San Diego Business Journal Client Services Drive Law Firms' Tech Dependence

Attorneys moving from city to city, needing to dig into the same repository of documents; a client with a midnight change to a patent application; employees doing simple research. They all lean on technology to do the work at hand.

Computer technology has become an inescapable part of life at a law firm, taking new forms as the years pass.

Ten years ago computers were a puzzle to many in the office, said Don Jaycox, chief technology officer for Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich LLP, which splits its headquarters between San Diego and Palo Alto. The attorneys "weren't sure why we had them," he said.

- Survey Results Of

Tech Preferences

The Financial Printers Network (FPNet) recently surveyed technology preferences among law firms employing 50 or more attorneys in 16 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, but excluding San Diego. Here's what it heard back:

o All of the respondents reported their attorneys and paralegals had Internet access from their desktops.

o Sixty-seven percent said they now prefer to proof documents electronically either via E-mail or a secure Internet Web site.

o Ninety-six percent have their own E-mail server, and 63 percent reported dial-up access via T-1 lines.

o Some 54 percent listed Yahoo as their preferred search engine. Runners-up were Alta Vista (13 percent), Excite and HotBot (both with 8 percent).

That survey, though, makes no mention of the reference tools frequently cited by San Diego area technology managers: the Lexis and Westlaw databases.

- Client Needs Often

Drive Tech Purchases

Generally, client needs drive San Diego-based Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps LLP's technology use and purchases, said Anne Marie Dufresne, the firm's systems administrator.

A firm may prepare documents with Word software because it is "the way the client works," noted Gary Tully, information technology manager for Los Angeles-based Lyon & Lyon LLP, which has an office near UCSD and specializes in intellectual property matters such as patents and trademarks.

Many courts are still using WordPerfect, noted both Tully and Jaycox. Jaycox said WordPerfect has several advantages when it comes to formatting legal documents, and at one time was in 80 to 90 percent of law offices. Then came an industrywide shift to Word. His firm made the jump in 1996.

"We viewed it as a client-service issue," Jaycox said.

Lyon & Lyon's Tully said E-mail is invaluable in letting clients and their attorneys work through points related to inventions and patent applications. And such services are available on evenings and weekends, he noted.

A variety of computer systems let attorneys and clients see the same documents, no matter where they are located. Attorneys can access the same documents in the Luce, Forward system from any of the firm's five offices.

A few employees at a smaller firm, Downtown-based Thorsnes Bartolotta & McGuire, are now "guinea pigs" testing a technology that lets them tap the office computers via the Internet. Night work can be done at home instead of at the office, said Information Services Manager Linda Blay. "Spouses love it," she said.

- E-Mail Opens Courtroom

Communications Channel

In the courtroom, meanwhile, wireless E-mail has opened a communications channel to the outside world. Tully said one vendor recently pitched him a "big pager" that sends and receives E-mail text.

Aside from technological considerations, he said, the key to communicating between the courtroom and the outside world is to avoid creating a disturbance, to be unobtrusive.

Computer technology also offers a format for exhibits produced during trials. Instead of referring to a paper deposition, Tully said, an attorney can go to a computer and replay a video of a deposition.

Still photographs and computerized animation can also go up on the television screen, as well as images taken from paper documents. C. Brant Noziska, a partner with Thorsnes Bartolotta & McGuire, said he was the first in San Diego , and perhaps in the West , to make such a presentation, using a bar-code reader to select items stored on a laser disc and display them on a television monitor.

An early construction defect trial using the technology featured hundreds and perhaps a thousand exhibits stored on disc, he said. The format beats poster exhibits, "lets you roam the evidentiary landscape at will," and is especially helpful during closing arguments, he said.

More than seven years after taking the plunge, Noziska sticks with the laser disc format. Other attorneys prefer storing exhibits on computer, but computer storage has its drawbacks, he said, when it comes to things such as clarity of image and memory for video.

Meanwhile, the same firm's Blay said her office could be taking a new class-action case. With it would come an online depository for thousands of documents. That is, one more adjustment in the office technology she has to oversee.