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The ways I use Internet applications to serve my solo law practice’s small clients reminds me much of the way I use my microwave for preparing meals. The microwave doesn’t make me a better cook, and the Internet has not transformed me into a smarter or shrewder lawyer. But just as the microwave allows me to operate as an at-home, short-order cook and quickly heat up and serve a variety of meals, the Internet affords a solo a means to respond to my clients’ diverse and unpredictable needs with the efficiency of a large firm at a fraction of the staff and cost. And coming around the bend, I imagine that just as a microwave meal has spared me from ordering takeout or skipping supper, Internet technology eventually will make the difference between an indigent client receiving adequate legal assistance and going without. As a solo with a highly specialized practice in energy regulatory and appellate matters, as well as more traditional generalized practice, my clients run the gamut on the technology spectrum. Typically, my energy clients — comprising individual developers, trade associations and small companies — tend to have at least basic Internet access, often through one of the service providers aimed at individuals, such as America Online or Erols. In some instances, these clients also may have a rudimentary ability to use the Internet for basic research, for example, finding a decision or filing at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Web site. At the other end of the spectrum are those clients who do not use or own computers and, at most, might have the ability to covertly send or receive a fax at their place of employment. However, as a general matter, my firm’s technological capabilities always have surpassed those of my clients: I’ve been at least six months to a year ahead on getting a DSL, a Web site, e-mail and even a cell phone. But fortunately, the quickly evolving “information highway” is not a two-way street where benefits inure only if both sides’ capabilities match. While I can maximize my use of the Internet when dealing with those clients who have gone online, there still are other Internet applications that have proven valuable even for my less technically sophisticated client base. Below, I refer to the three top Internet tools that I use to serve clients as “the three Es”: e-fax, e-mail and the emerging e-filing. In addition, while my firm maintains a Web site, at least for now, I regard the site as a means of marketing to prospective clients rather than a tool to serve existing clients. E-FAX By far, the most useful Internet tool that I’ve found so far is the electronic fax, which combines the traditional fax with e-mail. To be sure, e-mail also is indispensable to my practice; in fact, it’s a necessary prerequisite to e-fax. But e-fax benefits my clients the most since virtually all have access to a fax machine. The particular electronic fax service that I use is eFax.com, which randomly assigns me a fax number at no charge (another great benefit). My fax number has a Florida area code, but I could request a local area code for a small monthly fee. Clients can fax documents to me at that number, which eFax then routes directly into my e-mail box. For an additional fee, I also could e-mail documents to eFax for fax transmittal, a service I have not used, because I either exchange documents directly by e-mail or hook my computer up to the phone line to send outgoing faxes directly from my machine. The ability to receive faxes electronically has liberated me from the physical fax machine. If I am out of town, I no longer need to give clients the fax number at the hotel desk — or worse, hang out at a copy center store to await an incoming fax. Instead, clients always can transmit a fax to my eFax number, and I can retrieve it remotely through e-mail. Even at my own office, eFax is less expensive and more convenient than my former stand-alone fax machine, for which I either paid the price of maintaining a dedicated phone line or inconvenienced clients by asking them to call ahead prior to faxing so that I could flip the phone line into fax mode. Finally, eFax ensures that I never will misplace or maim another fax, as was common when I received faxes on the flimsy, slippery fax paper that was the norm when I started my firm seven years ago. Since eFax automatically converts faxes into an electronic format, I can download and print faxes on plain paper while also retaining backup copies of the faxes on my computer hard drive. E-MAIL For those clients who have regular and dependable online access, e-mail serves as an indispensable tool for maintaining contact and exchanging information. For example, if I learn of a recent development in a client’s case and I’m pressed for time or haven’t had time to think through all the implications, I prefer dropping an e-mail to update the client, with an invitation to e-mail me or call me afterward, rather than making what is invariably a more time-consuming phone call. I find that e-mail gives the clients time to absorb new information so any follow-up calls are more focused. And of course, when the client is not available, it’s much easier to explain the reason for my contact in a written e-mail message than in a convoluted voice mail. Finally, in matters where multiple parties are involved, e-mail enables me to communicate the same information to all the parties at one time, instead of having to transmit multiple faxes. The value of e-mail as a tool to transmit information is further enhanced for those clients who can open and send documents electronically in addition to receiving simple messages. For example, since the appellate courts and federal agencies where I practice issue decisions electronically, I simply can forward those decisions to clients via e-mail immediately after I’ve learned of their issuance. And when I’m drafting a filing that requires client review and approval, I can e-mail the document to a client as an attachment. My client can then review the document, make any changes necessary and e-mail the document back. Of course, one obvious prerequisite to effective electronic exchange of documents is that clients must share my level of technological capability. I’ve had a number of occasions where, despite my advance inquiries regarding the appropriate format for sending a document (e.g., WordPerfect 5.1, Microsoft Word), clients were unable to open documents upon receipt because of format incompatibilities. Similarly, I have had clients who inexplicably mangled or lost portions of documents I’ve sent for review. Then they’ve delayed sending revisions, figuring that the document was ready to go with their changes incorporated when, in reality, the problems they created in the document threw me into a last-minute, back-breaking frenzy of cutting and pasting and fiddling with WordPerfect code to finalize the changes. As a result of those experiences, I always attempt to exchange documents electronically with clients at least once prior to crunch time. I also remind clients that notwithstanding their ability to transmit changes to me instantaneously, I still need time to incorporate the changes, and thus they must meet advance deadlines for sending any proposed revisions, even when the changes are made electronically. Ironically, up until the past couple of years, when e-mail has become a normalized form of communication in the legal profession, the main criticism of electronic communication came not from clients but from my lawyer colleagues. Many questioned whether ordinary e-mail provided sufficient privacy to ensure the degree of client confidentiality required by the Rules of Professional Responsibility. However, the D.C. Bar, like many other jurisdictions, has concluded in Ethics Opinion No. 281 that in most circumstances, transmission of confidential information by unencrypted electronic mail does not violate client confidentiality rules — although certain situations may require greater levels of security. E-FILING At present, my clients have not been substantially affected yet by electronic filing. Not because of any lack of technological capability on their part, but because in the courts and agencies where I practice, e-filing is only now emerging. However, based on recent e-filing experience at FERC, which recently implemented an electronic filing system for certain categories of pleadings, I am excited about the prospects that e-filing holds for my clients. Essentially, an electronic filing system allows for the filing of documents at a court or agency via e-mail, thereby enabling me to file documents within minutes of their completion without even leaving my desk. In theory, e-filing gives me more time to spend on a pleading (or more time to devote to other matters prior to getting to work on the pleading), because I do not have to allocate several hours of time in advance of filing to allow for photocopying of the document. But, more important, e-filing has the potential to save my clients money — savings that will increase as more jurisdictions permit e-filing and as more documents are converted to electronic format. Although the FERC document I recently e-filed was only a few pages and thereby spared my client a grand total of about $45 for copying and messenger fees, the potential savings as we enter an electronic age are far greater. For example, in federal appellate matters, I typically must photocopy and bind 20 copies of what is generally a 50-page brief to satisfy the court’s 15-copy filing requirement and to serve the parties in the case. At 10 cents a page and $2 apiece for binding, that’s $140. In addition, with the paper filing system, I would need to finish the brief at least a day in advance to allow sufficient time for photocopying, and two days in advance if the filing were being made out of the area. Of course, one of the other large costs in preparing an appellate filing — the joint appendix — will decline substantially only as we progress further down the information highway. A joint appendix for an appeal contains many of the underlying court orders, transcript portions and pleadings that constitute the record in the case; it is not unusual for a joint appendix to approach 500 pages. With 10 copies for the court and a few others for counsel, the cost of producing a joint appendix might total more than $700. However, compiling a joint appendix electronically also is a daunting task. Many of the pleadings and court decisions might not come in compatible electronic formats, while some documents, such as transcripts or older pieces of evidence, may not even be available in electronic format. As a result, all these materials would need to be scanned and compiled into a uniform electronic format and numbered and indexed, which could still be costly for a client. But presumably, such costs will decline as more documents and transcripts become available in compatible electronic formats. NET GAINS, LOSSES My firm’s Web site contains resources that tend to benefit prospective clients more than my existing clients. For example, a prospective client searching the Web for energy regulatory attorneys might come across my site and view some of my successful pleadings or examine my r�sum� to determine whether to contact me. However, as a small practitioner, I lack the resources to provide and maintain a current stream of information to clients about energy matters; moreover, so many other Web sites full of energy information are already available that my resources are best spent elsewhere. Similarly, I simply do not have the time or skill to develop a sort of extranet Web site where clients could obtain updates on their cases. Although I have the capability to design and post a basic site, an interactive site where clients could access their files would require expertise and attention to security well beyond my basic technical abilities. Even if I were to outsource development of an extranet, ultimately, my efforts would be wasted. Quite frankly, when my clients call for information about their case, they don’t just want a basic status report; instead, they want reassurance about their prospects of prevailing or they want to vent about the injustice of our opponent or the system at large. To date, I am unaware of any technology that can substitute for the personal counseling sessions that come as part of the package when a lawyer represents clients. The Internet applications I use save clients money (or have the potential to do so) by enabling me to keep them informed about cases, and eventually file cases, without the assistance of additional staff, a cost that ultimately would be borne by clients in the form of higher billable rates. In addition, because the Internet enables me to transmit documents to many clients with such ease, clients have a chance to play a more active role in their matters, which can save me time thereby saving my clients money. For example, clients who have reviewed early drafts of a document have caught factual errors or have directly inserted factual information, thereby speeding up preparation of the document. But the Internet’s speed-of-light mode of communication also bears a cost — not so much to clients but to their lawyers. Because I can speedily relay information like court decisions to clients through the Internet, many come to believe that I also can prepare documents instantaneously. Thus, clients may not give me sufficient time to complete projects, which can compromise quality. And although the Internet undoubtedly makes me more responsive to my clients’ needs by providing a mechanism by which they can contact me around the clock, that can also be a burden, for it makes escape from work difficult. Carolyn Elefant is the principal in the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant in Washington, D.C., www.his.com/israel/loce.

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