Tuesday, 11 December 2012

How technology can help your legal practice

"This article was published in Praxis, Chronicle of the Malaysian Bar, and is reproduced herein with the kind permission of their Editor"

How technology can help your legal practice.

by Jason Kay

The landscape of legal practice has changed significantly with the introduction of new technology.  From manual typewriters to electric ones to computers, and the corresponding development of sending information by post or fax and now email, the law office of today is vastly different from that of 30 years ago when many of our current senior practitioner were just coming out of law school.  It may be virtually unrecognizable 30 years from now with the speed technology and science are progressing.

But for now, do take a few minutes from your busy day, and allow me to share with you what changes you can incorporate into your practice that may yield benefits many times over.

The essentials.

Your hand/mobile phone:  

Unless you have a legacy phone which you only use to make calls and handle SMS, yours will probably be a smartphone.  Smartphones are phones which are essentially mini-computers.  If you have this, you have a treasure in your hands.  Your smartphone can access the internet, your emails, and most allow you to do editing on the soft copy of your documents.  Researching and having access to the wealth of information all over the internet with your smartphone is no longer the stuff of science fiction - it is almost as if you have the Star Trek ship’s computer with you at all times.

When used properly (and in tandem with a good legal assistant/personal assistant/paralegal/secretary/clerk back at your office - I’ll use the word “clerk” to denote the whole group from now on), your smartphone can save you valuable time.

For example, when attending court, you do not have to bring your physical diary.  Your diary can be online, synchronized on the ‘cloud[1]’ and accessible to your clerk to monitor.  You can easily view several diaries (for example the diaries of other lawyers in your firm, or lawyers that you are working with on a particular case, if they grant you viewing access) at once to avoid scheduling conflicts. 
After court, while in the canteen or on your way back to your office or your next meeting (I assume you have a driver or take public transport), you can dictate your report letters to your clerk to prepare the draft for you.  That draft can then be emailed to you to check and sign - digitally - without you having to make the trip back to your office.  On days with back-to-back meetings and/or emergencies, this keeps you productive and this minor, but important, work which will not fall through the cracks and be delayed.

Your computer:   

In today’s practice, if you do not have a very capable clerk, you should already have more than a basic working knowledge of word processing software, usually either MSWord or OpenOffice.  Beyond the basic typing and printing, you should already know (or soon learn) how to:
  • format your document (using tabs, margin stops, and tables),
  • use mail merge (useful if you do bulk work with standard-form-type documents),
  • index your document (with foot/end-notes for a more eye-catching written submission), and
  • annotate your document (with comments when collaborating with others).  
Why should you bother learning all the above?  Well, as a lawyers, our main (if not only) asset is our ideas.  It stands to reason that we should put down our fee-generating ideas in a readable (and, if possible, stylish) manner.  MSWord/OpenOffice is a tool.  If we learn to use it well, the time and effort invested will more than pay for itself in the long run. 

Your fax machine:   

Almost all offices would have a normal fax machine.  They generally come in 3 different versions (from basic to advanced) which are: thermal paper, ink-jet/carbon paper, and powder/laser print.  What you should consider getting/adding to your office is an AIO (all-in-one) machine which combine 3 or more of the following functions: fax, print, scan, email.  With AIOs, you will be able to take advantage of the “scan” function.  This is essential in the process of digitizing your files so that you can have easy access to it wherever you are without actually having to lug the thick heavy physical files.  Just make sure you get one with a scan function that includes OCR (optical character recognition).  This will help a lot when you do your getting up on the digitized documents.

Putting it together:  Convergence and Synergy.

Convergence is a wonderful word that means "the sum is greater than the parts."  Synergy is another word describing a similar concept.  What you already have (handphone, AIO, and computer) can work wonderfully to improve your practice, and ultimately, the quality of your life.  You just need to start using them together to increase their benefit manyfold. 
How you can specifically do so is, unfortunately, beyond the ambit of this introductory article.

The iPad.

One other item that you should serious consider adding to your toolbox is the Apple iPad (or any other tablet with similar capabilities).  I have written on how the iPad can improve your practice - “Using the iPad in your legal practice”[2].

In brief, the iPad is vastly superior to your computer/laptop when getting up a matter.  Reading from it is a joy.  There is hardly a boot-up delay which allows you to almost instantly put your ideas down in writing.  You can write on it with your finger or a stylus, and if you prefer to type, it’s a simple matter of adding a wireless keyboard.

Conducting trials with the iPad is possible - I have managed to do so with an iPad and a laptop (to take down notes), and with the physical file on the table, just in case.

PDF - a special mention.  

PDF is the acronym for “portable document format”.  In plain-speak, it means what you see on the computer monitor is what you will see when you print it.  This is a powerful format which will be very necessary when you start working with your digitized files.  Working with PDFs require specialize programmes to fully harness its benefits.  For your computer, you should purchase “NitroPDF”[3] (USD119.99) and on the iPad, the app “PDF Expert”[4] (USD9.99).

Why should you digitize your files?

By digitizing your files and putting them on the cloud, they are available to you wherever you go.  This allows you to literally have all your office files, and your whole library[5], with you at all times.  You will be able to do that urgent work while on holiday (if absolutely necessary), or not.  You now have a choice, unlike in days of yore when a holiday really means being cut off.  What if an important and simple task that can greatly benefit your practice (but needs to be done immediately) comes along while you are on holiday?   Would you not be glad that you had the tools and the ability to take that few hours and get the job done?  I would.

Is this change to the landscape of legal practice good?  Absolutely.  The legal profession is a service industry.  The only difference with the other players in this industry is that we are professionals in the truest sense of the word, dealing with very complex and difficult issues and we have very high ethical standards.  At our core, we assist people in what is usually the darkest hours, or the most trying/momentous time, in their lives.  Having the tools and ability to work faster, more efficiently, and effectively is always a good thing.

The learning curve of what I have described in the foregoing is not too steep - it takes 3-8 weeks to master.  After about 2 months, you should be able to start seeing tremendous results. 

The key is to keep practicing to use the tools you already have together.  Good luck with your practice.

And this should be mentioned:  Do not play (too many) games on your handphone/iPad.  They are a waste of time.  A little bit, yes.  But not too much.  Time is precious


[1] Cloud here is used to mean the storage space for data that is stored on a server connected to the internet and accessible from various devices which have internet access.

[5] if you digitize your books, or subscribe to the online legal reports - do note that there are a wealth of free resources out there, some examples being http://www.kehakiman.gov.my, http://www.federalgazette.agc.gov.my, and statutes - just go to Google and type in this search string, (name of Act) site:agc.gov.my without the double quotation marks, and you should be able to download the pdf version of the statute as at 2006.