote, and trivial compared to the daily demands of judges, opposing counsel, and clients. Besides, most law firms do not employ mainframes-the computers most susceptible to the problem-but instead primarily use recently purchased personal computers and software. 

What if, however, a fraction of the predicted Y2K problems occur? Then attorneys could have a major and long-lasting office hangover after January 1, 2000. Besides computers and programs, Y2K can affect such office systems as telephones, voice mail, automated security, elevators, and anything else that relies on a microchip. For this reason, the estimated cost of dealing with Y2K in Europe and the United States is now $858 billion. Ignoring Y2K could have catastrophic consequences for a lawyer's practice. Y2K is one deadline that even judges cannot extend. A lawyer can, however, start debugging today. 

The Date Set Test 

A dramatic Y2K problem will occur if a computer's clock and operating hardware cannot recognize the correct date after December 31, 1999. Most applications rely on the computer's internal clock for the date and time. For example, if the operating hardware gives erroneous or unreadable date and time information to a calendar and datebook program, it will not work properly. Although most computers sold within the past three years do not have this problem, the average older PC-especially one still running DOS-may. 

Luckily, an ordinary lawyer can find and fix a problem with a computer's clock with relative ease. First, prepare or obtain a DOS boot disk. To prepare a boot disk, place an appropriate blank disk in the computer's A: drive. If you are using DOS, issue the command "format a: /s". If you are in Windows 3.1x, double-click on the MS-DOS Prompt icon in the Windows Accessories folder, then issue the command. The task is even easier under Windows 95/98: create the disk by selecting Add/Remove Programs under the Control Panel. Select the Startup Disk tab and click the Create Disk button. The computer will prepare a boot disk. 

To begin the three-part test, insert the boot disk into the A: drive and start the computer. At the command prompt, type "date"; the computer will display the current date and prompt you for a new one. Type "12-31-1999". Next, type "time" and set the time to "23:59" (or 11:59 p.m.). Now that the computer thinks that the year 2000 is one second away, turn off the machine, leaving the boot disk in the computer. Turn it back on after a minute or so and check the date and time. If the computer shows January 1, 2000, it has passed the first test. If the computer returns the wrong year, the problem may be solved with a new BIOS chip. 

To obtain a new chip, contact the manufacturer of the computer, and if necessary the chip manufacturer, to see if a Y2K-compliant BIOS chip is available. If there is no source for an updated BIOS chip, then there are several ways to work around the problem. The first and most obvious solution is to buy a new computer, the second is to continue to reset the computer's date and time after 2000. If you obtain a new BIOS chip, be aware that it is easy to damage the chip by inserting it incorrectly. If there is no one in the firm comfortable with the procedure, ask a dealer or consultant to perform it. If the computer fails either of the two remaining tests, a new BIOS chip is also the first repair step. 

The second test discovers whether the computer can change the date with the power on. At the same DOS prompt as before, set the date to "12-31-1999" and the time to "23:59" (or 11:59 p.m.). This time, do not turn off the computer; wait a few minutes before rechecking the date and time. Again, the date should be January 1, 2000. Keep the computer on for the last test, which sees if your computer can account for the fact that 2000 is a leap year. Set the date to "2-28-2000" and the time to "23:59". Wait, then verify that the date is February 29, 2000. After performing these three tests, be sure to reset the date and time. 

If the computer displayed the correct date and time on all three tests, congratulations. Next on the list is to test the computer's applications. 

Testing Applications 

The other way that Y2K can strike your computer is through applications and operating software. The diagnosis of the hardware BIOS is simple in comparison to the intricate problems involved in finding Y2K bugs in programs. Even applications and systems that are billed as Y2K compliant may not work properly, depending on how they are used. For example, if the programmer who created a spreadsheet program that calculates loan amortizations used two-digit numbers to represent the year, then once "00" is entered as a year the program may cease to work or give inaccurate information that is difficult to detect. 

Complicating the Y2K debugging process are the compliance audit letters that many law firms are now beginning to receive. While the recent passage of the Year 2000 Information and Readiness Disclosure Act provides some protection for good-faith Y2K disclosures (download the act at  www.2000law.com/html/legislation.html), Y2K compliance letters certainly raise the exposure for many law firms and their malpractice carriers. 

Tackling the software problem requires a firmwide effort. For many firms, establishing a Y2K task force composed of representatives from every department is a wonderful means to disseminate information and compliance work. In addition to the firm, you should also determine the Y2K readiness of your building as well as your vendors. 

The next step is to conduct an inventory of all computer systems and applications used by the firm. Lawyers and managers need to accept that this step will take a great deal of time. Not only does the task force need to list all software, it also needs to document any customizations (macros, templates, etc.). Once the inventory is completed, the law firm needs to establish priorities regarding which applications to debug first. According to Andy Adkins, director of the Legal Technology Institute, which is run by the University of Florida College of Law, each system and application should be placed into one of three categories: 

Priority 1: Cost You Your Practice. These applications provide mission-critical information for your clients, especially information that involves the calculation of time. For most firms, calendaring, docketing, trust accounting, and case management systems fit this category. The question you need to ask is whether the program's failure could trigger a malpractice action. 

Priority 2: Cost You Money. These are applications and hardware that lawyers use primarily for business. For example, if applications such as a time and billing system failed, it could cost you money but not necessarily your license to practice. 

Priority 3: Cost You Time. Applications that are not very reliant on date calculations (word processing, Web browsing) fit into this last category. A program failure would certainly be inconvenient but would not cost you your practice or money. 

Once the debugging priorities are set, start testing and bringing all applications into compliance. Contact each vendor (or the vendor's Web site) to determine whether the application is Y2K compliant. There are also several Web sites that can help, including the aptly named Year 2000 site (www.year2000.com). For information on the Y2K status of legal applications, the Legal Technology Institute has started the ambitious Year 2000 Legal Technology Status Project (www.law.ufl.edu/college/lti). This project collects Y2K compliance information for legal technology vendors and provides information not covered by nonlegal Y2K Web sites. In coming months, this site will provide a portal to Y2K statements for most legal vendors. 

Besides Web sites, there are several software programs that can help you with this process. WRQ's Express 2000 Suite (800-872-2829,  www.wrq.com) matches each application on your computer against a Y2K database of more than 6,000 applications. Express 2000 Suite is network-based and costs $65 per seat with a 25-seat minimum. An application aimed more at desktop users is Network Associates' McAfee 2000 Toolbox ($29, 800-332-9966,  www.nai.com). Besides checking the applications on your computer against a database of applications with Y2K problems, 2000 Toolbox also can scan data files and locate Y2K date problems in Microsoft Excel, Access, FoxPro, Visual dBase, and text files. Check 2000 PC from Greenwich Mean Time-UTA LC ($49, 703-908-6600) examines applications, scans data files, and employs a Y2K database with more than 5,000 applications and workarounds. 

These programs, unfortunately, are not a cure-all for a law firm's Y2K worries. As this computer crisis has ironically illustrated, the most critical aspect to solving the Y2K problem is time. Avoid the rush that many firms will experience in late 1999. By starting early, you can make time be on your side.

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