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Computer Counselor October 1996


Association Lawyers Catch High-Tech Wave

Survey Results Reveal Technology-Savvy Attorneys

By Joseph Kornowski

Joseph Kornowski is Associate Executive Director and General Counsel for the Los Angeles County Bar Association. He can be reached on the Internet at
JKornowski@msn.com.

For all of those who thought that technology for lawyers was a passing fancy, a fad, just so many tactless tech-toys unbefitting an august profession, put down your quill pen, tell your secretary to hold all calls and take heed. Results of the first ever Los Angeles County Bar Association technology survey are now in, and they depict a profile of techno-savvy Los Angeles lawyers who are integrating new technological tools into their practices. The LACBA survey results coincide with the release of the American Bar Association 1996 Survey Report of Automation in Smaller Law Firms, and a review of the highlights of the results of both suggest that lawyers in sole practice and smaller firms are finding real value in the use of technology. 

Let us be clear at the outset that while the ABA and LACBA surveys covered many of the same topics, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The ABA, which actually surveyed both individuals and firms separately, selected 1700 individuals (and 2000 firms) from a stratified random sample based on a practice setting of one to twenty lawyers. The LACBA selected 1000 individuals from a random sample of its membership, which is composed predominantly of solo and small firm practitioners; firms were not separately surveyed. The ABA's response rate was 24% for the individual survey and 13% for the firm survey. LACBA's was 18%. Also, the ABA survey report is publicly available (for a fee--$89.95 for ABA members; $149.95 for non-members; with an Executive Summary available to members and non-members at $10 and $20, respectively); the LACBA survey report is not. One of the reasons for this, and another basis for distinguishing the two surveys, is that a primary focus of LACBA's was to help determine what its members want from it in the way of technology so that it can more effectively serve the needs of Los Angeles area lawyers. 

Disclaimers aside, both surveys show three prominent areas that the ABA--having conducted similar surveys in 1988, 1990, 1994 and 1995--identifies as trends: (1) increased use of the Internet and other online services; (2) leveraging knowledge and expertise more efficiently through specific software applications; and (3) computer saturation in the law office but with a tendency towards upgrading hardware and software. 

Going Online

Perhaps the greatest single shift in the means by which lawyers access information and communication has been the movement towards use of the Internet and other online computer services. In the ABA survey of individuals, for example, compared to last year, lawyers reported an increase of approximately 20% in the use of online legal research services and almost a 30% increase in use of the Internet, with 38% stating that they currently use the Internet. Among law firms, 58% report having Internet access in their practices, which represents more than a 300% increase in Internet access-up from a mere 14% the year before. 

In the LACBA survey, more than two-thirds of responding attorneys reported using the Internet in the past three months. Over half the respondents stated that they used an online computer service in the office, and an equal percentage used such a service at home. Well over three-quarters of responding attorneys in the LACBA survey reported having computers equipped with modems in their offices. 

Somewhat more surprising, however, is that both the LACBA and ABA survey respondents stated that the most used tool or feature of the Internet is the World Wide Web--not e-mail, which at least up until a year or so ago was touted as the most common and useful Internet function. It may be that now the critical mass has developed in Web content for it to be the most convenient and useful online source of information for lawyers. 

Even so, e-mail availability in law firms is rising dramatically, according to the ABA survey report, with almost one-third of firms using external e-mail, and about one-fourth of respondents stating that they plan to acquire it in 1996. About half the respondents currently have internal (office-based) e-mail, with another 15% stating their intention to acquire it within the calendar year. Overall, e-mail was available to 65% of firms, as compared with just 3% in 1990. 

The LACBA results were consistent, with about half of the respondents indicating that they used Internet e-mail, and e-mail software ranked by the most respondents as the number one component of communication services in terms of interest. 

Leveraging Knowledge through Software

While lawyers are increasing their access to online information and other resources to assist them in their practice, they also appear to be using their knowledge and expertise more effectively. Software that allows attorneys and their staffs to share and reuse information-whether in the form of legal research, or other similar documents or other work product prepared in other matters or by other attorneys in their firm-is providing them with what the ABA calls "knowledge bases," which makes them more competitive with larger firms. Other than software specific to the Internet, external e-mail and online services, applications that rated highest on the list of software to be acquired by the end of year included case management, database, imaging, internal e-mail and litigation support, according to the ABA firm survey. In fact, the ABA reports that 24% of firms were using work product retrieval databases, up from a mere 8% in 1995, while 35% of firms reported using case management software, up from just 14% in 1995. 

In the LACBA survey results, software for creating and maintaining a brief bank and work product database did not rate nearly as high as in the ABA firm survey. For respondents to both the LACBA and ABA surveys, time-keeping and billing, docket control and case management topped the list of planned software purchases. 

Hardware and Software Upgrades

From computers, CD-ROM drives and other hardware components to operating systems and word processing applications, small firms and solos are looking for enhancements and upgrades. The market for first-time law office computer buyers has shrunk, with 84% of ABA survey respondents reporting use of computers in their offices, and an even higher percentage of attorneys and support staff using office computers according to the LACBA survey. The trend seems to be towards upgrading, with almost 85% of ABA firm survey respondents-and slightly more individual survey respondents--reporting that they currently have IBM compatible desktop PCs, and 28% of individuals who report using computers in the office according to the ABA survey indicating that they are using Pentium-based systems. 

With almost half the LACBA survey respondents stating that they currently use notebook/laptop computers in their practices, almost 20% are also likely to acquire notebooks or laptops in the near future. In fact, for ABA individual survey respondents, more than half intend to personally use portables "in the office" by the end of 1996, as compared with less than 4% who plan to use desktop computers. This would seem to signal a shift in lawyers preferences for a computer that they can use at the office and then take home, to court, or on the road. 

With reference to other hardware, although 80% of LACBA survey respondents now have CD-ROM drives at their firms, over one-third of respondents stated an intention to acquire CD-ROM drives in the next twelve months. The ABA individual survey results were not quite as dramatic: over half now use CD-ROMs and over one-fourth will add them during 1996. And while over 80% of LACBA survey respondents also report having one or more office computers equipped with modems, most of those are higher-speed (i.e., 28.8 baud); a few even have ISDN lines. 

In terms of operating system platforms, most individuals (almost 40%) responding to the ABA survey report using more Windows than DOS software programs. That percentage can be expected to increase, with almost one-fourth of both the ABA law firm and LACBA respondents stating that they expect to implement Windows 95 in the coming year-and an equal percentage of ABA firm respondents stating their intention to acquire computers with Windows 3.x operating system. 

Although WordPerfect for DOS is still the prevailing word processing application among ABA individual survey respondents, by the end of the year, 48% said that they will be using WordPerfect for Windows and 35% said they would be using Microsoft Word for Windows 95. 

Other interesting responses from the ABA and LACBA surveys reveal that: more than two-thirds of individual attorneys in the ABA survey use a computer away from the office; 40% of individual ABA respondents have a remote computer connected to their office with a modem; the most prevalent use of the Internet by individual lawyers is for non-legal research, and for those using it for legal research, government information is the primary type of information sought; the technology developments that individual lawyers plan to use more in 1996 than in 1995 include color printers, flatbed and sheetfed scanners, online access to court records, remote access capability, as well as voice recognition and video conferencing. Of a list of twenty technologies that might available to them, the one LACBA lawyers wanted most was direct online access to court records. 

What do these results portend for the future of law office technology and the impact of technology on the practice of law? For one thing, small firms and sole practitioners will continue to increase their access to CD-ROMs and online services, and especially the Internet, to leverage information and become more competitive with larger firms. At the same time, they will increase their mobility by relying more on notebook and laptop computers which, when coupled with access to the Internet, including the World Wide Web, external e-mail and online services, will provide them with increased flexibility to work from home, the courthouse or another remote location. By decreasing their need to travel as often to a particular physical place-their office, a courthouse, a law library-in order to practice their profession, lawyers will be able to use their time more efficiently and effectively. Lawyers clearly have begun to apply new technologies to leverage their time, their research and other work product, as well as other resources, to focus on better serving their clients.


   
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