I spent ten hours in a deposition on yesterday in the office of a large law firm in Los Angeles. Just looking around the room, I noticed two things: 1) they were better dressed than we were, and 2) our computers were so much better than theirs. I stepped out into the hallway and noticed that a lot of their hardware was stuff that a public school would auction off. It reminded me of the first few years of my legal career when I worked in a large law firm. We had all the amenities you could want. All of our legal pads were branded with our firm’s logo, and we wrote on them with pens that had our firm’s logo branded on them. I ate lunch every day in our break room that looked over the ocean. But, when lunch was over, I would go back to my desk and work on Office ’97 on my bulky CRT monitor. This is because large law firms are very big, slow-moving beasts, especially when it comes to technology.
My fellow columnist Nicole Black wrote an article last week about how a small firm is using technology to keep up with Biglaw firms. This is not a fantasy. When I was working at the aforementioned large law firm, my boss told me a story about a solo practitioner. By way of background, we represented a Fortune 500 company, had an army of Ivy League attorneys, and almost unlimited resources. Despite all that, this solo practitioner was able to run circles around us. He was better organized and was able to do things more efficiently. The case we had against him was before my time, so I had no idea if it was true, but the important thing was that, having seen how the sausage was made there, I knew it was absolutely possible.
IT Departments and Policies about Policies
IT department policies prevent you from working efficiently. We had a case one time about a teen driver who accidentally killed her best friend in an automobile accident, and the driver’s position in the litigation is that she did not engage in a certain reckless behavior while driving. So, I went onto the driver’s MySpace account and saw a journal entry about how she was so sorry for killing her best friend and how she should have known that engaging in this reckless behavior while driving was going to hurt someone. So, the next day, I tell the partner in the case. He wants to see himself, so I open up MySpace.com. It’s blocked by the IT Department as a forbidden website. I call the IT Department to get the ban temporarily lifted. The policy was that only the supervisor could do it, after evaluating the circumstances on a case-by-case basis. The supervisor was in a meeting. I said it was a partner who was requesting this. They said it doesn’t matter. Three hours later, I decide to just get someone’s laptop and connect to the building’s wifi and logon to MySpace. Ten seconds later, I showed the partner what he had asked to see before lunch. An hour later, I get a call from the IT supervisor about how I had violated the firm’s electronic data policy.
I was talking to another lawyer friend who works in a large law firm. Their IT policy is no thumb drives can be used on office computers because of the risk of viruses.
As a solo now, I am my own IT department. If I want the IT manager’s permission to open a website, I just open it. I can use thumb drives at my office. I can use Dropbox occasionally for transferring non-confidential information if I want. I don’t have to be transferred to three different people and be on hold for 15 minutes just to have someone tell me that rebooting will fix everything.
Upgrading Hardware and Software
Upgrading hardware and software is clumsy and difficult in large firms. Hardware and software are usually purchased with bulk contracts. Software, of course, has to be installed by the IT Department. Upgrading to new software means that the whole firm needs to be trained in how to use the new software, which is a huge drain on company resources and creates a disincentive to upgrade. This is not unique to law firms. I teach at a college with over a thousand employees. We recently upgraded from Office 2003 to Office 2010, which has a significantly different interface. Our Outlook Web App was upgraded to a new interface. In the months preceding the upgrade, I got about 20 to 30 emails about new training sessions. The months after the upgrade, I got an equal number of emails about employee complaints about how they can’t figure out the new software. The same was certainly true when our firm made the mandatory transition from the abomination of WordPerfect to Microsoft Word.
If I want to upgrade latest version of Adobe Reader, I download it. If I want to buy a new Surface Pro 3 for my office, I just buy it. I don’t need to worry about upgrading to Windows 8.1 and having it not be compatible with some of the printers on the 23rd and 25th floors.
Freedom to Maneuver
As a solo, I am able to maneuver a lot faster through some things than large law firms because I don’t have to go through as many channels. Now, I’m not saying that litigation is like the card game war, where my i7 computer beats their i3, and therefore, I win my case, but operating at peak efficiency with the latest hardware and software has definitely given me an edge. Large law firms definitely can overpower small law firms with strength in numbers, but knowing how to take advantage of technology tips and tricks can help even the playing field.
I was recently in a trial with about 28,000 pages of records over hundreds of PDFs. We had two people on our trial team. The large law firm had four attorneys on the case and who knows how many paralegals and legal secretaries who were reviewing the records to find things on the fly during trial. They did a pretty good job. Not as good as we did, though, because we knew how to use the advanced search tools in Adobe Acrobat to create an embedded index of multiple OCR’ed PDFs to do text searches of hundreds of documents spanning tens of thousands of pages and get our results back in seconds.
So, having better technology doesn’t mean you are on equal playing field as a large law firm, but it sure does bridge that gap sometimes.
Ed. note: This column has been brought to you by our friends at MyCase, web-based practice management software for lawyers. Click here to learn more about MyCase and their happy customers.
Please note that the views expressed in the column are those of the writer alone.
Jeff Bennion is a solo practitioner from San Diego. When not handling his own cases, he’s consulting lawyers on how to use technology to not be boring in trial or managing e-discovery projects in mass torts/complex litigation cases. If you want to be disappointed in a lack of posts, you can follow him on twitter or on Facebook. If you have any ideas of things you want him to cover, email Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org.