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Discard Outdated Practices

March 29, 2013

Do you write your documents in Times New Roman? Do you end pleadings with "WHEREFORE, PREMISES CONSIDERED?"

Technology is changing the practice of law. As a young lawyer, you're likely a digital native dealing with old lawyering. Discard old practices and find new solutions.

As a partner in the oldest continually operated law firm in Texas, I appreciate that some things get better with age, but not necessarily all things. When I started in 2003, many of the senior partners were licensed to practice law long before I was born. It's hard to argue against practices with a proven track record.

So I fell upon traditions like exclusively using Times New Roman for double-spaced pleadings and single-spaced letters. I spent hours digging through files to locate documents. I learned complicated filing systems for discerning the difference between pleadings and discovery.[1] Pleadings contained antiquated language and run-on sentences. Correspondence with opposing counsel occurred through faxed letters. On several occasions, I rushed to the courthouse to make a filing before 5 p.m.

Working with digital content versus paper requires different skill sets. Have the courage to adjust your workflow to match your skills. How many computer screens do you have? It is impossible to work with digital content from a 13-inch laptop. Even if your employer doesn't provide it, consider investing in one or two 27-inch monitors to give you large and high-resolution views. You'll be amazed at the improvement in your workflow.

Lawyers are in the business of creating documents, but have you considered making your documents enjoyable to read? Antiquated language and run-on sentences may contain magic words, but as an advocate, consider shorter documents with concise writing. It's too easy for a judge to receive a 20-page motion for summary judgment and deny it because in 20 pages there has to be a fact issue. If the same motion were five pages, a judge might be more likely to think the issue is so one-sided that summary judgment is appropriate.

Lawyers typically focus on the content of their documents but fail to consider how their documents look. Is your attention drawn to web pages with better design layouts, or do you only focus on the content? How likely would you be to buy an iPhone if Apple's website had the same appearance as it did in 1997?

Your letters and pleadings are no different. Look at your documents and consider whether they are visually appealing. Your audience expects professionally designed magazines and websites. It's impossible to make your legal arguments as fun to read as ESPN.com, but the layout of your document is just as important as its content. Use the surface of your document to communicate your arguments efficiently. Use charts and pictures to convey ideas.

American statistician Edward Tufte invented sparklines, which are small graphics inserted into the context of words. If you want to make a point about trends, it's more persuasive to insert a small chart in line with the text rather than forcing the reader to flip to an exhibit.

If you are interested in making your documents look better, read Matthew Butterick's Typography for Lawyers. Butterick, an attorney, explains the value of better typography and gives suggestions on how to make your documents look better. It's a short read and jam-packed with practical tips.

Lastly, challenge the old way to work by trying these digital practices:

  • Use online collaborative documents like Google Drive or Office 365 instead of emailing revisions.
  • Use your computer's built-in dictation function instead of typing.
  • Host online meetings instead of in-person meetings or telephone conferences.
  • Use a third-party service to transcribe your voicemails and email you the text.
  • Electronically sign documents instead of printing and signing.
  • Use your computer's built-in indexer to search electronic versions of files instead of paper files.
  • Outsource your document databases.
  • Use remote desktop to access work files from outside the office
  • Use electronic calendar invitations for every meeting.
  • Set up Google Alerts to receive emails when your client makes news.

You may recognize the value of these ideas, but you also like your job. So how can you deal with senior partners who still like to redline on paper? The best way is to show value. If these practices produce a better product and make you more efficient, your supervisor will appreciate it. In a profession where time really is money, it's hard to ignore technology that improves efficiency and, ultimately, the bottom line. Share your tips and tricks with other lawyers to gain a critical mass at your firm to effect change.

Changing your workflow to match your skill set will result in big rewards for you and your clients.

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[1] A Rule 11 agreement extending a discovery deadline, despite being filed with the clerk, should be kept with discovery.


Robert Booth practices construction litigation on Galveston Island. He has a bachelor's degree in information systems and is a member of the Technology Committee at Mills Shirley LLP.