The law offices of yesterday were what are now known as “paper offices.” News stories, briefs, testimonies, and attorney billable hours were all recorded and displayed on pieces of paper. In today’s digital age, we know that paper systems can cause money, time, and efficiency to be lost. Additional staff must be hired to manage paper documents, to file legal briefs, and to search for and/or catalog evidence. Losing a vital paper means that extra time and money must be spent tracking down a copy. Compiling billable hours by hand is time-consuming. And, paper-based case filing systems require large amounts of storage space to warehouse – which is expensive – and can require long bouts of human searching to retrieve necessary documents, which is time consuming.
Enter the electronic law firm, the digital courtroom, and the virtual database.
Modern technology has digitized or automated most aspects of paralegal, legal secretary, and attorney job functions. From billing hours to retrieving evidence to filing briefs with a court of law, technology is helping legal professionals to perform an amazing amount of work cheaply and efficiently.
One of the greatest advances in legal work is the increased use of digital entities such as databases, e-mails, message board postings, and text messages as evidence. These types of records are invaluable in quickly enabling legal teams, judges, and juries to see evidence of crimes. Cyber-technology specialists are experts at deciphering and translating electronic records into testimonies and evidence.
Digital evidence can be especially compelling in intellectual property cases, murder cases, and white-collar crime debacles. For example, critical e-mails in the Enron case were used as evidence that the energy giant had partnered with its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, to produce faulty accounting and auditing records. These e-mails ultimately helped to indict Enron and Arthur Andersen associates in criminal wrongdoing. However, digital evidence has other legal uses, as well. For example, the contents of pop star Michael Jackson’s computers were seized for use against him in The People v. Jackson, a case during which he was accused of lewd acts involving children, in 2005.
Technology-based evidence is a great development for expediting trial preparation and procedures. However, technology can be used in law firms on a daily basis, helping to make the daily tasks of paralegals and lawyers easier to complete.
Legal hour tracking and calculation programs allow employees of law firms to partially or fully automate the legal billing process. Paralegals, lawyers, and other legal professionals are often billed for their work on an hourly basis. Therefore, they must itemize the tasks they perform on an hourly basis, as well. Specialized legal billing software allows legal professionals to bill for their hours; these bills might be submitted internally, as well, for payroll, firm budgeting, or accounting purposes.
Another area of legal practice in which technology is an asset is document control. There exist several proprietary legal software packages that streamline the document imaging and preservation processes. Paralegals and lawyers are able to scan paper documents and convert them into electronic files; compile databases of evidence, facts, or statistics; code litigation documents for quicker retrieval — and in some cases, restore the quality of damaged electronic documents. These document-control programs allow legal professionals to work more efficiently while saving immeasurable amounts of space – and, therefore, costs — by eliminating the need for bulky paper organization and filing systems.
There also exist special software packages to manage cases and litigation. These packages can include features for client interviews, the management of evidence, and the presentation of litigation and case evidence. Some law schools and paralegal training programs instruct students in the ethical uses of these software packages. Law firms are increasingly requiring new hires to be proficient in these types of software.
Electronic filing is another use of technology in the legal profession. Before the advent of electronic filing, firms had to submit hard copies of all documents and evidence to the courts to be used in trial. Now, case materials can be sent to court via e-mail, with many pieces of evidence scanned in or digitized. One drawback is that compliance and system compatibility can be difficult to establish for these programs; however, compliance and compatibility are improving greatly, and will only continue to improve. Legal professionals might have a thorough education in this area of legal technology prior to beginning their legal careers.
Legal research has also been made more efficient by the use of electronic information storage and retrieval systems. Since the Internet became widely available to Americans, legal professionals were able to expedite their research – they can request, track, and research documents online. Now, online archives such as LexisNexis act as storehouses for court decisions, news stories, and legal precedents dating back many years. This saves legal professionals time and money by cutting down on trips to courthouses, state departments of records, law libraries, and the like. The use of LexisNexis and similar databases has become an integral part of paralegal and law school educational curricula.
Finally, technology can be an asset in the courtroom, during civil or criminal proceedings. Graphics and slide show programs are available to streamline and enhance court presentations in electronic formats. Attorneys, paralegals, and clients can also present some forms of evidence electronically – computers and other electronic devices are being used more often during trials to present the facts of a case.
The advent of technology has provided paralegals, lawyers, and other legal professionals with a vast array of time- and money-saving programs and devices with which to perform work. Because legal professionals are able to access, dispense, and display information faster, they free up their work days and their departmental budgets for other necessities.