♫ So you can see
We’re friends in need
And friends in need
Are friends indeed
We’ll keep you safe
In the jungle forevermore
That’s what friends are for! ♫
Music and lyrics by George Bruns, from Disney’s “The Jungle Book”.
We all know that it is a jungle out there. Accordingly, this is the first in a series of posts in advance of the The Pacific Legal Technology Conference to be held in Vancouver, BC on Friday, Oct. 2, 2009 (www.pacificlegaltech.com) under the category “30 Questions for Busy Lawyers who use Technology”. They are to illustrate how all types of lawyers, from all types of practices, from urban, suburban and rural geographical locations, from the largest firms to solos, who range from newly called lawyers all the way to senior lawyers, with different backgrounds and experiences, have embraced technology, brought it into their firms and their practices and made it work for them. More importantly, they illustrate the theme of the conference which is lawyers and other legal professionals reachng out and helping others.
They use PCs with Windows (and in rare cases, Linux) and Macs with OSX or a combo of these. They use off-the-shelf software and custom-designed applications. They use electronic filing, Adobe Acrobat, Microsoft Access, Word, Excel, Outlook, Amicus Attorney, TimeMatters, LawStream, Google and Firefox among other applications. They have set up secure intranets, extranets and collaborative spaces using such products as Microsoft’s SharePoint. They have gone paperless, use Dragon’s voice recognition, desktops, laptops, netbooks, MacBooks, smartphones and iPhones and Blackberrys. Some are past and present speakers at ABA TECHSHOW, The Pacific Legal Technology Conference and other legal CLEs. But the common thread running through each of their stories is how their strong vision for where they wanted technology to take them, their perseverance in searching for answers and their determination in continually striving for further efficiency and effectiveness gains resulted in strong benefits for their clients, their staff and their practices.
Their message is that if they can do it, there is a way for the rest of us to follow their lead and do it too. Their stories indicate that ‘one size definitely does not fit all’, for their solutions are all unique, varied and interesting. I have enjoyed meeting with each of them and I hope the posts accurately reflect their passion for, and the depth of, their desire to not just accept the ‘status quo’. Of course, any inaccuracies are wholly those of the writer.
This first interview is with Thomas Spraggs, Jr. of Spraggs & Associates of Coquitlam British Columbia, who is one of the speakers at the 2009 Pacific Legal Technology Conference. Here is his story:
1. Could you briefly describe your firm (number of lawyers, staff, areas of practice etc):
Tom: The firm is, by definition, a small firm. We currently have seven lawyers and approximately 23 full time staff. We also have very close relationships with a number of consultants in the area of communications, advertising, investigations, information technology, and business consulting. Our practice is currently restricted to assisting plaintiffs in motor vehicle accident cases. Occasionally, we will also assist current clients with small criminal matters and the occasional business transaction.
2. When was your firm established?
Tom: The firm was established in 1971 with Thomas L. Spraggs Sr.
3. Where do you practice (one office, multiple offices, virtual offices, regional, national, international)?
Tom: Our office location has been in Coquitlam since 1971. Since 2000 the firm has established a presence in Edmonton Alberta where there is collaboration with another Edmonton law firm to assist clients with Alberta and Yukon injury claims. We also use the features that Microsoft small business server provides to login remotely to desktops from home and when traveling.
Robert M. Spraggs, (Thomas L. Spraggs brother) is a solicitor in Australia, and is working on becoming a foreign legal consultant to Spraggs & Co. for the purposes of better assisting clientele. The firm has had several clients who reside in Australia.
4. What are the demographic backgrounds of the lawyers and staff in your firm?
Tom: The firm is pleased to have a good representation of age, gender, and cultural backgrounds for our lawyers and staff. We have two lawyers in the firm both with over 35 years of experience as lawyers.
Thomas L. Spraggs Sr. served for nearly 8 years in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a flying officer. Tom Sr. obtained a bachelors of science degree in civil engineering before starting his career in law. He remains a licensed and practicing engineer.
David J. Elgee has served as counsel to some of Canada’s largest corporations. The rest of the Associates in the firm come from various parts of Canada and various educational institutions. In this office, there are five different languages spoken.
5. What prior degrees and/or experience do the lawyers and staff bring to your firm?
Tom: Since 1971, Spraggs and Co. has strived for work excellence that is strengthened through the diversity of staff member. Our lawyers, for example, have a wide range of different educational backgrounds – with some specializing in economics, some in sociology, and some in business – allowing our staff to voice unique views and perspectives that can assist advocacy in negotiations and before Judges and Jury’s.
While bachelor and master degrees are crucial, so, too, is pragmatic, practical experience– that is why we are fortunate to have strong human resources. Our lawyers have worked at the UN, as professional engineers, as in house corporate counsels to some of Canada’s largest corporations as well as work at the Privy Council. Many of the lawyers have also travelled extensively and worked in a variety of jobs that allow a greater depth of relationships to clients.
The firm encourages pro bono work and a strong community spirit. This is accomplished through volunteering and involvement in local organizations and churches.
6. How would you describe the culture of your firm?
Tom: My father, Tom Sr. brought with him to the firm very strong work ethic from growing up on a farm and then with the military. He also brought a strong belief that no one person is more important than any other person in the firm, each person simply has a different role to play. This core belief has created an extremely integrated collaborative workplace. This collaboration extends to work with the staff as well as the lawyers.
7. Can you describe the firm’s management style?
Tom: Spraggs and Co. has spent several decades refining its management style. Specifically, the firm has attempted to maintain a hands-on, always-available approach with its employees. Communication is direct but polite. We have a no swearing policy and alcohol is for special occasions as the firm has a no alcohol policy.
An important balance between delegation and support is constantly sought; a balance in which hard work is rewarded and improvement is encouraged. Challenges are not frowned upon but welcomed, and our employees are spurred to accomplish their best whenever and wherever possible. Currently, the firm is very fortunate to have immediate family members who consult to the firm that have worked in executive positions with some of the world’s largest corporations.
8. Does technology assist you in the management of your firm? If so, how?
Tom: Technology has always played a central role in the success of the firm. Currently, advances in server technology and computers generally have been responsible for creating a higher quality end product [legal briefs, closing arguments, client communications, databases].
Embracing technology and concentrating on the continual improvement of our firm’s information technology measurably increases consistency and productivity.
9. When did you first embrace technology?
Tom: Spraggs and Co., from the day it began offering its services to the public, has strived to adapt to the newest, most efficient, and most effective technology available. Thomas L. Spraggs, Sr., the firm’s founder, spearheaded this perpetual goal decades ago by programming a custom database and client management tool that only needed replacing several years ago. (Using MS-Dos and Basic) Since that time, the firm has continually expanded the role of technology in day-to-day operations. In 2003, off the shelf software along with customizing programs and certain applications using Visual Basic and SQL technologies has allowed a complete information technology transformation in the firm. Currently, Thomas L. Spraggs has been working on linking intranet custom applications for even higher collaboration and performance consistency. Sometime in the future, it is likely that these applications will be shared with the rest of the profession.
10. Can you describe the strategic advantage(s) that you feel that technology offers to you and your practice?
Tom: The greatest advantage that small business server 2003 and the custom application development has brought the firm is in the area of collaboration and efficiency in document management. Technology uses tend to be far greater than the average user can manage.
Teaching the relevant use of the current technologies in a legal practice to both lawyers and staff has been a challenge met with great success through frequent luncheon seminars and tutorials. The greatest asset of the implementation of information technology systems is the reduction of tedious and inefficient tasks.
11. Are you a PC or a Mac office or both?
Tom: The firm utilizes the PC format. Most computers are utilizing Windows XP service pack three and some computers are utilizing Vista business service pack two. Mac is an attractive competitor to the PC but does not afford the firm the ability to customize software utilizing the Visual Basic tools. The firm owns two Macbooks but now prefers the netbooks from MSI for court work. It is also an observation that PCs tend to also be more flexible in that we can often repair and upgrade them in-house.
12. Which accounting system do you use?
Tom: Accounting functions are managed by an external accounting firm. The bookkeeping in the office is done with a customized version of Microsoft accounting. The accounting package allows easy import and export from the spreadsheet program excel. Integrated into this accounting is print audit, as well as easy pay for payroll. Previous experience with fully integrated “law firm accounting” was found to lack the flexibility to current systems, customized, provide.
13. Do you use any case management application? If so, which one?
Tom: Our firm does not use any specific case management software, however, share point and the share point document libraries that form part of small business server from Microsoft serve the role of our case management software. The firm is currently finalizing development on a customized application that utilizes SQL server and Visual Basic forms through the corporate intranet to expand on the current use made with SharePoint.
14. What off-the-shelf packages do you use?
Tom: Our firm has had great success utilizing the Microsoft office suite of products. We have also found that print audit is a more cost-effective and reliable alternative for cost recovery of printing and photocopy charges. Microsoft’s small business server technologies have proven stable and reliable for up to 75 users. The firm is looking forward to the release of Windows 7 which is anticipated to be operating system that will be on every desktop in the office before the new year.
15. Do you use MS SharePoint or similar collaboration technology?
Tom: SharePoint has been the greatest software tool the office uses overall. The technology is easy for everyone to understand, and allows for specific projects and users to collaborate exclusively. No other software has had such a positive effect on day-to-day operations apart from the word processor. Sharepoint services is also a free product and quite robust.
16. Do you have a web page?
17. A blog?
Tom: Currently no, although the blog is on the agenda for the next revision of the website.
18. Do you use any social networking sites (LinkedIn, Plaxo, Facebook, Twitter etc.) in connection with your practice?
Tom: No, our firm does not maintain a presence on any social networking sites.
19. Do you custom design any legal technology? If so, what?
Tom: Our firm is currently designing an information system – tailored to the needs of our practice – that will serve as the backbone and foundation to our office computer architecture. Over the upcoming months, our IT specialists will unveil a custom software package that fuses Microsoft SharePoint’s collaborative features with SQL database technology to produce a series of desktop applications. These applications will serve both to increase accuracy and efficiency of our work, as well as to improve accessibility for staff lawyers. Much time and resources are being dedicated to the project in the hopes that the applications can have a market with other firms in the future.
20. Are you a paper-less firm?
Tom: Regrettably no, however the new workflow management software that is referenced above will greatly reduce the necessity and volume of paper.
21. What other technologies do you use?
Tom: Some of the other technologies, not already mentioned, include extensive use of voice over Internet for faxing.
22. What specific technology is essential to your practice? Why?
Tom: Advanced collaboration and database software technology is essential to our firm. The ability to process information, organize it, share it with the team, and access it instantaneously and simultaneously enables our staff to carry out effective and efficient work. Another major essential is the use of dual monitors at every workstation. Dual monitors allows for paperless redrafting of documents and precedent modification. Overall, it has had the greatest immediate impact the efficiency of the office.
23. Are you contemplating any changes to how you use technology in your firm? If so, what are you considering?
Tom: The firm is currently experiencing significant technological adaptation to improve product expectations, labor conditions, and professional obligations. The use of technology has allowed these practice and business variables to be treated as opportunities rather than burdens. Microsoft’s continuing improvement with respect to its office software and the ability to customize off-the-shelf word processing, accounting and database software has been very effective.
The firm is considering a move to very powerful dual-processor quad core Xeon servers that would make extensive use of virtualization software. These newest servers will allow for easier backups and reduced energy costs. Currently, the firm is running several quad core Xeon servers that have been extremely reliable for the last six months. Microsoft’s newest server technology also allows for running lighter versions of the server operating system on older hardware. We are planning on using that software to re-task the older servers to lighter duties. The firm is very interested in going paperless but will complete the testing of the current software before looking to an off-the-shelf solution at present.
24. How is your practice different from other practices in your area?
Tom: It is not known to us how other firms operate their information technology but we are pleased that the collaborative approach to legal practice affords the opportunity for a very high-quality level of service. The approach to technology and our practice of law is to assist the facilitation of clear communications. These communications include brainstorming, issue spotting, and ethical considerations at every stage of a file which makes the type of work that we do quite enjoyable and manageable.
25. Do you support telecommuting or other alternative work arrangements?
Tom: Yes. Providing services of the type that the firm does not necessarily require physical attendance. We encourage lawyers in the firm to make the most of their time, at all times. This includes working from home if that is where the productivity occurs best. With our staff, we have found some of her best employees to be accommodated with special work arrangements and flexible schedules. We are fortunate that this can take place as we always require a “core” to be physically present at the office to accommodate meetings and deliveries.
26. Do you think there is a barrier to lawyers adopting technology? (age, gender, geographic area, practice area, etc?) If so, do you have any recommendations for overcoming these barriers?
Tom: Generally speaking, the only barrier for lawyers learning technology is stubbornness. We have two lawyers in our office that are very senior calls, an intermediate call and several junior calls. It has been my experience that once technology has demonstrated a specific use in a lawyer’s practice, it is adopted very quickly. To assist lawyers and staff with the software that we use in the firm, regular seminars and meetings are held to illustrate the benefits of these packages.
If I could make one recommendation to overcoming technological barriers, it is to spend a lot of time with your own personal computer and experiment with programs. Computer books are inexpensive and, at least for me, very interesting.
27. What about barriers for staff adopting technology? Do you have any advice to offer in this regard?
Tom: Staff members face the same barriers to adopting technology as their lawyer counterparts. However, because they are often more intimately involved with the technology in question (Microsoft Office suite or SharePoint, for example), it is often much easier for staff members to adapt to new technology, products, and software. For both staff and lawyers, continuing education is a priority. With frequent exposure to technology, the firm has experienced few barriers.
28. Do you find that clients appreciate your use of technology?
Tom: Our clients are continually pleased by our collective, adept use of office computers and technology. Often, they are not fully aware of the benefits of our office systems from the onset (merely observing, for example, our standard of dual-monitors on office computers). Throughout a file, however, our clients notice how technology enables the firm to maximize, during both the evidence-gathering and litigation stages, the resources spent on a file. Ultimately, the principal benefit borne from keeping atop the technological curve becomes quite apparent upon settlement or more obviously, when a client matter goes to trial.
29. What advice do you have with regard to other lawyers adopting technology?
Tom: Our advice to other lawyers who are interested in adopting technology: be brave. While new technology can spur many benefits, it can also be quite costly – or, in some cases, disastrous. Amid these drawbacks, however, it is important to realize the potential that the adoption of new systems and technology can bring to your firm. If possible, do as much of the technological implementation yourself. Law and IT have very different approaches, a lawyer with an IT mindset can use all the tools without the unnecessary “bloat” that often accompanies software developed for multiple industries.
Some practical tips: you can never test too much – try new technology in closed, small environments first, and implement it only after backing up your data and putting contingency plans in place (depending on the magnitude of the change). Try to minimize up-front costs, but do not let these costs dissuade you: the long-term benefits of initially costly technological improvements are often immeasurable, and often bear fruit only once a system has been fully implemented.
Some advanced technology and new products are bound to fail, and some products might fail within your office infrastructure. Our office has found using products that have been thoroughly tested to be advantageous. Take advantage of the significant resources on the Internet and in trade publications to review the reliability of products before considering testing them in an office environment.
30. Where would you like to see the profession go with regard to legal technology?
Tom: The future for the legal profession, among many others, is on the internet. Welcome to the cloud. Global data networks are being increasingly bolstered by daily developments and advancements in computer technology and in the IT industry, and each new day brings new capacity for the effective, efficient flow of information from person to person, group to group. The closer our fingertips lie to the information that we truly need to go about our lives, the more we can be done in a day and, ultimately, the better lives that we can lead.
Spraggs and Co. not only yearns for this future, but also is spearheading the movement to realize it. One of the projects worked on from the firm is the chambersdecisions.com website to help bring together counsel and provide better advice on the discretion Master’s exercise in British Columbia.
Currently, there is a paradox with the use of technology in the sense that it allows significant increase of quality of work and quantity. I hope that the future allows lawyers to focus on quality while reducing unnecessary quantity. One day, the use of technology might even allow lawyers to work as truly independent entities collaborating on a project by project basis with very little overhead.
I would like to thank Thomas L. Spraggs for sharing his insights, his experiences and his vision in how he has applied technology for great success. The next interview will be with Nicole Garton-Jones of Heritage Law, West Vancouver, BC. She will follow Tom in the “30 Questions” series of interviews and will shine a light into her use of technology. Isn’t that what friends are for?This entry was posted on Sunday, June 28th, 2009 at 9:17 pm and is filed under 30 Questions for Busy Lawyers, Adding Value, Change Management, Issues facing Law Firms, Law Firm Strategy, Leadership and Strategic Planning, Make it Work!, Technology, Trends. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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