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The Changing Role of Technology in Legal Practice

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come”
– Victor Hugo, Histoire d’un crime, 1852

When Victor Hugo spoke of ideas in his political pamphlet, it’s doubtful he imagined it being used to refer to websites and Blackberries™. His words are apt, nonetheless. Technology is an irresistible force that demands business endeavors across the board evolve in order to be competitive. Media, medicine, defense, real estate, and retail have all adapted to accommodate advancements in technology. The legal industry is likewise affected by new ways of doing things. Attorneys may leverage technology to reach new clients. They might also make use of new Internet networking protocols to connect with their office computer from any location.

The most significant technological development of the last thirty years has been the emergence of the Internet. What is now known as the Internet was begun during the Cold War by the RAND Corporation as a solution that would allow US Authorities to communicate after a nuclear war. The germ of an idea that would become the Internet was a vision of decentralized communication nodes passing a communiqué from node to node until it arrived at its final destination. Haphazard and inefficient as it sounds, decentralizing the communications and setting up each node to operate autonomously meant that the communications network could survive even with a large number of nodes destroyed. The first such node was installed in the winter of 1969, in UCLA. Dubbed ARPANET, the system allowed scientists and researchers to share computer facilities by long-distance. The popularity of this system grew well outside the boundaries of the first network, and the Internet was born.

Initially the Internet was a kind of complex messaging system. Eventually it developed a graphic component in the form of HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) driven websites that were used by individuals to share their experiences, and businesses as a kind of virtual brochure. Over the last twenty years the overall function of the Internet has changed dramatically, and its use has exploded. Starting from just a few thousand users on the west coast of the United States in the early 1970’s, the Internet is now used by billions worldwide. Far from being simply a web of interconnected computers, the Internet has become an increasingly important business tool. Recent developments allow businesses and individuals alike to provide anyone with relevant news, articles, essays, and other information relevant to their industry. This is just as true for an Attorney as it is the Coca-Cola Company. Dynamic content is attractive to web-users, and provides professionals in the legal industry with the means to communicate their mission statement to potential clients who otherwise might never have found them.

The Internet has given rise to a trend that is evident in other fields such as medicine and real estate. More and more clients are using information available on the Internet as a source of education. As a result various industries have seen the development of the ‘educated layman.’ This development means that potential clients will be coming to their first meeting or consultation with an elevated degree of understanding. These clients are by no means experts, but such clients now come to the table with a basic grasp of the facts of their case. Their understanding is by no means complete, but they are coming to the table armed with more information than a client with the same case thirty years ago. The twenty-first century attorney must, therefore, adjust to cope with their more knowledgeable clientele.

New means of distributing news allow the Internet savvy professional to stay current with developments within their area of expertise. Specifically, the proliferation of blogs and RSS feeds mean being able to gather news and essays from a variety of sources all over the world. Both blogs and RSS are part of a larger online movement known as web 2.0. Blog is Internet short-hand for “web-log,” or a kind of online journal. According to Technorati.com there are some 55 million blogs currently online in a loose Internet community called the ‘blogosphere’. Although the vast majority of blogs are for personal or entertainment purposes, there is a growing trend toward businesses and organizations maintaining blogs. Industry blogs allow businesses to publish articles about new developments. Internet search giant Google maintains a blog with up-to-the-minute information about new developments in their products and services. The Law Office of Andrew Lavoott and Bluestone in New York maintains a blog for publishing news and information about malpractice cases and the relevant laws.

In addition to the growing number of blogs maintained by professionals and professional organizations, many websites now publish news content through a protocol known as RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication. RSS allows readers to ‘subscribe’ to syndicated news articles, also known as ‘feeds’. The professional user can get up-to-the minute breaking news in their field of expertise, or any topic of interest. Receiving updates to relevant information in their field provides an attorney with a clear advantage in staying on top of developments within their area of practice. An online community for attorneys, TheLawyer.com offers an RSS news feed with breaking news in the legal industry. A similar news feed is offered by LegalNewsWatch.com.

Effective collaboration between any professional and their client is vital to the success of a business or practice. New web based tools such as wiki or Microsoft’s Project offer attorneys a secure means to share information with a client about a case. On the client’s end, these technologies provide a means by which they can stay up to date with developments in their case. Many companies are using web-based applications such as a wiki for document creation, collaboration, and revision control. In a law office such an application is useful for the creation and revision of documents, and the storing of boilerplate agreements, templates, and letters. Documents stored in this fashion can then be exported to a format compatible with other software used in the office for printing and mailing. There are a number of wiki available for little or no cost, and varying degrees of technical ability. PBwiki is a low-cost, user friendly collaboration system that is available online at pbwiki.com. For a more robust, fully featured, and secure wiki a professional office might consider Twiki, available at twiki.org, or Confluence from Atlassian (http://www.atlassian.com). Both of which are good solutions, but require a strong technical understanding for deployment.

Continuing education opportunities through online providers are becoming more available and less expensive. As technology improves, more and more educators are embracing web-friendly formats and forums for their courses. In the future this may provide a convenient means for attorneys to satisfy annual continuing legal education requirements. One such website, www.nlfonline.com, offers attorneys in Colorado, California, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Washington self-study courses for continuing legal education. Such courses are a low-cost alternative to the courses offered at universities and professional training centers.

Other developments in important business technology may have a telling affect on the success of an attorney’s practice. Communications have advanced considerably. Beginning with the electronic telegraph first introduced in the United States by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail, communications have changed rapidly since the first telegram in 1838. Proceeding through the radio telegraph, to the telephone, to the cell phone, to the personal data assistant, and beyond, devices that allow business owners to communicate with clients have progressed considerably. Wireless PDAs are now available that provided a number of necessary business functions in a device small enough to fit in a pocket. Devices such as the new Palm Treo 600 series are capable of receiving email, viewing documents, scheduling appointments, and providing comparable service to a standard cell phone.

Wi-Fi, wireless networking, and cell phones are rapidly creating a culture where everyone is connected for a large part of their day. Within this culture it is the expectation that response time will be immediate, and the client or customer will always be able to get service no matter what time of day, no matter where the service provider is located. No industry is immune from this, and professionals across the board are increasingly finding they have to connect to their office remotely in order to meet the increasing demands of their clients. New networking solutions allow professionals in all disciplines, including law practice, to connect to their office remotely and provide clients with the immediate service they’ve come to expect.

An outgrowth of the original ARPANET system was the creation of an electronic mail service, now commonly referred to as email. Much to the dismay of system administrators at the time, scientists and researchers began using ARPANET more for the sending and receiving of electronic messages than for the sharing of computer resources. There was even a message board for fans of science fiction that was enormously popular with users of ARPANET. Email has been expanded from an interesting diversion in the laboratory environment to an essential business tool. Email is a fast, secure, and reliable means to communicate with associates and clients alike. Wireless devices, such as the Palm Treo 600 mentioned above, even allow users to view and respond to their incoming email from anywhere.

As technology improves it accelerates the speed at which business is conducted. To stay competitive the successful business person or legal professional must be aware of these changes, and most especially those that may benefit their practice. Obviously this will vary from practice area to practice area and between attorneys based on their preference. Whatever the area of expertise, or the whim of the attorney, there are tools available to ensure their success.

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