Grabbing technology's reins

As technology becomes a more pervasive part of the US lawyer's life, incoming American Bar Association president Roberta Cooper Ramo is challenging the legal community to better understand its benefits.

In her recent address to the American Bar Association section of Law Practice Techshow in Chicago, Ramo challenged US lawyers to take the lead with technology.

"I suggest to you today that how American lawyers use technology, computers and communication devices could be the model for the world if we take the time to experiment, insist on fundamental fairness and reject the idea of lawyers as obfuscators, and instead embrace our role as defenders of American ideas and solvers of problems," she explained.

Techshow's three days of technology programmes and exhibits showcased video conferencing and multimedia in the courtroom as well as basic practice enhancements such as time and billing software packages for lawyers.

Some of the highlights from Techshow programs follow:

Time and billing software

The time and billing showcase program provided welcome information on ways in which lawyers can capture hours and activities expended as well as measure the true costs of their expenses. M Thomas Collins, president of Juris, said: "Today's time and billing software now provides ways for lawyers to report task-based billing, expense tracking and report client-specific discounts, split billing and other matter-by-matter exceptions. The key today is for lawyers to manage their profitability, not just the hours they bill."

Building a knowledge base

In 'Building a knowledge base', New York lawyer Michael Mills and US West in-house counsel Peggy Kaye discussed how to organise, collect distribute and make use of the knowledge in a law firm. According to both Mills and Kaye, lawyers can build a proprietary knowledge base by combining four types of software for text storage and retrieval, document management, document assembly and litigation support. "The most critical repository in the law firm is its people. Lawyers know many things, but often not where to find them. A knowledge base can help lawyers discover who in the firm worked on the last initial public offering or whether a certain tax provision should be included in Illinois but not New York," explained Mills.

v Hot areas for law firms

In Techshow's 'What's hot and what's not' sessions, speakers discussed emerging trends in the legal environment. These included laptop computers, using email with clients, security encryption of email messages, video-conferencing, the Internet and alternative billing methods.

Technology in the courts

In 'Technology and its impact on the Courts', J Michael Greenwood, of the office of the US Courts, said nearly $1 billion had been spent on automating the federal system in the past 10 years. "All US federal judges now have a PC in their chambers, access to computerised legal research and fully automated dockets. The courts are driving lawyers into the electronic age," he said.

Persuasion in the automated courtroom

Techno-gadgets are important but cannot replace a lawyer's ability to effectively use these new tools, said Daniel Hoffman, a well-known litigator and counsel in Michael Jackson's 'Dangerous' song copyright infringement case last year. "A lawyer's audience and the trier-of-fact is the client. Combined together, computer animation, sound and graphics provide these audiences not with a gee-whiz effect but show the art of persuasion," he said.

Multimedia for litigators

According to litigation systems consultant James Keane, hardware and software are giving way to 'underware'. This is the know-how to win cases with technology, he explained. Keane suggested that using multimedia – the combination of sound, video and animation – in the courtroom can be a highly persuasive tool.

Electronic evidence

The advent of technology has created a new set of "smoking guns" in evidence, according to Andy Johnson-Laird, a forensic software analyst in Portland and a speaker at 'Electronic evidence: discovery in the computer age'. "The bottom line is that deleted text on a computer still lives and forensic software analysts can electronically identify data that the user may believe has been deleted," explained Johnson-Laird. This evidence, called shadow or fragment data, remains on a computer's hard drive after a user has deleted it visually. It can often be damning to defendants who believe prior drafts of an incriminating document no longer exist.

From basic computing to novel application, these programmes suggest that US lawyers are exploring a variety of new ways to gain strategic advantage with technology. As incoming president Ramo predicted in her keynote speech, these advances are simply the stepping stones for a new breed of lawyers.

"The great power [of technology] is not to print words faster but to organise thought, outline solutions, present complex ideas graphically and interact with one another in a fundamentally different way that is just beginning to be understood."

Anne Gallagher is a US correspondent.