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AUTOMATING THE FAMILY LAW PRACTICE

by KENNETH G. RAGGIO1

 

Precis of article

 

The family law practitioner, whether in a solo or small firm environment, must utilize the technologies that until recently have only been available to large firms or at great expense. With the cost of equipping a full hardware and software suite being in four figures, efficiencies not previously available are now thrust upon the family lawyer who must2 utilize such to compete. The answers to whether such efficiency leads to a higher quality of life for the attorney, a higher level of service to clients, or a decrease in revenues, depend upon implementation. Some specific software and hardware solutions are discussed, with special emphasis on practice management and assembly processes that streamline the Matrimonial practice.

 

I. A NEW MARKETPLACE

 

Technology has made it possible for small law firms--even sole practitioners--to have many of the tools formerly available at great expense to large firms available to help manage cases, conduct trial, catalog discovery cases, prepare for litigation, and to resolve cases either by settlement or by trial. Of particular interest to the family lawyer are three particular areas:

  1. Facilitating team approach to cases or other projects;
  2. Taking it all with you to court, to mediation, or other place;
  3. Staying in touch from wherever you may be (What would we do without PDAs or iPhones?)

A lawyer's competency can only be enhanced by the office systems that support the lawyer. The first level is staff, second is organization, third is effective communication, and fourth is effective data manipulation. The unsaid but always present desire is that lawyer's revenues greatly exceed expenditures and direct costs so that the lawyer can make a living. Technology should enhance this effort, not hinder it.

 

Competent staff is the single most valuable factor in the system's mix. The other systems become as important as staff when volume of business or complexity of cases increases. Once systems have been established, it is usually much easier to ramp up capacity to handle either the "big" case or an increase in volume of cases.

 

Efficient back-office systems (billing, accounting, charge-back for costs such as copying, long-distance phone, FAXing system, scanning solutions,etc.) can make a difference in the bottom line. Management can alert the lawyer (or the lawyer's delegatee) of potential problems or concerns with enough lead time to remedy them.

 

As technology prices have dropped and power has increased, efficient lawyers have been able to produce their "product"3 at less cost, and competitive factors have tended to limit hourly rates attorneys can charge for services. Technology allows what used to be "customized services" in the Family Law area to now be programmed and formalized generally at less cost to the client(4). The attorney who furnishes similar services at a lower cost finds that market forces will apply. A pleading builder like ProDoc makes it possible to produce repetitive documents and can be a virtual law practice in a box. How to cost the work prduct?

 

As other technologies mature (such as voice recognition software), many of the functions of lawyer/paralegal/secretary will become blended. As with many things in our business, results and unit billing may be an appropriate way of billing. As these technologies become more compliant and user friendly, the reality of an automated Family Law Practice is achievable.

 

II. SOME ESSENTIAL TOOLS FOR THE FAMILY LAW LAWYER'S FUNCTIONING

 

A. Back Office.

 

Telephone, copier, fax, general ledger, legal timekeeping, tracking expenses (such as courier, overnight deliveries, charge for long distance, etc.) are all examples of vital functions, where the lack of a "plan" will greatly increase the cost of servicing these back office functions. However, discussions of such management issues are more for a pure law practice management seminar and are not further discussed hereafter, except as such directly affects the rest of the Family Lawyer's technology arsenal. David Yavitz' demonstration of the seamless linking of billing with accounting is an excellent example of generic automation having tremendous benefit in a family law practice.

 

B. Communication--E-Mail--Collaboration & Sharing Information.

 

In all but the very smallest offices, computer E-Mail (as well as telephone or computer voice mail) can enhance service to clients as an attorney and attorney's staff can be more responsive to client needs. Clients obviously demand it in most instances. But beware of security issues.

 

E-Mail-GroupWare serves as a valuable way of tracking projects, tasks, cases, people and other resources. Most E-Mail systems are adaptable to keep a running log of activity in a case so that employees who are asked can figure out how and where the ball is at a given time. While such a system will not approach the sophistication of a Lotus Notes data base system, it is generally more useful than a manual or word processing document based system. Groupware is the backbone of any effective automation of a family law practice.

 

Many clients--who are operating in the corporate world--are now demanding that communications be through E-Mail in their native E-Mail system.

 

All of us have now been made aware of the giant pain email can be when production of emails on a corporate level has been properly requested.

 

There are many ways for lawyers and other lawyers, and lawyers and clients to collaborate in ways unimagined just a few years ago. From very inexpensive conference calling, to wikis, to having on-line simultaneous access to documents that can be viewed and/or edited by multiple persons, to effective project management tools, suffice it to say that there are a multitude of tools that can more quickly and efficiently address our client's needs.

 

C. Producing Persuasion

 

We lawyers are wordsmiths, producing persuasion. Most of what we produce either to our clients, to opposing counsel, or to the Courts, is in writing. In the past few years, we have begun to utilize demonstrative evidence, as we realize that combining sight and sound has more impact and remembrance than words alone. Just as the word processors of the 1980's transformed the legal world by allowing variable insertions in long documents, saw the rise of intelligent document generators, etc., in the 1990's sees the integration of graphics, math, and other functions into basic word processing. And Windows' DDLs (dynamic data links) allows updating of one data field to update all derivative documents that are linked to that particular data field, even if contained in another document. The software tools are more powerful and have more features than the lawyer will probably even need. Even though the Word Office Suite is more tightly integrated and has more of corporate America than Corel Perfect Office, Word Perfect still seems to more features targeted for the lawyers, such as sophisticated document-wide commands and the unique "reveal codes" option. But synching with divorce clients who want editable documents generally demand them in Word when a PDF won't do.

  1. Persuasive Negotiations/Mediation

    The days of appearing at a settlement conference or mediation with only a thin paper notebook and a hopeful disposition are ending. Just as in trial, these settlement efforts mandate that the lawyer combine sight and sound and use "demonstrative evidence" to make the point. Appropriate graphics can show the differences in proposals, variances in valuation, and effect and the setting of levels of support.5 High end cases now justify burning CD-ROM with selected and quite persuasive evidence that may help produce settlement. For instance, scanning a naked picture of the husband's girlfriend along with a video clip of the husband's deposition saying that he has never been with other women can help show what trial may be like to hard-headed litigants.6 Spreadsheets that can be updated instantly as offers and counteroffers and exchanged are becoming much more of the rule than the exception.

    Don't overlook using a display device to show your persuasive graphics to the whole assembly who needs to be impressed or moved from a prior position. Now ecen some cell phones have a projector; even "real" projectors are a very compact and inexpensive addition to a lawyer's persuasion kit.
  2. Effective Trial Preparation

    Please see the 2006-7 article about trial and pretrial computer tools here.

    Effective trial presentation demands that the attorney combine sight and sound to lift the trier of fact out of the doldrums of proceeding that the case before it is "same old, same old". A poster board with a chronology (time line) enlarged to poster size is effective. The same type of financial charts that were used in mediation can help distinguish your case before the trier of fact. Instantaneous retrieval of data (such as depositions, deposition testimony and document retrieval) is paramount to make timely impeachment of a straying witness.7 However, the practitioner must be aware that there are certain rules in using technology in a trial situation that may differ from other uses:

    a. Be sure your depiction is accurate and fair. Watch out for the use of misleading baselines or scales in charts.

    b. Don't use color or glitch just because it can be done. Simple, clear charts are generally always better than complicated charts.

    c. Be aware of the chance of a direct computer presentation "blowing up", and either be real sure of your ability to pull it off (generally with a computer provider responsible for same) AND have a "back up system" in place, generally a paper based rendition of the demonstrative evidence.8

    d. Final argument is a place where high tech can truly make a difference. The trier of fact and everyone else is usually tired and ready to get the case over with. Using high tech to capture the trier of facts' attention one last time may be the persuading element in the case. More than one case has been won with an effective Opening Statement. See the separate article originally presented to the American Bar Association and to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers here.

D. The iPad.

 

The iPad changes almost everything. The Trilapad app at $90 is about the most expensive app ever, but it allows the lawyer to easily combine sight and sound in presenting a ca case to the trier of fact. With Bells and whistles like a telestrator, just like the guys use in football games. Even if the Judge is looking at the paper copies you admitted into eveidence as summaries, and may not look at the display much, it certainly gives the family and others inthe court a very good feel for how you are laying out the case.

 

There are similar apps out there. See the article Using an iPad in Trial or Mediation for more information.

 

It is not robust enough to rely upon in lieu of PowerPoint or Timemap presenetations in most cases, but it is an effective way of introducing the big picture of the case, or fully present the less complicated case.

 

In addition to trial presentations,some lawyers are beginning to migrate theri entire courthouse briefcase to the iPad, using Dropbox and other apps to have their entire file with them, and using the camera of the iPad 2 to take images of those things that aren't natively digitized. Like the pass slip in a criminal case, or the Associate Judge's report just received after a temporay hearing in a Dallas County divorce court.

 

D. The New World of Research

 

On line services--such as Westlaw and Lexis--are dropping in prices. The availability and cost of research CD-ROMS--and the usefulness of the search engines on same--is increasing in power and usability as costs drop. What is relatively new is the ability of the lawyer to drop the lawyer's entire knowledge in the family law area onto one CD-ROM disk, and take it to wherever the knowledge is necessary, whether settlement, mediation, discovery, or trial. Similarly, virtually all information in most cases (save and except video depositions, and extensive images) can generally be placed on one CD-ROM that contains the equivalent of boxes of documents.

 

The new research tool is the "Internet". Can you say "Google"http://www.versuslaw.com. Major law libraries have become jump sites for searches that can produce sometimes startling information. The Net is changing daily but the trend of its use is expanding exponentially.

 

IV. SPECIFIC APPLICATIONS TO BE DISCUSSED

 

A. Practice Management software

  1. Most leading practice management packages are "bigger" than a family law practice, i.e., were designed for larger practice situations than the average 1-4 attorney, 3-7 computer typical FL practice. But many of the packages are very well suited for the practice.
  2. Some packages are designed to make you work pretty much the way the software works. While this severely limits customization, it also gives the lawyer a polished paradigm with which to aspire and adapt the practice to the level of organization and features of the system. Some will nag you to do things on your lists.
  3. Some other packages are designed to give the user great flexibility in setting up how the system will work; unfortunately, many times at the cost of a steep learning curve and partial paralysis in deciding what features to implement in what fashion.
  4. Most packages have features that you will probably never use, unless you dramatically change your method of practice. Maybe that's the point...
  5. Some of the products available include:

    Perfect Practice, ADC Legal Systems http://www.adclegal.com/
    Perfect Lawyer, http://www.perfectlaw.com/
    PC Law; Alumni computer group, http://www.pclaw.com/
    Summit, Computer Law Systems, http://www.clswin.com/
    ProLaw, http://www.prolaw.com/
    Time Matters, http://www.timematters.com/
    Abacus Law, http://www.abacuslaw.com/
    Amicus Attorney, http://www.amicus.ca/
    CaseMaster III Software Technology http://www.stilegal.com/
    ProDoc SOS http://www.prodoc.com/

C. Document Assembly Software.

  1. Description of the market

    Everyone seems to be in the document assembly market just as practice management software seems to become more refined than the general purpose personal information managers (PIM's). The trend is for forms in specialty areas of practice to be packaged with the assembly engine, so much of the work of setting up a document assembly system has already been performed. While no slight is meant to other packages,the package demonstrated here is an example of a specific system that is highly tuned to help automate the family law practice, and in an example of what is the general trend in the market place.
  2. Vendors are numerous and many have state-specific products. Check for vendors in your jurisdiction that may have great products for your state. Some vendors include:

    West Fast Forms (Texas) http://www.westpub.com/
    ProDocs, Automated Legal Systems http://www.prodoc.com/
    Lawgic (California) http://www.lawgic.com/
    HotDocs http://www.capsoft.com/

D. ProDoc.

 

ProDoc is a highly developed document assembly system that originated for Texas divorce practice. There are also a few modules available for other states like Florida and now California Prodoc got its start using semi-official forms promulgated by the Family Law Section of the State Bar for family law pleadings, and grafted such forms, which they licensed, into a complete document assembly package that goes far beyond a fill in the blank or answer question of system. They have now expanded into some twelve areas of the law in Texas, in areas where repetition may be key, such as wills, estates, landlord tenant, corporations, and limited liability companies. They are relentless in making sure that a user has the latest updates; they get changes made in their forms often before the lawyers are aware that the statute or rule change that caused the change in the form. It now has a nifty child support calculator in the Family Law module that automatically powers through the myriad of changes in calculating interest on child support arrearages that has been legislated over the years.

 

Their product is so good that it it almost a "law practice in a box" (nee, CD-rom). I have infrequent occasion to venture outside of family law, but when I do, I find quality forms and sometimes pretty high level questioning (to fill in the form's blanks) that pretty well walks me through what I probably need to know. A young lawyer would do well to arm themselves with a complete legal forms library like this that is actually useful.

 

Prodoc is clearly a leader in document assembly and customer service. They may spread to other states soon besides Florida and California.

 

2006 Comment. ProDoc is the "800 pound Gorilla" of the automated law practice in Texas. They publish updates regularly, and put changes in the pleadings for changes in the law that you are probably not aware of unless you follow the law quite closely. In family law, they use the State Bar’s Family Law Practice Manual as the backbone; use of such semi-standardized and accepted forms prevents disputes when drafting final decrees and the like.

 

But the real beauty of ProDoc is its quality and scope in other areas where the questions asked (and the explanations behind the questions) give the lawyer a running chance of getting a quick, efficient, and most importantly, workmanlike pleading in an area or subarea of law where they don’t usually practice. For instance, I recently had to do an Application for Probate during a holiday period without staff backup. ProDoc led me through an interview and created, with my minimal input, a workmanlike pleading that was filed "as is" after review by a lawyer, who actually knew something about the area.

 

"Law Office Paperwork in a Box" is the term that comes to mind for ProDoc as the quality seems to be high across all the numerous practice areas of ProDoc, whether it be corporate formation, wills and trust, probate, family law or any of the other modules.

 

Prodoc is one of the state-qualified providers for e-filing in the courts, an area that will continue to grow in importance and usefulness.

 

When a lawyer - - of whatever experience - - is opening a new office, after putting in the furniture, telephone, and computer equipment, the first item to get running in that office is ProDoc. The office is now "open".

 

ProDoc can be accessed here.

 

E. Spreadsheet/ Support calculators.

 

A significant portion of a family law practice deals with financial calculations. In fact the first family law specific software were the calculation packages from years ago is use to calculate alimony, child support, and taxes. These products have continued to grow in sophistication and easy of use and have increased their penetration in the practice. In fact, in some courts calculation software is become the defacto standard in court proceedings where financial matters are involved, especially in states such as California.

  1. Tax Ramifications for Division of Property/Tax effect of Alimony.

    Financial software has become irreplaceable in doing the analysis of the after taxes basis of assets where the recognition of the tax gain is certain enough as to not be speculative and therefore in properly considered in the final evaluation. Specialty software packages such as The Divorce Planner by Finplan (800/877-2108) (now taken over I believe by Lexis) have been around for years and have evolved as the need's of divorce lawyers have also changed.

F. "Low Tech" Spreadsheets.

 

One can easily use the spreadsheet that comes with the OfficeSuite or the math function of the wordprocessor to construct useful and easy to produce financial documents and exhibits, if one does not wish to utilizes the power of the commercially available templates or specialty software packages. The demonstration will show the easy of constructing such as a settlement sheet in Word Perfect or Word in just a few minutes. Whether the utility of using such simply made homemade spreadsheets and templates diminishes with the complexity of the case is an open question.

 

But t is still probably easier and more efficient to do it in Excel.

 

G. Other useful Automation Nuances.

 

Automation is not just a " box" if you buy and put into the office. In addition to the major components discussed earlier in this paper, there are little things that can be done to increase the efficiency the family law practice.

  1. Certified mail printer.

    If you add up the cost of your staff's preparing and sending certified mail manually you will see that the sending just a few pieces of such mail in a week justifies setting up dedicated printer using prepaid certified mail forms. The costs are not great, as worth the effort in the experience to set up to acknowledge the forms have been perfected by our brethren in collection, bankruptcy, and foreclosure practices. There is even competition amongst stationery publishers in both the impact printer laser printer portions of the market. Clearly one can set up a bin in a laser printer to do this, but it probably makes sense to have a dedicated printer if cert mail is a regular deal in your office. Now many vendors offer software solutions, some integrated with their practice mangement systems.
  2. Management of Client information/Client Directories.

    We utilizes a directory on our server for each client, and further have sub-directories for pleadings, and correspondence in the more complex cases. Keeping all of the client information and documents in one place is quite handy when porting a case to a trial notebook or in closing out of the case to electronic archive. Although practice management software, document assembly packages, and document management software all want to fight over where such documents reside, word processing macros can automate and insure the client documents end up in the correct place.
  3. Backup.

    Consider a removable hard disk drive such as a Jaz (in addition to tapes) for daily and for incremental backups, as well as client archives. A whole bunch of closed client files can fit on a Jaz disk with very fast access. If a client's file is truly closed, it can be also be moved easily along with many others to a CD ROM that you record with your CD ROM recorder. Now with CD and DVD writers being so plentiful, backups are easy.
  4. A Backup Server.

    Besides having backups of the data on your server, you might wish to have a backup server that replicates functions and mappings of your production server. Our backup has a license for fewer users than our production server, but would be useful if the production server went down. You need to have A-B switches for the printer cables coming out of both servers, so that the effort to switchover from one server to the next becomes turning on the server and flipping the printer switches, and then perhaps retrieving the latest incremental data backup.

    Some have setup a backup server as part of the real server by having removable drives that mirror the server driver, and a workstation with a port that can take the removed drive. Since the drive is swapped out of the server daily, the worst crash should lose only a day of work.

G. Caveats

  1. How do you know if it works?

    Unfortunately, a user must try one or more of the various programs to really decide which is more appropriate for use. Many manufacturers offer demo disks; some computer stores such as Comp USA, have fully functioning demos of software (generally mass market software) at their showrooms. Internet-distributed, full-version software calls for payment only if you use it after the stated trial period. Finally, full factory versions are available that die if you don't license them.
  2. Time v. Money

    One can spend time practicing law, or setting up systems to automate the system of practicing law. Some systems that may be worthwhile to automate for a large "wholesale " practice may not be as useful in a "boutique" practice and vise versa, one must recognize what ones practice is (or will become) to choose the appropriate tools to help automate that practice. One also wants automation to help lead to higher quality of life.

VII. CONCLUSION

 

Technology is here and must be used. It is not something as static as it was even a decade ago. One should plan for a planned obsolescence of systems within a three-year period, but making sure that the backbone (data format) used are upwardly compatible with the next generation of hardware and software is important. Even though the family law practice is more "face-to-face" than most other areas of law, the era of the virtual lawyer with the virtual office-(where most information is transmitted and stored electronically) with fewer in-person contacts, becomes more of the reality. The tools described in this article all help make the practice more efficient.

 

We will all continue to seek the Holy Grail of "Write Few[times]-Use Many[times]" (or continue the quest for the paper-less office where we cab take our whole case and practice with us in our cellphone)in our quest to automate the Family Law practice.  

1Kenneth G. Raggio is a past Chairman of the American Bar Association's Family Law Section, the largest organization of family lawyers in the world. Raggio authored the "Tools of the Trade" column of the Family Advocate, focusing on applying technology to lawyers' practices. He served on the ABA's Special Committee on Project 2000, responsible for the multimillion dollar infrastructure migration at the ABA. A past member of the Council of the State Bar of Texas' Computer Section, he also servesd on the Technology Committee of the Family Law Section of the State Bar and as Chair of the Dallas Bar's Communications and Technology Committee. He was selected as a Texas SuperLawyer for 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006,2007, 2008, and 2009. He has also been selected for inclusion in Best Lawyers In America.

 

A Certified Specialist in Family Law as well as a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Raggio practices in the Dallas Family Law specialty firm of Raggio & Raggio, P.L.L.C. Raggio handles cases involving significant quantities of documents, tracing, and characterization, and has authored articles and lectured on subjects dealing with those topics as well as both evidence and application of technology to the practice of law.

 

2Although strict hourly prepping for trial and trial is probably the most profitable part of the family law attorney's practice, the efficiencies of producing work and utilizing technology is not lost on clients who are becoming more sophisticated in their selective choice of legal services.

 

3Our product varies tremendously. If our main product is advice and trial work, it is quite similar to product in past years, and is most likely the most profitable part of a family lawyer's practice. But if your main product is "paper work," efficiencies have decreased the costs of production and by extension the cost to our clients.

 

4How does a specialist justify 2.5 hours to produce a pleading that a document assembly program (such as Hot Docs) can produce in far less time? How much "cost recovery" is reasonable to charge back to a given client for a highly developed merge document, or even all the equipment and software necessary to produce it? Can "unit billing" be sustained in a prove up of attorneys fees in a contested matter where the standard is the vague "reasonable and customary?"

 

5In some jurisdictions such as California, the use of computer programs to calculate support has become so ubiquitous that it is now uncommon for both lawyers and the Judge not to have laptop computers and make simultaneous calculations to check where they come out with the same result. The American Law Institute's Principles of Family Dissolution uses a marginal expense analysis for support; it's complicated, but, who cares when the computer is doing the math.

 

6While most of this "action" is still limited to plaintiff's side of personal injury cases, where the lawyers have a direct financial interest in getting a case to resolution as efficiently and quickly as possible, the family law attorney cannot ignore these powerful persuasive tools to resolve the parties' conflict, where most often, the parties are negotiating only the terms of their future relationship, not the termination of same.

 

7With the ability to receive any deposition on a disk, and the power of deposition search and retrieval software, the days of extensive summarizing of depositions is drawing to a close.

 

8One will usually want to have a paper copy of the projected image admitted into evidence for record purposes.