Opportunity Awaits Legal Minds with High-Tech Skills The Buzz


Law is complicated. So is technology. If you're one of those rare breeds with a knack for both, you'll find yourself in high demand.

Examples of people with a knack for both are tech-savvy lawyers, legal technologists, marketing technology managers and IT support staff within law firms.

Chris Fritsch is one of those people comfortable with both law and technology. Originally trained as a lawyer, she's now a legal technologist in Atlanta, Georgia.

"There's not a lot of people who are focused on law and technology, so for people who have both skill sets, I think there will be nothing but opportunity," says Fritsch.

Legal technologists help lawyers and law firms use technology to become more efficient. Some, like Fritsch, are independent consultants, while many others are employees of law firms.

"[Law firms] tend to rely on precedent, making sure things are tested and secure," says Fritsch. "They want to make sure they take all the precautions they can to preserve the clients' confidences."

"They're not that quick to adopt new technology," agrees George Lo. "They're generally more followers.... They inherently don't want to adopt stuff they don't understand, and they [often] don't understand technology."

Lo is the IT manager at a law firm. His firm employs 60 lawyers and about 150 staff in total. Two other IT employees work with him. Lo is also the technology chair for a legal management association.

Lo says lawyers generally don't want to spend time thinking about technology. "They aren't generally interested in most of the issues in regard to technology management, except in regard to costs," he says.

However, not all firms are slow to adopt new technology, says Fritsch. In fact, many do use the latest technology to give them a competitive edge. Increasingly, lawyers just can't ignore the advantages offered by high-tech tools and software.

Increasing Efficiency

"Embracing technology is absolutely essential," says Fritsch. "Clients are more demanding than ever in terms of cost control and efficiency, and technology is one of the ways that firms are able to utilize these efficiencies."

A lawyer's most precious commodity, besides knowledge, is time. It's not surprising then that legal technologists often suggest ways that lawyers can be more efficient with their time.

"There are only so many hours in the day, so when you're in a service business, utilizing technology is very helpful," says Fritsch.

For instance, time management and billing software allow lawyers to track their time and create invoices easily. Extranets are secure, private networks that allow clients and attorneys to work together and share information.

A new and growing area of technology is "electronic discovery." Discovery is the mandatory sharing of documents between the various parties in a case. It can involve tens or even hundreds of thousands of pages. Electronic discovery makes the process easier.

"Electronic discovery is big -- there's a lot involved," says Fritsch. "It involves not just gigabytes, but terabytes of data that need to be processed and searched. Some of the [electronic discovery] companies didn't exist just five years ago."

"Cloud computing" is another new technology that hasn't yet caught on with law firms. But it's on the horizon.

Cloud computing involves users logging into applications that they access via the Internet. The software and data are stored on servers off site. Basically, it means a firm's on-site software and network is replaced with or supplemented by an off-site service. The firm's information technology can even get outsourced.

"Outside of law firms right now the biggest topic seems to be cloud computing, so it'll be interesting," says Fritsch. "I predict that, at some point, some areas of cloud computing may be adopted within law firms."

New York lawyer Arnie Herz is a sole practitioner who has embraced technology, with great results. "I could not possibly do what I do without the technology that's present today," he says.

One way that Herz employs technology to save time is by using a company that creates letters for him. While in his car or anywhere else, he can call the company, enter a five-digit code, and then start dictating a letter.

"In 20 minutes there's a Word document in my e-mail inbox," he says. And the cost is much cheaper than using an assistant. For a 200-word letter, he pays $2.50 to have it typed up.

Nowadays, it seems everyone has a cell phone. While not cutting-edge technology anymore, cell phones are a great example of a technology that allows for greater efficiency, if used properly.

When Herz graduated from law school in 1991, cell phone service was expensive, users paid for air time by the minute and the quality was poor.

"If you had to travel to court, it would be dead time, [but] every minute is usable time now," says Herz. "Let's say I wasn't on the phone right now. I'd be checking my e-mail right now at the red light, and I could either respond to the e-mail or phone someone before I get back to the office. My office is wherever I am."

Herz is always looking for new ways to save time and provide better service to his clients. He's embracing change in a way that all lawyers and law firms will eventually have to -- if they want to survive.

"There are certain people who still practice not much differently than how it was done 25 years ago," says Herz. "The technology allows me to achieve a level of efficiency that I simply couldn't have without it."

Marketing

Besides using technology to increase efficiency, lawyers and law firms also use technology to market themselves. For example, lawyers write blogs, keep profiles on social networking sites, publish electronic newsletters and maintain websites.

Fritsch says social media is currently one of the biggest topics of interest among legal technologists. But it's not without a downside.

"I think the biggest challenge with social media is, if you're not efficient with it, it can waste a lot of time," says Fritsch. "[And] there are privacy concerns with social media. Firms are just beginning to look through these issues."

Fritsch deals a lot with the business development and marketing of law firms. She sees an increasing number of people employed as marketing technology managers at law firms.

"This is somebody who, rather than being in the IT department, is in the marketing department," says Fritsch. "There's so much marketing technology now. These are very high-level jobs."

Herz uses technology to market himself. He writes a legal blog with thousands of regular readers.

"The challenge is to be noticed," says Herz. "People are inundated with information, they're bombarded with it. I think you have to have a compelling message that's relevant to people."

Herz has also started using social networking sites, such as Facebook and LinkedIn. He's currently writing a book and sees these sites as a great way to get the word out. He's reconnecting with people who are able to help him create buzz.

"There are people out there who have a positive feeling about me who I've lost touch with," says Herz. "It's very powerful -- it's a new form of networking."

Managing Information

A key priority at law firms is "knowledge management." This involves the creation of a database, which contains all of the documents the firm has created, received or used in the past.

Law firms generally keep documents in hard copy as well, but the key to finding the documents in the future is to have a searchable electronic database. Otherwise, a lot of time is wasted searching for the right document.

"Information is king," says Lo. "Information is the most precious commodity in a firm... what the lawyers have created in the past, where they've put together an argument used in a case. That information is valuable because they can use it in the future."

Law firms already have the big time savers -- computers, voice recorders for transcribing documents and e-mail. Therefore, using legal technology nowadays is more about increasing efficiency bit by bit.

"Inevitably, what's going to help them is not something that you can buy off the shelf [like] a fancy new mouse," says Lo. "What's going to help them be productive is something that's going to save them a few seconds here and a few seconds there.... You can go into any environment and identify little things that eat up bits of time."

Preparing for a Career in Legal Technology

Lo studied chemical engineering at university, without any intention of going into IT. He says most of his colleagues have a certificate in IT, and that's sufficient for most law firms.

"IT people in law firms implement solutions -- we're not the ones designing them," explains Lo. "The most technical we get is putting a network together. You need education for that, but that's more at a technical school."

Specific technology companies, such as Cisco, offer networking courses. "It's not theoretical, it's just how you program [a particular] device," says Lo.

"I think for IT people such as myself in this sort of role -- as an IT manager for a law firm or supporting people -- there are opportunities there," says Lo. "It's great for people who like technology, but don't want to go into post-secondary education to learn theory.

"It's becoming like a trade," Lo adds. "You can be a carpenter, but you might not want to build a large house. IT allows you to work on the small scale. A lot of people like to work in smaller detail. That's what IT is in a corporate type of environment."

The largest law firms are likely to employ a systems analyst who looks at the overall design of the firm's technology infrastructure, says Lo. Such a person would need the theory that a university degree provides.

Links

FutureLawyer
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PracticeHacker
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Technology Law and Legal Technology
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