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These days, portals, BlackBerrys and sophisticated case management programs are staples at most of the top law firms. But there are still law offices that get by with the barest of technological bones. Take, for example, the New York City Law Department. Over the past several months, the law department has managed to keep churning out briefs despite a minimalist technology setup, a citywide budget crisis, a change in administration and the effects of the largest terrorist attack ever on American soil. The department’s 650 lawyers handle most of the legal work for the city. They litigate tort claims, negotiate leases of city property and represent city officials. A year ago, law department attorneys were getting by without a lot of technological basics. The department was pilot-testing a document management system made by iManage Inc. But it didn’t own any case management software or even offer its lawyers Internet access. “Despite it all, we were getting along okay,” says John Hupper, a senior IT counsel in the department. “Everyone had a Windows-based desk PC and access to HotDocs [a document-assembly tool]. And we were developing our own browser-based case management system.” Then came Sept. 11. The department’s lower Manhattan offices were evacuated before the World Trade Center towers collapsed, so no one was hurt. But sheetrock from the fall of 7 World Trade Center blew out some of the windows on one side of their building. Inch-thick piles of dust settled on computers and desks. The 450 lawyers housed in the Church Street building were forced to pick up and move in with whoever would lend them office space, such as Chadbourne & Parke and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “It was unbelievable,” says G. Foster Mills, the law department’s managing attorney. “We went from having one office and one network on the 11th [of September] to having 40 offices and no network on the 12th.” In mid-November, lawyers were finally cleared to rummage through their old digs and salvage what they could. But a huge setback hit the office in mid-December when workers found asbestos in the debris. “The only option was to destroy the computers and lose all the data,” says Michael Cardozo, the new corporation counsel for the Bloomberg administration. Fortunately, prior to Sept. 11, the MIS group had routinely made daily backup tapes of everything saved on its network. “We were able to recover everything up through that previous Friday — Sept. 7th,” says Mills. The department used money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy new laptops and docking stations. Technology helped the department put itself back together. Still, the organization lost hundreds of hours of work after Sept. 11. The city, not the state, handles all juvenile prosecutions that occur within the five boroughs. And those matters, according to Cardozo, “absolutely could not stop.” But he concedes that tort cases slowed way down, and commercial matters had to be handled “as best as we could, sort of on an ad hoc basis.” Fortunately, Cardozo and his predecessor, Michael Hess, were able to receive trial postponements from a handful of area judges. Next week, the department will finish moving back into its old offices. But there won’t be time to get too comfortable. The city attorneys are staring down a backlog of close to 47,000 pending tort cases. And Sept. 11 produced a mountain of additional work. The city is currently operating with a $4 billion deficit. So Cardozo knows he can’t spend a ton on fancy software to help cut through the work. But that hasn’t stopped the former Proskauer Rose litigator from thinking big on technology. He assembled a technology committee his first week on the job. And he has talked to most of the senior attorneys in the office about getting by with what they have. Cardozo insists lawyers can do more with HotDocs, e-mail and several of Microsoft Outlook’s often overlooked features, such as its calendar and address book. However, tweaking and stretching will only go so far. “Our technology must be improved,” says Stephen Hammerman, the New York police department’s deputy commissioner for legal matters. “Everyone understands this. But we also understand that the city’s priorities have to be on 9/11.” So for now, it’s baby steps. Hupper and Mills hope the city’s budget-makers will eventually give iManage site licenses to all the lawyers. The department is about to launch a pilot for desktop faxing software. And it’s piloting a Citrix system, which allows lawyers to access their computer desktops remotely. It might not be a state-of-the-art initiative. But, as Hupper says, “it’s progress.” And for now, that’s all anyone at the department can hope for.

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