“Error-Prone” and “Demoralizing:” A Litigator’s Perspective on Her Firm’s Antiquated Tech Stack

Legal practice is not for the faint of heart, and running a law firm, regardless of size, is no easy measure. Between the pressures of court, the law, client relationships, opposing counsel, and all other inevitable demanding forces in litigation, managing partners endure many obstacles and challenges simply to keep their practices afloat, let alone profitable and thriving. But one issue that is increasingly emerging across law firms of all sizes is the need to implement technologies that allow lawyers to work efficiently, no matter where they are.

While evaluating and implementing new technology solutions that help lawyers work on the go can seem time-consuming and expensive; in the long term, it saves firms money and time by improving efficiency, which allows lawyers to spend time on profit-able tasks, as well as boost morale, which is critical for talent retention in an increasingly tight labor market. As a former litigator who was challenged by outdated technology, I will explore some of my observations about how my practice was impacted in the day-to-day.

Reliance on Handwritten Notes Was Error-Prone

When I started as an associate at my last firm, one of the most shocking things I encountered was the lack of functionality provided by my firm’s tech stack, particularly around accessing documents and files remotely—especially having grown used to using software like Google Docs in my everyday life. As a litigator, I carried individual folders to court daily, with all the case documents enclosed. After court, I would record handwritten notes and bring them back to the office, where either I or a staff member would enter the notes into the computer. I also had to bring back copies of the court papers received from opposing counsel or the court. While I was allowed to email papers back and forth with the office, there was no way to directly download documents from my phone emails into the case management system, or vice versa. This made for some difficulties if I needed extra documents in court.

Lost time aside, the usage of handwritten notes as my primary information method was extremely error-prone. It is incredibly time-consuming to write down a large summary by hand, while simultaneously managing other cases in court that require full attention. It is very easy for an attorney to omit or forget small details that can be very important in a negotiation unless they are immediately recorded. But it was often impossible to write a detailed account in a way that could truly be helpful later, while simultaneously being called to the bench.

Another simple but important consideration is that an attorney’s handwritten notes or account can be misread, and even missing one number in data entry can lead to a missed court date, a wrong settlement offer, or recovery. Accuracy is critical when recording information, but relying on someone else’s handwritten notes makes errors and misunderstandings not only likely but inevitable.

Time—And Potential Revenue—Were Lost Because of Technological Inefficiencies

We’re all familiar with the expression that “time is money”—but for lawyers, this expression translates quite literally. However, my firm treated time like an endless commodity rather than a precious resource. Because of the lack of mobile technology, attorneys had to return to the office after court appearances, a trip that often took upwards of an hour, to update the case management system with the day’s documents and notes. There was no centralized way to scan and upload everything remotely, nor a seamless email system where all could be easily imported.

The problem with this approach went beyond the commute time—the lack of mobile technology also meant that we could not even use this commute time to be productive. For many law firms, a loss of productive time can literally lead to hundreds of dollars in lost revenue per day per attorney. But beyond the productivity and revenue loss, requiring hours of travel to come back to the office to do work that could have been done elsewhere is grueling and demoralizing after a long day of court, and many attorneys experience burnout from such a practice. Personally, by the time I returned to the office, I was exhausted, and less productive than I was expected to be. Over time, my productivity, spirit, and morale tanked.

Additionally, without remote access, attorneys are precluded from editing documents that need last-minute changes or additional exhibits later provided by the clients. Everything must be done the day before court, placed in the physical case file, without any way to make changes in the morning before court despite the occasional need to do just that. As a result, I would sometimes need to request adjournments for a later court date, simply to edit and submit new documents. Had I been able to access all the databases and edit documents from a mobile device, I may not have needed an extension of time, saving my firm and my clients time and money.

Managing Communications and Documents Was All But Impossible

At my firm, we experienced significant challenges because of the lack of integration between our various communication and practice management systems. Our calendar and notes were maintained separately, occasionally married haphazardly through emails. We relied heavily on paper files, but these files often did not match what was on the computer, and it could be impossible to tell which version was the most recent. Additionally, manually transmitting information from disparate emails to colleagues and clients is extremely time-consuming, compared to the ability to upload emails directly to a single document management system that can be accessed firmwide. I observed that this lack of cohesion has the potential to cause mistakes, missed information, and incomplete data—resulting in lost time, lost morale, and potential bad out-comes for clients.

A Small Investment Now Leads to a Large Payout Later

Implementing new technology solutions can be difficult for firms that are set in their ways. Their staff may have been trained for decades to use inefficient and manual processes and may not be willing to undergo the necessary reeducation to become more productive. However, in the face of changing technology, law firms can help their lawyers achieve far more productivity, work-life balance, and accuracy. Over time, firms will see real revenue gains by adopting modern technology solutions.

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Marilyn Fox

Marilyn Fox is an attorney from the East Coast. She spent several years practicing civil litigation, where she attended daily court appearances and settled many cases. Ultimately, she chose to resign from legal practice to pursue the non-lawyer career of her dreams, which she ironically discovered as a law student.