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Just as large corporations with their deep pockets are able to bully smaller competitors by threatening litigation, so large law firms have long been able to bully smaller firms by rolling out superior technology. Now that technological advantage is vanishing as Internet-hosted services are enabling small firms and solo practitioners to access big firm technology at small firm prices. This technological parity means that small firms and solo practitioners can now compete for the kinds of complex cases that in years past were monopolized by the larger firms. Eliminating the technology gap changes the competition from which firm has the greater resources to which can handle a particular case better. Until recently, small firms and solos have had to content themselves with off-the-shelf technology that simply lacked the capacity to handle cases involving thousands and thousands of documents. The more advanced litigation technology was generally beyond their reach. It cost too much and required too much information technology support. Now the Internet is giving small firms easy “plug and play” access to leading-edge litigation technology. Taking advantage of such technology requires little more than a computer system and a connection to the World Wide Web. Then small firms and solos can load all the documents related to a case into a Web-hosted repository and use user-friendly advanced technology to organize and search the documents. They can start with a huge number of documents, far beyond their in-house capabilities, and quickly search out the small percentage of documents that are actually relevant and must be reviewed. The costs are relatively low because a number of different users are sharing the Internet-hosted services. In addition, users don’t have to invest in expensive hardware or train a cadre of IT experts. That’s the responsibility of the provider. Also, when the provider installs new technology, the whole system updates automatically. For the small firm that wants to tackle more complex litigation, the kinds of technologies available over the Internet are wide and varied. The solo practitioner with 5,000 documents to master will seek a different, and cheaper, solution than the firm faced with a half-million documents. This article takes a quick overview of the technologies available via the Web and provides some guidance in shopping for them. DIGITAL DOCUMENT REPOSITORY The first step in taking charge of a massive number of paper and electronic documents is to load them into an Internet-hosted digital document repository, which, of course, requires converting the paper documents into a digital format. Many vendors provide digital repository services, and a few provide additional litigation support technologies, such as automated coding and high-tech searching. Because most of the documentation in a complex case is now in electronic form, a digital repository provides a logical solution for managing documents and making them available to the legal team at any time and from any place. The numbers of documents in a complex case can be far greater than anticipated. A large corporation that has not dealt with complex litigation may feel overwhelmed by the opposing side’s demands for documents. The company’s legal team may fear that any attempt to cut the amount of documents down to a manageable size could lead to inadvertent spoliation and sanctioning. So rather than risk sanctioning, they may opt to simply provide virtually everything, placing a huge burden on their outside law firm as well as on the other side. Some companies actually use this kind of “data dump” approach as a strategy to overwhelm the opposition. Sometimes opposing counsel will use a similar strategy of demanding massive amounts of documentation in an attempt to overload the other’s side IT systems and pressure them into an unfavorable settlement. Trying to preserve an enormous number of documents for the duration of a lawsuit can be a huge expense. Whatever the motive, the small law firm is apt to start the case with an incredible number of documents, many of which are duplicates and most of which are irrelevant. The larger firm, of course, will try to add to the small firm’s burden by pushing for short deadlines. For the small firm, the key to victory lies in bringing the documents under control as quickly as possible. In selecting a digital document repository, the small law firm must first ensure that the repository is adequate to its purposes and then that it can quickly load its documents into the system. Consider this: The DSL download that most of us now enjoy when we’re using the Internet is about 10 times faster than the upload. So consider the plight of a small law firm with tens of thousands of electronic documents and perhaps a few hundred boxes of paper documents. Uploading all of that data could eat up an enormous amount of time and resources. SCANNING AND SEARCHING One way to speed the process and cut the costs is first to scan the paper documents into an optical character reader format so that all of the documents are digital and then to capture the documents on CDs and ship those CDs to the repository vendor for direct entry into the Internet-hosted repository. By entering the documents directly into the repository rather than uploading them, the vendor can save the legal team a great deal of time and money. Many vendors of Web-hosted repository services also offer high-speed document scanning. For law firms dealing with fewer than 100,000 documents, there are services that can handle most of the process automatically. If the case involves a relatively small number of documents, the law firm can scan the documents in-house and upload them onto the Web-hosted system, after which the rest of the process of coding, organizing and searching the documents is largely automatic. If there are tens of thousands of documents, the law firm might find it much more practical to have an outside vendor handle the scanning job-so that the documents can be stored on CDs and entered directly into the Web-hosted repository. A good automated system will date-code the documents as they are entered into the repository and provide tools readily accessible for users to help organize and search the documents. With good search tools, the legal team can quickly filter out the relatively small number of relevant documents from the mass of irrelevant and duplicate ones. They can then organize the relevant documents into brief bags to simplify review further. Because all of the documentation is Internet-hosted, the search team can simply transmit the brief bags to the lawyers handling the case and other key players. From an original mass of 100,000 documents, the lawyers may receive just a few thousand for further review-and with additional Web-hosted searching will be able to pull out the most important documents quickly. Some Web-hosted services also offer calendaring. As key upcoming dates are set, a member of the legal team can enter them into the system just once and transmit them simultaneously to the entire team. If a date changes, a single entry into the system will update everyone’s calendar automatically. In calculating the cost of using a Web-hosted document-management system, the law firm should consider not only the time and labor savings but also the savings on in-house technology. With a Web-hosted system there’s no need for caseware and much less need for in-house storage devices. Web-hosted document-management systems like the one described are more than sufficient for most cases likely to be handled by a small law firm or single practitioner. With this technology, the legal team can quickly take charge of the documents, search out those that are relevant and organize them into brief bags. However, once the number of documents exceeds 100,000, it can make sense to seek additional resources. These generally require more personal involvement than the automated approaches and consequently cost more. MORE ADVANCED TECHNOLOGIES One of these technologies is automated coding and indexing. There are several vendors of such services. The most advanced services can extract most of the coding-field information (date, type of document, author, recipient, subject, etc.) automatically from the documents, saving much of the time and money associated with manual coding. Some Web-hosted document-management systems offer users a number of different search technologies, enabling the legal team to search the documents in different ways. As the team locates and reviews relevant documents, it can refine the search terminology to further narrow the search. However, if more than 100,000 documents are involved, this approach may prove too time-consuming. In that case, the legal team may want to call upon some of the most advanced search technologies. These include natural-language and conceptual searches. In a natural-language search, the searcher can enter sample text and ask the technology to find documents similar to it. In a conceptual search, the search engine looks for ideas and concepts and identifies ones that are similar to the sample even if the words are different. The best of these search technologies combine both natural-language and conceptual approaches and prioritize their findings to further simplify the work of the legal team. A few are even proactive and offer suggestions to the searchers. For smaller cases, these leading-edge search technologies may amount to overkill. They require a fair amount of quality control and human intervention and, accordingly, are not cheap. An advantage of Web-hosted technology over off-the-shelf software and technology is that small firms can more easily adapt Web-hosted technology to their needs. In an extreme case, a law firm could get different elements of the technology from different vendors. QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER For cost purposes, it generally makes more sense to get all or most of the elements from a single vendor. With that in mind, here are some of the questions a law firm will want to ask before selecting a specific vendor or vendors. What services does the vendor offer? A full-service provider will offer digital document repository, automated coding and advanced search technology. Some will also offer high-speed scanning. How automated is the system? The more automated the system, the less call there will be for manual labor. Accordingly, costs should be lower. How intuitive is the technology? A small firm does not want to have to master an IT manual before it starts loading its documents onto the system. A good system will lead users through every step. It pays to try a service first before committing to it. How good are the search tools? A thorough document search requires a number of different tools. If the tools are not up to the size of the case, the legal team can look for another vendor or simply bring in one of the providers of advanced search technology as an added function. The trick here is to balance the advantages of better search technology against the greater demands and costs of that technology. How fast is the technology? It makes sense to check everything end to end, from how fast documents can be loaded into the system to how quickly the legal team can then search and organize those documents. How flexible is the system? If the legal team is thinking of using advanced search technologies or other functions not offered by the vendor, it had better make sure that those technologies will be compatible with the vendor’s system. Technologies, like people, are not always compatible. For years, small law firms and solo practitioners have found it difficult to effectively access the kind of technology that would enable them to tackle larger and more complex litigation-and compete for business with large law firms. Until recently, the cost and complexity of that kind of technology has simply been too great, and to compound the problem, the technology has generally been tailored specifically to the needs of the large law firms with their many resources and their greater in-house IT expertise. Now Internet-hosted document-management services are bringing advanced technologies to small firms and solo practitioners in a form readily accessible to users and at a price they and their clients can afford. Web-hosted technologies are cheaper because they spread their cost among several users. They also save their customers the cost of buying new hardware and software, training people on that equipment and then, with the introduction of new technology, repeating the whole process. With a Web-hosted system, the responsibility for creating, maintaining and upgrading the system falls to the vendor. All of this is good news for small firms and solo practitioners. However, Web-hosted document-management technology is relatively new, and there is a considerable difference in cost and quality among the different vendors and their services. So it pays to be a smart shopper. Before going with a particular service, the firm should know exactly what it’s getting and how much it will cost. It should also try out the system to make sure that it is easy to use and accomplishes what the firm wants-and that it has enough scalability and flexibility to deal with unexpected developments. With the right technology, small law firms that once only dreamed of handling complex, big-stakes lawsuits can now turn their dreams into reality. Kevin Carr is the president of InterLegis Inc., a Dallas-based manufacturer of Web-hosted document-management services. He can be reached at [email protected].

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