Dolan Media Newswires
As technology reshapes the practice of law, paralegals often find themselves becoming the experts in trial applications or researching a firm’s next case-management system.
Tammy Moldovan, a member of the North Carolina Paralegal Certification Board and a civil litigation paralegal with Vandeventer Black in Raleigh, has been in the business for 17 years. She said she remembers going to court with an easel and exhibits mounted on whiteboard.
But technology now is an intrinsic part of her work.
In the courtroom, one of her key tools now is Sanction, which lets her highlight evidence or reorganize exhibits quickly. Moldovan said she knows the software better than many attorneys in her firm, and they expect her to be able to use it.
“Technology seems to be a role that does fall to paralegals,” she said.
For those who want to stay on top of their tech game, here are some recommendations for new tools and best practices.
When it comes to technology, what’s the next game-changer?
The change is happening everywhere, said David Neesen, chief information officer for Greenberg Glusker in Los Angeles.
Neesen said the ascent of “bring your own device” is “almost revolutionary for law firms.”
“I have spent the majority of my career holding on to the idea that the firm, and IT, will decide what hardware and software are acceptable for use,” he said. “Any deviation was considered a security risk.”
Now, however, the combination of portable devices and virtual technology lets users mimic the in-house experience, no matter where they are.
Lucas Messina, a practice group leader in Kraft & Kennedy’s New York office, agreed. Kraft & Kennedy is a technology consultant for legal and financial services firms.
Messina said the dual advances of software and wireless technology have created a seamless transition between “in the office” and “on the road.”
The iPad, of course, is a frequent player in that transition, but tech experts also point to the growing ability to customize systems for individuals. Gone are the days when everyone had a company-issued laptop and identical software.
To Mark Brophy, director of information technology for Rogers Townsend & Thomas in Columbia, N.C., the biggest game-changer will be stricter information security regulations, such as those of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
“Regulations with regards to security never revert back; they only get more restrictive,” Brophy said. “Law firms are in constant possession of private client information and are responsible for its protection while under our control.
“This could become a serious problem for smaller law firms who do not have the resources for larger technology deployments.”
What’s the most common mistake law firms make when using technology?
Not surprisingly, many information technology professionals believe law firms don’t put enough emphasis on technology. As a result, attorneys and paralegals may underuse tools that could make their jobs easier.
Tapping the expertise of vendors or IT professionals who specialize in law firms is important, said Jude Travers-Frazier, chief operating officer and associate general counsel with Kraft & Kennedy in New York.
“Your typical IT consultant,” Travers-Frazier said, “unaware of the nuances of how attorneys work, will not be able to help a law firm truly take advantage of the ways in which technology can help a lawyer serve her clients more effectively and practice more efficiently.”
David Michel, the chief information officer in Burr & Forman’s Birmingham, Ala., office, said small firms without a dedicated IT professional should be proactive in seeking advice and encouraging staff members to develop technology skills. A small firm may not want to buy an expensive financial analysis program, Michel said, but it’s possible that Microsoft Excel can do it all.
“Whatever practice management suite you use, it’s [probably] underutilized,” Michel said. “It’s not used as effectively as it can be and people are not doing everything possible with it because people simply don’t know what they don’t know.”
When it is time to buy new programs, Brophy said, apply skepticism. Too often, he said, managers want a silver bullet that can solve all their problems.
“Take the time to evaluate and discuss openly what situation you are trying to improve upon or address with your staff and key business decision makers before sitting down for that next technology demo,” he said.
The pros also advise firms to approach technology strategically. Travers-Frazier recommended firms create a technology committee, while Neesen said they need long-term planning.
What’s the best way to help paralegals improve the tech tools they use?
“From my perspective, the difference between the paralegals that excel and those that do not has less to do with technology and more to do with their willingness to embrace it,” Neesen said. “Those who have a curious mind and are willing to experiment with the programs seem to find the better solutions.”
Burr & Forman’s Michel said training is everything. That’s a tough battle in some law firms because attorneys are reluctant to take time from paralegals’ day-to-day duties.
“You’ve got to reward paralegals and legal secretaries who know the software and can make it work,” Michel said, “because they’re more efficient.”
Travers-Frazier said eDiscovery is fast becoming a must-have skill, and firms that do not use it will be at a disadvantage.
“The return on investment from tools that can help prioritize document review and facilitate early case assessment strategies,” he said, “typically far outweighs the cost to invest in such tools.”
What are the critical points to keep in mind regarding data security?
Security is quickly becoming a primary concern for law firms as hackers, domestic and overseas, go after corporate documents and intellectual property. The American Bar Association Journal reported in January that when the FBI met with 200 New York law firms in November to discuss hacking risks, it was evident that some firms were well prepared to protect themselves, while others were at a loss.
Bloomberg reported that hackers infiltrated an estimated 80 major law firms last year, according to Alexandria-based cybersecurity firm Mandiant.
“People know you hold the data,” Michel said. “If you want to go after Boeing, Boeing is probably locked up tight as far as their security, but the lawyers who represent Boeing and have all the documents and drawings and intellectual property are not because firms don’t allow the security to be put in or people are overconfident.”
It is often an employee who ends up compromising a firm, whether on purpose or by accident, Rogers Townsend & Thomas’ Brophy said. Most employees know they shouldn’t click on a suspicious email link, for instance, but hackers have gotten very good at making bogus emails appear legitimate.
“It takes only one employee to undermine thousands of dollars of security technology,” Brophy said. “The No. 1 line of defense for any company is its staff.”
Travers-Frazier said a systematic review of a firm’s security exposures should include areas such as remote access, mobility and portable devices, email, applications for document management, human resources and financial systems, and passwords.
Has cloud computing become a requirement?
Law firms are hearing more talk about “the cloud,” or the use of hosted Web-based services to store, access and share data. For many firms, particularly those with multiple offices, interest is driven by the growing need for access-it-anywhere data.
While large firms are leading the way in creating “private clouds,” Neesen said, smaller firms are catching up.
“There is a new push to offer small firms the option of moving their entire infrastructure to the cloud,” he said. “I am not sure I would compare it to the necessity of mobile computing, but I do think that all of us are going to have more and more of our heads in the clouds as time goes forward.”
Travers-Frazier said he’d put cloud computing in the optional category, but firms definitely should evaluate it.
His colleague Messina pointed out that for new firms, cloud computing can be a cost-effective solution to startup costs.
“Whether it is document management or messaging,” he said, “the cloud alternatives provide an entry-level price point that allows new firms to have tools similar to the largest of firms without the infrastructure investment.”
The potential problem, Michel said, is security. Cloud-based services vary widely in data protection, so firms should do their homework. Michel recommended that before firms put confidential data online, they understand the provider’s encryption practices, level of access to data that providers may have, and what the provider can and cannot do with users’ data.