Abracadabra – clutter be gone

By Ronda Robinson, Special to the Daily Report

If you’ve ever wished you had a magic wand to clear those files, take heart. Streamlining technologies are here and they work.

RANDY KESSLER MAY NOT HAVE A PAPERLESS OFFICE, but keeping up with technology has helped make Kessler, Schwarz & Solomiany in Atlanta a “less paper office.”

“You always have to show the court an exhibit,” Kessler says, explaining why paperless isn’t practical.

However, he and his partners have reduced clutter on their desks, in the office and in storage with devices like USB flash drives—memory data storage devices about the size of your finger that plug into a computer and act as a mobile office.

The firm ordered flash drives with the Kessler Schwarz logo on them. “When the case is over, instead of having to make copies of everything and ship clients a box of documents, we can give them a USB, or Universal Serial Bus, drive. It’s a lot less cumbersome to them and us,” says Kessler. He carries a client’s whole file on a USB drive, which fits on a keychain, and takes it to court.

Not only is such technology less cumbersome than boxes of paper, it can also be more practical. For instance, it can save the money and time involved in storing and retrieving paper records.

Co-chairman of the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Management Committee of the Family Law Section, Kessler and his partners also find plasma TVs in their offices to be paper—and therefore space—savers.

Computers are connected to the screens on the wall. When holding settlement conferences, the partners can show documents on the screen instead of printing out paper versions and sending them back and forth with changes.

As Kessler says, “We can negotiate changes right there. That reduces a lot of clutter.”

Every year he and Steven Best, an Alpharetta lawyer and consultant, present law office technology seminars for the Institute of Continuing Legal Education in Georgia. In November they will focus on technology at trials.

From his experience, Best believes a lot of lawyers have a fear of technology. However, the rewards of embracing it not only can include a cleaner, less-cluttered office, but also greater productivity and more money.

“It leads to profit because, having all this stuff computerized, potentially you can get more work,” says Best, chief executive officer and principal trainer of Best Law Firm Solutions Inc., a practice management and technology consulting business.

As an example, software products can prompt you to track your time. “Not only do they automate your processes, but they remind you and help you capture more billable time. The growth pattern is exponential.”

In Best’s opinion, technology must-haves for attorneys include:

• Case-management software: “Firms really need to invest in case-management software. I specifically do not mean Outlook,” he says. “That gives them central control of what’s happening in a file. … We as lawyers work in a file-centered environment. Every person in our contact index has a role in a file.”

Amicus Attorney, PracticeMaster and Time Matters software all work with Outlook, but bring more to the table, according to Best. For instance, they allow attorneys to go into a file and see what has and hasn’t been done, what documents have been generated, what phone calls have been made, what messages are pending and what appointments are coming up—for anyone in the firm.

“You don’t need to get up and get the paper file because it’s all on computer,” says Best. He notes that while handy as an e-mail engine, Outlook doesn’t have the capability of referencing a file.

• Proprietary software that comprises a time-billing function: Proprietary software, made in six-minute increments for law firms, can track billable time electronically—eliminating lots of paper with chicken-scratch marks.

Says Best, “Every lawyer I know—the bigger the firm, the worse the offender—has a piece of paper on their desk where they scribble the time down.”

• “Smart” phones: They can multi-task, doing everything from e-mailing and calendar updating to recording billable time and, oh yes, making calls. Best foresees big improvements in smart phones. As an example, case-management software is coming out with a module that will work with a smart phone.

He declares, “The time is now to get case management software … because pretty soon you’ll be able to take it with you on your smart phone. You won’t even have to take a paper file with you. It’ll all either be on your phone or on your laptop.”

Early report on the iPhone: Kessler’s partner bought one and found it handy for looking at Web sites, but better for games.

• Document-management software: It helps in organizing and tracking all kinds of documents, from spreadsheets to PDF files, so you can find them when you need them. When you hit the save button, the software places the document in the right place on your server. If your receptionist is typing witness subpoenas, you don’t have to worry if she knows where they go.

You can save different versions of the documents, “which is huge,” according to Best. “You can see changes through document management software.”

Thanks to the document comparison tool, this software can save countless boxes of paper. “It also saves paying a paralegal to comb through a document and find every little nuance or change.”

• Scanners: Best predicts improvement in the speed and accuracy of scanners, which are relatively slow. He agrees with Kessler: “I don’t think we can ever go paperless, because you need originals still, but I think we can go less paper.”

Catherine Sanders Reach, director of the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center in Chicago, notes that scanners can reduce the number of machines in your office and help keep things simple.

Four-in-one devices that scan, print, fax and copy can save space by replacing several machines at one hit.

Four-in-ones might not be as fast as their individual counterparts, however. “You have to think about what you need to sacrifice for speed and quality to have a smaller footprint,” says Sanders Reach. How often do you need souped-up documents, and can you go somewhere else to have the occasional job done?

Kessler’s office recently started using Infinity DocSTAR, which stands for Document Storage and Retrieval. The system scans, stores and retrieves paper documents. Partners can log in remotely and see what documents have arrived at the office.

By scanning checks that come in, the staff can deposit them into the firm’s account without going to the bank.

“A lot of banks are offering that,” Kessler says, noting how many lawyers wait until they accumulate a few checks before making a deposit—meanwhile losing interest on the money.

Kessler lectured on “Technology: How to Use It to Help Our Clients, Our Practices and Our Lives” at the ABA TECHSHOW in 2005. He sees three technology necessities to help streamline and simplify your work life: a computer notebook, PDA and Web site.

A computer notebook gives the other side the impression that you’re prepared. “In today’s generation, most wealthy clients have computers,” Kessler says. His worst-case scenario is walking into court with an “antiquated paper file” while the client has a computer.

“If I’m charging $400-plus an hour, the least I can do is have a computer with all the information.”

An old-fashioned expandable file can hold about 1/100,000 the amount of documents that a notebook computer can, according to Kessler.

“Bringing a computer to court, to a deposition or to a mediation is clearly advantageous as documents can be created, revised or reviewed immediately as needed. I would imagine that the client whose lawyer does not bring a computer would also feel disadvantaged.”

Also, he likes being a scrivener: “When you’re creating a contempt order or an agreement, I think it’s better for my client” than someone else doing the writing.

Handheld computers, also known as PDAs or palm devices, allow you to have a huge amount of information at your fingertips around the clock, Kessler says. You can enter information into the PDA or on a personal computer and then transfer or “synchronize” it. Calendar synchronization is a critical feature for attorneys.

Another advantage PDAs offer is accessibility. You can be home on a Sunday and with the little computer see that a client is trying to reach you. BlackBerries and Palm Pilots allow you to read and reply to office e-mail from a handheld device.

“I think responsiveness is a key word for any lawyer who represents individuals,” says Kessler. “A quick e-mail response, you can get right to the point, tell them what they need to know.”

He promises that lawyers who have never touched a personal computer can learn the nuts and bolts of a palm device within minutes.

Web sites also can simplify life for lawyers and clients alike. To help streamline communication and reduce clutter in the office, he advises putting affidavits and other forms online.

Kessler’s Web site includes everything from information on the deposition process to directions to his office.

He suggests hiring a technology-savvy associate whose job is to make sure the firm remains on par with other practices.

Sanders Reach adds that firms that don’t have a technology associate or IT staff can at least pay for outsourcing once a month, in order to stay up to date.

“I highly recommend the firm have a technology committee, not necessarily made up of all lawyers, but some support staff, because everybody has different technology needs,” she says.

ABA members also can contact the Legal Technology Resource Center for help. Professionals will do the research about any technology for you.

Plan ahead. As Sanders Reach says, “Since technology has a bad habit of changing, think in terms of purchasing cycles, so you’re not taken by surprise and spending more money than you anticipate.”

She doesn’t suggest holding out for the next generation of any technology.

“That said, it seems people get in the most trouble when they buy something new and haven’t re-upped other things. Sometimes buying something new forces you to. Be prepared for that happy accident.”

The former law firm librarian suggests cleaning your desk by consolidating. Move totally to a laptop computer. “In terms of streamlining, buy a better laptop and ditch the desktop,” says Sanders Reach.

You’ll only have one machine to back up. And you can travel and have all your electronic files with you.

As laptops grow lighter, they lose certain features, such as a port for a printer. Make sure yours has what you need—especially if you’re using it as a desktop replacement.

Best also is a proponent of laptops, which he says many lawyers don’t have. If the technology is intimidating, he advises finding someone to train you.

“We come out of law school,” says Best, “and we’ve been brainwashed to believe all you have to do is be a legal scholar and people will be lined up out the door to hire you.”

Growing can help your business do the same.

Ronda Robinson is a Knoxville, Tenn.,-based freelance writer.