Home / NEWS & FEATURES / Job security: Paralegals can make themselves indispensible if they stay ahead of the technology curve

Job security: Paralegals can make themselves indispensible if they stay ahead of the technology curve

As technology reshapes the practice of law, paralegals often find themselves at the forefront, becoming the resident expert in trial apps or researching the firm’s next case management system.

Tammy Moldovan, a member of the North Carolina paralegal certification board and a civil litigation paralegal with Vandeventer Black in Raleigh, has been in the business for 17 years. She remembers, in the days before trial presentation software, going to court with an easel and exhibits mounted on whiteboard. But technology is now an intrinsic part of her work.

“I’m not sure how I could do my job without the technology,” she said.

In the courtroom, one of her key tools is Sanction, which allows her to highlight evidence or reorganize exhibits quickly. Moldovan said she knows the software better than many of her attorneys, and they expect her to be able to use it.

“Technology seems to be a role that does fall to paralegals,” she said.

For those who want to stay on top of their tech game, we asked experts in law firm information technology to share recommendations for new tools and best practices.

When it comes to technology, what’s the next game-changer for law firms?

The change is happening all around us, said David Neesen, chief information officer for Greenberg Glusker in Los Angeles. He spoke at the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) annual conference last August and will be a panelist on new technology at this month’s LegalTech, conferences held annually in New York and Los Angeles.

Neesen said the ascent of “bring your own device,” or BYOD, is “almost revolutionary for law firms.”

“I have spent the majority of my career holding on to the idea that the firm, and IT, will decide what hardware and software are acceptable for use. Any deviation was considered a security risk,” he said. Now, however, the combination of portable devices and virtual technology enables users to mimic the in-house experience, no matter where they are.

Lucas Messina, a practice group leader in Kraft & Kennedy’s New York office, agreed. Kraft & Kennedy, a technology consultant for legal and financial services firms, has participated in several LegalTech conferences.

According to Messina, the dual advances of software and wireless technology have created a seamless transition between “in the office” and “on the road.”

The iPad, of course, is a frequent player in that transition, but tech experts also point to the growing ability to customize systems for individuals. Gone are the days when everyone had a company-issued laptop and identical software.

To Mark Brophy, director of information technology for Rogers Townsend & Thomas in Columbia, the biggest game-changer will be stricter information security regulations, like those of HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“Regulations with regards to security never revert back, they only get more restrictive,” Brophy said. “Law firms are in constant possession of private client information and are responsible for its protection while under our control. This could become a serious problem for smaller law firms who do not have the resources for larger technology deployments.”

What’s the most common mistake law firms make when it comes to technology?

Not surprisingly, many IT professionals believe law firms don’t put enough emphasis on technology. As a result, attorneys and paralegals may underutilize tools that could make their jobs easier.

Tapping the expertise of vendors or IT professionals who specialize in law firms is important, said Jude Travers-Frazier, chief operating officer and associate general counsel with Kraft & Kennedy in New York. “Your typical IT consultant — unaware of the nuances of how attorneys work — will not be able to help a law firm truly take advantage of the ways in which technology can help a lawyer serve her clients more effectively and practice more efficiently.”

David Michel is the chief information officer in Burr & Forman’s Birmingham office. He is the regional vice president for ILTA’s Southeast region and a frequent speaker about IT best practices.

He said small firms without a dedicated IT professional should be proactive in seeking out advice and encouraging staff to develop technology skills. A smaller firm may not want to purchase an expensive financial analysis program, Michel said, but it’s possible that Microsoft Excel can do everything they need—if someone knows how to use it fully.

“Whatever practice management suite you use, it’s [likely] underutilized,” Michel said. “It’s not used as effectively as it can be and people are not doing everything possible with it, because people simply don’t know what they don’t know. I see that all the time.”

When it is time to buy new programs, Brophy recommends a good dose of skepticism. Too often, he said, managers want a silver bullet that can solve all their problems, and salespeople may be too happy to oblige.

“Take the time to evaluate and discuss openly what situation you are trying to improve upon or address with your staff and key business decision makers before sitting down for that next technology demo,” he said.

The pros also advise firms to approach technology strategically. Travers-Frazier recommends that firms create a technology committee, while Neesen points to the need for long-term planning.

“It is very easy for companies and IT to get so focused on what the next update or upgrade is that we do not take the time to consider broader strategic thinking,” he said.

What’s the best way to help paralegals improve the tech tools they use every day?

“From my perspective, the difference between the paralegals that excel and those that do not has less to do with technology and more to do with their willingness to embrace it,” Neesen said. “Those who have a curious mind and are willing to experiment with the programs seem to find the better solutions.”

For Michel, training is everything. That’s a tough battle in some law firms because attorneys are reluctant to take time from paralegals’ day-to-day duties, but he argues that increased productivity is worth it. Staying on top of technology is also a great way to stay competitive, he noted.

“You’ve got to reward paralegals and legal secretaries who know the software and can make it work, because they’re more efficient,” Michel said.

According to Travers-Frazier, ediscovery is fast becoming a must-have skill, and firms that are not using it will soon find themselves at a disadvantage.

“Concerns over the cost of many of these systems should be critically examined. The return on investment from tools that can help prioritize document review and facilitate early case assessment strategies typically far outweighs the cost to invest in such tools,” he said. “Properly equipping paralegals with current, advanced technologies will pay for itself.”

When it comes to data security, what critical points should law firm staff keep in mind?

Security is quickly becoming a primary concern for law firms as hackers, domestic and overseas, go after their treasure troves of corporate documents and intellectual property. The American Bar Association Journal reported in January that when the FBI met with 200 New York law firms last November to discuss hacking risks, it was evident that some firms were well prepared to protect themselves, while others were at a loss. Bloomberg reported that hackers infiltrated an estimated 80 major law firms last year, according to Alexandria-based cybersecurity firm Mandiant.

“People know you hold the data,” Michel said. “If you want to go after Boeing, Boeing is probably locked up tight as far as their security, but the lawyers who represent Boeing and have all the documents and drawings and intellectual property are not, because firms don’t allow the security to be put in or people are overconfident.”

According to Brophy, it is often an employee who ends up compromising a firm, whether on purpose or by accident. Most employees know they shouldn’t click on a suspicious email link, for instance, but hackers have gotten very good at making bogus emails appear legitimate.

“It takes only one employee to undermine thousands of dollars of security technology,” Brophy said. “The number-one line of defense for any company is its staff.”

Put another way, according to Michel, employees are the weakest link. While he advocates for security policies — requiring, for example, that mobile devices be password-protected the same as desktop devices — those only work if employees use them.

Travers-Frazier said a systematic review of a firm’s security exposures should include areas such as remote access, mobility and portable devices, email, networking, applications for document management, human resources and financial systems, and passwords.

Has cloud computing become a must-do, like mobile computing, or is it still optional?

Law firms are hearing more talk about “the cloud,” or the use of hosted Web-based services to store, access and share data. For many firms, particularly those with multiple offices, interest is driven by the growing need for access-it-anywhere data.

While large firms have been leading the way in creating “private clouds,” Neesen said, smaller firms are catching up.

“There is a new push to offer small firms the option of moving their entire infrastructure to the cloud,” he said. “I am not sure I would compare it to the necessity of mobile computing, but I do thing that all of us are going to have more and more of our heads in the clouds as time goes forward.”

Travers-Frazier said he’d put cloud computing in the optional category, but it’s definitely something firms should evaluate.

“New and small firms are doing themselves a disservice if they don’t seriously consider leveraging the cloud in one or more fashions as they seek to implement or expand their technology platforms,” he said.

His colleague Messina pointed out that for new firms, cloud computing can be a cost-effective solution to startup costs.

“Whether it is document management or messaging, the cloud alternatives provide an entry-level price point that allows new firms to have tools similar to the largest of firms without the infrastructure investment,” he said.

The potential problem, according to Michel, is security. Cloud-based services vary widely in their data protection, so firms should do their homework. Michel recommends that before firms put confidential data online, they understand the provider’s encryption practices, level of access to data that provider staff may have, and what the provider can and cannot do with users’ data.

Michel said he uses You Send It and considers NetDocuments to be one of the better cloud-based document management services.

As with any new technology, many people still don’t agree on what “the cloud” means. To Brophy, it’s “hyped-up marketing terminology.”

“Remember Web 2.0 or virtualization? Those were yesterday’s buzzwords,” he said. “To me, there are some services where using a hosted provider or service makes great business sense. Likewise, there are other services that I would never place a law firm into as they don’t make sense once you get past the sales pitch.”

 

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