by Howard Yellen, Esq.
(Howard Yellen, Esq., is president of The Professional Consulting Group (PCG), a San Francisco-based firm selected by the California State Bar to administer its Law Office Management Assistance Program. While earning his J.D. at Boalt Hall in 1989, he served as Computer Editor of the California Law Review and Computer Systems Manager for the law school.)
When two prominent California law firms, one from Palo Alto and another from San Diego merged to form Gray, Cary, Ware & Freidenrich on January 1, 1994, the new firm determined that for safety and efficiency, it would be best to combine the two firms' docketing systems into a single common database.
The simplest and least costly option would have been to use either of the two different systems already in place as the basis of a broader implementation. Unfortunately, it appeared unlikely that neither the system at Ware, Freidenrich in Palo Alto nor the system at Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye in San Diego could successfully operate a centralized calendaring system with offices 500 miles apart. It was obvious that other, more capable systems would have to be considered.
While a variety of features were desirable, there was one issue which loomed so large as to overshadow all others. The system had to operate effectively over the firm's Wide Area Network (WAN).
Easier said than done, as they say.
While LANs share information at a rate of 10 million bits per second, the two firms were connected by T1 dedicated phone lines which, even though rapid for phone lines, could move only 1.4 million bits of information a second. And the information the T1 lines had to transmit included all phone calls as well as data information between the two offices.
In the judgment of Don Jaycox, the firm's Director of Technology Services, the best solution for the WAN involved using client-server technology. Client-server applications distribute the processing functions between PC workstations and the server so that the WAN would not have to transmit the total load of data over the telephone lines.
In this case, a user in San Diego would request information from the server in Palo Alto, and then that server would process the request and only the requested information would be returned to San Diego, where it would be processed at the workstation. The revisions, if any, would then be returned to the server in Palo Alto. Distributing the processing throughout the network greatly reduces the amount of data that is transmitted on the network. The T1 line would handle it easily.
As mentioned earlier, a number of other features were deemed highly desirable for successful operation of a multi-office calendaring system. These included:
Court Rule sets that permitted automatic calendaring without human calculation. Since most malpractice claims stem from missed dates, and most missed dates involve human miscalculation, the firm believed it was essential that the calendaring system be able to automatically apply court rules to the accurate scheduling of the docket.
In Jaycox's view, the firm also needed to be able to add its own internal rules and/or practice notes and reminders to help manage litigation. For instance, the court rules might set Discovery cutoff at July 9. But with a customizable layer of rules, a firm could program a reminder well ahead of the cutoff to allow for preparation of additional Discovery or for a motion to compel, when necessary.
Flexible staffing configurations. Lawyers from various offices might be assigned to a single matter. If two attorneys in San Diego and five in Palo Alto were assigned to the same case, the calendaring program needed to notify all of them of events in the matter. The program also needed to be able to handle additions and deletions to litigation teams. Since there are hundreds and possibly thousands of events for large cases, any scenario whereby a change of attorney required editing of individual events would not be practical. It would just take too long. The program needed to allow the firm to add and subtract from the litigation group as needed and then edit all the individual calendars involved in a matter through a single editing.
Flexibility in creating and printing reports. The firm needed to be able to create reports for each attorney in each office and then print them out in whatever configuration was desired. In other words, the person in charge of the Palo Alto office needed to be able to request printed reports for all attorneys in Palo Alto only. Due to the number of timekeepers, the firm could not afford to spend time separating hundreds of reports, or have somebody sit in front of a computer to individually select the attorneys in the appropriate office and wait for the reports to print one by one. The program also needed to be able to print the entire firm's calendar including all offices in one report.
After examining the available calendaring software, Jaycox determined that only one program on the market would fit the firm's needs and operate in a Novell environment CompuLaw's Advanced/Network Docket™ (NetDoc). Network Docket uses Novell's BTRIEVE as its underlying database engine, and since BTRIEVE was a Novell product (it is now a separate company) and both law firms used Novell LANs, the match seemed strong.
My firm, The Professional Consulting Group (PCG), was brought in to assist in the implementation of the new system.
In addition to its client-server technology, NetDoc offered a number of features that I felt would be particularly beneficial to Gray, Cary. For example, NetDoc's Court Rules Sets were widely respected as more comprehensive and better than any other on the market. CompuLaw offers more than 100 pre-programmed rule sets including state and federal courts for California, and for other jurisdictions. The rules are written by practicing attorneys, and as a lawyer I felt more comfortable with that. I suppose non-attorneys can create computerized court rules, but from personal experience I know there is a perspective lawyers get from practicing law that cannot be obtained by simply reading books or attending seminars.
I was somewhat uneasy with CompuLaw's ultraconservative methods of interpreting and wording the Court Rules. Some of the rules appeared to be too verbose, making daily reports longer than I would like them to be. But I knew my clients could customize the rules, reducing their size or eliminating some of them altogether. And my view was that my clients would prefer making that decision themselves. Many litigators would rather look at long reports than appear at an OSC hearing or worse, be sued for malpractice.
NetDoc also provided the flexibility Gray, Cary needed both in creating and printing reports and with staffing configurations. Regarding staffing, NetDoc enabled firms to create "case teams" of all the participants in a case. When a change becomes necessary, we can simply change the list; and since the events refer to the list (as opposed to individual attorneys) the single change will have the same effect as hundreds of edits.
NetDoc also provided five layers of Rule Sets to be used in conjunction with the Court Rules. That means the firm could add its own rules at the same time as the program was applying court rules. Being able to use multiple layers of rules at the same time allows users to keep the actual Court Rules and user-defined rules physically separate for maintenance purposes, but still use them as if they were one rule set for scheduling purposes. The software also allowed holiday lists to be attached to each Rule Set, which would be highly beneficial to Gray, Cary because it had offices in multiple jurisdictions. The consequence of not having an absolutely accurate holiday list on each Rule Set can be catastrophic because one different holiday can throw the whole schedule off.
I also saw Network Docket's audit trail capability as extremely important because it keeps a complete history of all additions, changes, and deletions for every case, which is critical should a malpractice claim arise. Legal malpractice insurance carriers, which often grant significant premium reductions to firms using calendaring software, should be particularly enamored with this feature because it provides evidence of why and how calendaring decisions were made.
Still, Network Docket's client-server technology was its single most attractive characteristic for Gray, Cary. The question was, would it perform as CompuLaw claimed?
Gray, Cary planned to use the Palo Alto office as the central repository of calendaring data. PCG is based in San Francisco. To save expense, we benchmarked the program by setting up a test repository in San Diego and testing access from Palo Alto.
In anticipation of the pilot installation, I went on-line and asked for information about installing a BTRIEVE-based WAN application. Surprisingly, I got a host of similar responses: If I ran the application from the proper drive, the networks would integrate seamlessly and client-server access over the WAN would be automatic.
I confess I was dubious. In a decade of computer integration, I have not found that complicated new systems mesh without problems. Still, with no additional tricks coming from my compatriots on-line, I went to Gray, Cary's Palo Alto office to take a stab at making it work.
Just in case, I asked for an office where I could work for the entire day. I arrived at their offices and began working on this most difficult aspect of the project. Fifteen minutes later, I walked into Jaycox's office. "The system is up and working," I announced.
He was very surprised as, I confess, was I.
Not only was the client server implementation working, but it was working well. Performance was good, with an estimated performance degradation over the WAN of about 15%, which I would characterize as de minimis.
A follow-up test with the database residing in Palo Alto and requests being processed from San Diego went just as smoothly. This was all it took to ensure that NetDoc was the application of choice. With a complex data conversion complete, the system is now up and running. As hoped, it provides real-time access from both offices as well as the sophisticated calendaring system Gray, Cary needed.
I discovered an unexpected ancillary benefit of NetDoc's client-server technology when I imported over 30,000 records from the predecessor systems. Importing these records without the client-server capability enabled took several days, due to the complexity of the data. In the client-server mode, this import took less than one-eighth as long!
Excerpted from LEGAL MANAGEMENT: The Journal of the Association of Legal Administrators, September/October 1995 issue, pages 1-2.