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Three years ago or so, in the heady days of the Internet, there was a brief period during which some law firm leaders thought that they could achieve better lawyering through technology. Expert systems would help eliminate human error — and remove the drudgery — of routine assignments. Online deal rooms would speed due diligence reviews and other document-intensive tasks. Online auction sites would help match clients with a firm with the proper skill set and cost structure for an assignment, regardless of geography, country club membership or prior relationships. Three years is a long time. Most firms have given up those dreams, or at least put them off until the next silicon rush. Today legal technology is more about lawyer convenience than competitive edge, making it easier for lawyers to do the routine things that they do, like communicating with clients and drafting documents. The new rallying cry: Let lawyers be lawyers. Evidence of this shift emerges in our annual midlevel associates survey, a massive project in which we poll third- and fourth-year lawyers at 132 firms. We publish most of the results annually in the October issue of The American Lawyer; in this issue we publish the technology results in something we call our Tech Scorecard. Our winner, for the second year in a row, is New York’s Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, one of the nation’s most prestigious and profitable firms and one that doesn’t fall easily for legal technology trends unless they will help lawyers serve clients better right away. Even today, the firm’s Web site is just a threadbare, image-free poster. But if they want them, Wachtell Lipton lawyers have firm-supplied cell phones; BlackBerry e-mail units; desktop and laptop computers; and high-speed home Internet access. Law is hard. The hours are long. (Wachtell Lipton associates told us they bill an average of more than 61 hours a week.) Computers and the computer staff should be there to reduce the strains and pains of the practice. If a lawyer is having trouble setting up a wireless network at home, Wachtell Lipton will dispatch help. If a lawyer wants to learn a piece of software, a training specialist will stop by for a one-on-one session. From anywhere in the world, lawyers can call up their desktop back in their office on Sixth Avenue. The firm’s intranet and document management system both house useful collections of precedent documents, model forms and the like. The BlackBerrys, cell phones, and high-speed home connections all add up to greater mobility and flexibility in the life of an associate than existed just a few years ago. “As soon as I got my broadband connection at home, my wife saw a lot more of me,” says Roy Katzovicz, a fifth-year corporate associate. Wachtell Lipton may have had the highest score, but other high-octane New York firms also did well. Davis Polk & Wardell came in fourth. Cravath, Swaine & Moore jumped to 29th place from 107th the year before. Sullivan & Cromwell jumped to a tie for 36th from 53rd; Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft to a tie for 42nd from 99th. These performances mark a vast change from three years ago, when — with the exception of Davis Polk — the nation’s most profitable firms tended to do poorly on the survey. At Wachtell Lipton, having great technology just makes business sense, says Adam Emmerich, a corporate partner who chairs the firm’s technology committee. With a one-to-one partner-to-associate ratio, Wachtell has a built-in incentive to be as efficient as possible. While the business model of most large firms may be based on selling time, Wachtell Lipton lawyers try to conserve it. There’s too much work, and not enough time. Time, says Emmerich, is a “precious resource.” Katzovicz takes this point a step farther. “When you are automated and organized,” he says, “you tend to get a better result.” Related chart: AmLaw Tech‘s 2002 Tech Scorecard.

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