Computer Counselor - April 1998
Expert Help in Being Prepared for New Computer Developments
In a round-table discussion, some experts offer realistic tech advice
By Daryl Teshima
Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Law Office Computing, published by James Publishing. He can be reached on the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting a group to agree on anything is often a difficult task, especially when the group consists of legal computing experts and attorneys.1 The ever-changing landscape of technology also diminishes the odds for consensus. In a few areas, however, the round table of experts agree with one another. These areas may help your firm prioritize its technology agenda.
The experts believe that the most significant technology advance in 1998 is continuous speech recognition. "Speech recognition systems are available on the market for under $500 and with incredible accuracy," says Andrew Adkins, publisher of The Internet Lawyer. "What I see happening is that most law firms interested in voice recognition products will purchase one or two as an experiment. The prices are cheap enough now that firms can make a small investment to test this concept. And who's going to lead this pioneering effort? Solos and small firms."
The West Group's chief technology officer, Michael Wilens, also believes that voice recognition technology may have a profound effect on how legal work product is created. "Properly implemented, effective speech recognition will require the personal computer to metamorphose into something completely different. Imagine walking into your office with a digital recorder, plugging it into some sort of information appliance, and having word processing files produced automatically for final edit."
Others caution that users are only seeing the first generation of this technology. "We've seen a beginning solution with continuous speech products from Dragon and IBM," says Lexis-Nexis's director of technology alliances, David Vandagriff. "Those products work for the truly dedicated, but within one or two more generations, continuous speech will work for everyone. If you want to get ready, buy a Pentium II 300 MHz with 256 MB of memory."
Another agrees but feels that Vandagriff's hardware recommendation is low. "Despite the latest round of hype about new product, I think the real impact of continuous speech recognition is still a good two to three years away," says Gene Barrett, vice president of information systems for the Philadelphia-based firm of Dechert Price & Rhoads. Barrett expects that a processor about 10 times as powerful as the Pentium II 233 MHz will be needed to make voice recognition so easy that it gains wide acceptance, and that such a chip will not arrive until about 2001. Even then, Barrett believes that the complexity of word processing software will add years to the delivery date of fully effective, fully integrated voice recognition and word processing.
"The first generation of really effective speech recognition will only be good for simple text entry," says Barrett. "Remember, software is complex. Even a word processor will be hard to use with only voice commands. What about auto-numbering? Generating a table of contents?"
Most experts also agree that the Internet will continue to have a substantial impact on law firms. In fact, Cory Linton, legal marketing manager at Microsoft, goes so far as to characterize the Internet as an underrated technology for law firms. "Despite all the hype the Internet has received, few people know how it will really affect the lives of the average person. Microsoft believes that the Internet will revolutionize the way we live and work, and we are committed to helping lawyers and courts leverage this technology and the possibility it presents," he says.
Others comment on how much the Internet (and especially e-mail) has already affected the way attorneys communicate with others. "Electronic mail is becoming the true medium of communication within and between enterprises," says West Group's Wilens. "Just as legal firms had to adapt to standards necessary to exchange documents with their clients, I think that legal firms will now have to adapt to e-mail standards to communicate more effectively with clients." Wilens expects that improvements in security and authentication in 1998 will further Internet acceptance. To gain that acceptance, many experts believe that Internet access should be given to everyone in the firm, despite concerns that employees will waste time on the Web.
"What comprises time-wasting on the Web is up for discussion, but assuming that someone is a time-waster, they'll do it [whether they are] Web-enabled or not," says Lexis-Nexis's Vandagriff. "That's a management problem, not the basis for a technology decision." Microsoft's Linton agrees: "Not allowing everybody access to the Internet is like not letting employees read newspapers or magazines or not giving everyone a phone-it is absurd.…[T]he efficiencies that can be gained by having access to so much information far outweigh the risks of wasting some time."
Others acknowledge that caution is needed when integrating law and the Internet. "There has never been in the history of communication an environment more capable of positive exploitation, but so susceptible to abuse, than the Internet," says Mike Brown, market development manager for WordPerfect. Joe Kashi, a solo practitioner and chair of the ABA's Law Practice Small Office Network and Litigation Application Interest Groups, allows only selected users in his law firm to use the Internet for research and e-mail. Kashi also has stayed away from marketing on the Internet due to concerns about ethics and the potential jurisdiction of other states.
Desktop Computer Standards
Most of the experts agree on computer hardware requirements. As a reflection of the continuing drop in hardware prices, most of the experts say that a Pentium-based computer is the desktop computer of choice. Most feel that this processor can adequately run what is rapidly becoming the default operating system, Windows 95.
"I believe that Windows 95 has won a knockout in the legal market, even if other operating systems remain technically superior," says Kashi. The work station that Kashi recommends has a 4+ GB hard drive, 64 MB of RAM, and a Pentium alternative, the AMD K6 processor. Kashi praises the AMD's price and performance.
For his clients, PC consultant Adkins recommends a work station with similar components (Pentium 200/233 MHz MMX, 32 MB of RAM, 2.1 GB hard drive). He also suggests splurging for a 17-inch color monitor, which should prevent employee complaints about having to work with a small screen. One thing missing from such a setup, however, is multimedia capabilities. "I'm not yet convinced that firms should go full multimedia," he says, "but I do think the day is near when lawyers will be using multimedia." A sound card and speakers may still be unnecessary for law office computing.
Another popular suggestion is to purchase a second-level computer, or one that is just below the latest and greatest model. From a performance standpoint, such a system delivers many years of useful service yet comes at a much more reasonable price.
"A rule of thumb that has been reliable since the days of 10 MB hard drives has been to spend about $3,000 on a law office computer," says Vandagriff. "That will purchase a computer that, while not at the extreme top of the market, will work very effectively for about two to three years."
The Year 2000 Problem
The experts also agree on the impact of the year 2000 problem. For many law firms, this problem has generated more questions than answers. Press accounts center around computer applications and hardware implemented years ago. One may wish to assume that software and equipment-especially those that were bought within the past few years-do not have any year 2000 problems, but few experts are willing to make that assumption. The currency of a law firm is the measurement of time, and inaccurate date calculation can have serious repercussions.
"Do you have software that has a built-in calculator based on dates, such as those found in time and billing, accounting, calendaring, and case management systems?" asks Adkins. "If so, firms should contact the software developers and ask them about their plans for solving the year 2000 problem." Many experts suggest that the first step is to determine the scope of the problem in the office. For computers, the easiest way to do this is simply to set the date and time of your system to January 1, 2000. Of course, perform this test only after backing up your system and during a time when you can allow your system to be down. Once you have set the year to 2000, run programs, noting how they handle date-calculation functions. The results can often be surprising. One program that appears to be affected by the year 2000 is the still-popular WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS. Initial tests indicate that the program has problems displaying files last modified in the year 2000.
"A significant amount of legal users using WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, for example, will simply have to move to later versions of this software to gain this level of assurance," says WordPerfect's Mike Brown. "The elements associated with this product migration must be considered now rather than later, and thankfully are being addressed by many now as they move from DOS to the Windows 95 environment." Brown suggests that WordPerfect users periodically check Corel's year-2000-compliance Web site for information.
Besides computers, firms should also check other date-dependent systems, including office telephones, elevators, mobile telephones, postage meters, alarms, and so on. "Embedded controllers in equipment like phone systems often have year 2000 problems," observes Kashi. To fix such problems, Kashi recommends contacting the systems' vendors for a simple upgrade.
Above all, the experts suggest being prepared for the worst. "I'm sure it will be an interesting holiday on January 1, 2000," says Wilens. "I plan to get a lot of cash from my ATM the day before."
Almost every expert agrees that the biggest computer mistake made by law firms is to implement technology without proper training. "Simply buying a computer and putting it on a lawyer's desk doesn't improve his or her practice," says Adkins. "Without training, a new $2,000 computer system is nothing but a heavy paperweight."
While most law firms agree that training is essential, few overcome practical training barriers such as lack of time and resources. Several experts have tips for solving these problems. Many feel that good timing is a key ingredient of effective training. "Train on a technology only when you plan to use it in the near future," says Wilens. "Otherwise, you will quickly forget it." Wilens suggests that users be trained for at least a day prior to the implementation of the system.
Another tip is to focus training sessions on practical, everyday tasks, rather than technology. "For attorneys, training should be focused on how they can do the kinds of things they already do every day better and faster," says Vandagriff. "Unless they express a desire to develop a deep personal relationship with their computers, don't try to turn the technophobes into technology geeks."
Others suggest establishing informal user groups to meet once per month and discuss frustrations and solutions with computers and applications. "I learned a long time ago that if I had a computer problem, I was not the only one in the entire world who had the problem," says Adkins. "Discussing these issues in a group setting helps to find solutions quickly."
Another expert suggests designating several "superusers" for common firm applications. "Focus on creating champions for different pieces of technology and make sure these champions are spread throughout the organization," says Wilens. "It is more effective to ask the person next to you for help than to schedule a class to learn it yourself."
For a full transcript of the round-table discussion summarized in this article, visit the Web site http://www.lawofficecomputing.com/.
Briefs & Bytes:
Corel and Dragon Systems recently joined forces to include Dragon's new continuous speech recognition program, NaturallySpeaking, in the forthcoming WordPerfect Legal Suite 8. In addition to this program, the Legal Suite contains all the 32-bit components found in the retail WordPerfect 8 suite (WordPerfect, Quattro Pro, Paradox, and Presentations) as well as the case manager Amicus Attorney, HotDocs, CompareRite, and FullAuthority. The upgrade price for the Legal Suite is expected to be $299.
Speaking of WordPerfect 8, Corel has released Service Release 3, which fixes many bugs. You can download the file at ftp://ftp.corel.com/pub/WordPerfect/wpwin/8/wp8sp3.exe. In addition, Corel sources indicate that a new version of WordPerfect may be released by the end of this year. However, the focus of the new version will be improving the non-word-processing components in the suite, such as Quattro and Paradox. One tantalizing (but unconfirmed) new feature is that WordPerfect 9 will let users save documents in Microsoft Word format.