High-Tech Lawyering

IF you flip through a recent issue of the American Bar Association Journal or other legal publications, you might think you have mistakenly opened a magazine for computer hackers. Page after page features ads for hardware, software, CD-ROMs, and systems consultants.

Besides numerous computer-related display ads abutting articles on subjects like the death penalty and eminent domain, the April issue of the ABA monthly includes an 11-page ``Legal Software Directory'' that lists some 200 providers of time-saving programs for the busy attorney.

In at least some people's vision of the up-to-date lawyer, he or she arrives at the office (having already telecommunicated with several people by phone or fax in the car on the way into work); logs onto her desktop computer; checks her E-mail and computerized docket; at her keyboard researches some statutes and cases through on-line data bases or CD-ROM libraries; with a few keystrokes laser-prints several documents; goes to court where, thanks to her notebook computer, she quickly finds just the case to influence a judge's ruling and then dazzles the jury with a computerized reenactment of an accident; returns to the office to whip out, with new software, client bills that used to take hours to calculate; and then, on the red-eye to the Coast, logs a few more hours on her laptop.

Most lawyers aren't so fully computerized yet, but some are on the way.

Law students are still taught how to find information in books and to perform the tedious ``Shepardizing'' to uncover legal developments since the books were published, but most also become skilled in digitized research.

In a recent stroll through the nearly empty library of a large New York City law firm, where once dozens of junior attorneys would have toiled over open books, I was told that much research is now done before computer screens in the lawyers' offices.

When lawyers or law-firm administrators go shopping today, they are as likely to be looking for software as for yellow legal pads. Last month in Chicago, the ABA held what has become an annual ``TechShow,'' where legal-supplies vendors exhibited the latest in high-tech gadgetry.

The computerized legal environment will be on even more splendiferous display in San Francisco this week, at an exhibition staged jointly by the Association of Legal Administrators, the ABA's Law Practice Management Section, and the National Association of Legal Vendors. The exhibit, called ``The Automated Practice/The Automated Professional,'' will demonstrate how cutting-edge technologies can be used in realistic settings like a lawyer's office, a law-firm library, a courtroom, a judge's chambers, and a Mercedes-Benz. The show will tour to other legal conferences over the next three years.

At William and Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va., a model courtroom incorporates many advanced computer and video technologies. A mock-trial demonstration of all the capabilities leaves an onlooker awe-struck.

The legal profession is just beginning to grapple with all the ramifications of the computerized practice. The most immediate benefit of technology is simply efficiency: Lawyers, paralegals, and legal administrators can perform their traditional duties faster and, in the long run, more cheaply. Clients like this and are starting to pressure lawyers to upgrade their technical systems. (This raises issues about how to value legal services and about lawyers' compensation. Clients want to realize all the savings from enhanced efficiency, but lawyers aren't sure that's fair.)

But in time, computer applications may alter the practice of law in more profound ways. The rapidly expanding universe of information that lawyers can access will likely change how they think about their roles and their work products.

For the most part, technology should help level the playing field for solo and small-firm lawyers, some experts say. A good lawyer with a good PC, they say, increasingly can take on complex legal matters that previously only big firms could tackle.

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