Electronic Filing and Service

16 10 2010

Shortly before 5 p.m. this afternoon, an attorney asked me to file a pleading in Arizona Superior Court. I have never lived in Arizona and know little about their court systems, so I contacted our local counsel in Mesa. The paralegal I spoke with directed me to the Court’s electronic filing system, I registered for the service and began the process of filing the document. Everything went smoothly until I got ready to attach my documents. It turned out one of the documents exceeded the size limit imposed by the site, so I broke the document down into three smaller documents.

I have faced similar problems with the PACER ECF system. Although it makes things even more difficult, providing users with very limited options to label the document prior to filing. On several occasions, I have had to phone the Court and to make sure the documents get filed properly.

Since I primarily work on Texas state court cases, I use CaseFileXpress frequently. I consider it to be very user friendly, but as I discussed in a previous post, a majority of the parties involved have yet to sign up for electronic service so you lack that option.

LexisNexis’ File&Serve remains my favorite application. Its user interface, ease of navigation, unique alert system and patented Batch Document Processor make it an ideal client to use. Plus, I have never had a single instance of it rejecting a document for being too large.

Unfortunately, I learned that the Arizona court used File&Serve after I had already filed using the Court’s website, but in the future I will know the option is available. In an ideal world, all Courts would adopt the Lexis system.


Cutting Out the Middle Man in Your Legal Profession

14 10 2010

Recently, the managing partner in our firm asked that we begin looking for ways to cut client costs. I noticed that prior to my arrival , members of the support staff often outsourced projects I normally would have handled on my own, so I decided to adopt a policy of using a vendor only when absolutely necessary.

We use Summation and I have never used Summation prior to this job, so I began by learning as much as I could about the software. This involved talking to the vendors, reading manuals and “playing” in the system. In two and a half months, I have learned how to create .tiff files, write my own .DII load files and mastered some advanced coding and editing techniques. I’ve found this to not only be cost effective, but also more efficient. Vendors may employ technicians who understand software and programming, but not necessarily the litigation process.

Earlier this week, I learned that we needed to export a large amount of electronic data (over 60 GB) to a client. This required us to run a digital sweep of our servers for all electronic data related to this particular client. In the past, the firm outsourced these types of tasks. I refused to see my firm incur such expenses, so I volunteered to do the job myself. The process turned out to be very simple and painless and I lost no billable time while working on it.

My next challenge? Tackling the large copy jobs we are forced to outsource. I’m still searching for the perfect solution to this problem, but have several good leads.

Is your firm/office forking out big money to a middle-man to perform jobs you could do in-house? Are there ways you could help cut costs, produce a better product and make your firm/office more efficient? I would love to hear your ideas.



Does Your Firm Embrace the Social Network?

12 10 2010

It surprised me on my second day at my new job, when I walked by my secretary’s desk and saw her updating her Facebook status. At my old firm, the executive committee issued the verdict years ago to block all social networking sites, even LinkedIn. Not surprisingly, very few people at the old firm use social media sites and applications as a tool to promote the firm. Beginning during the interview process, I noticed a different perception of social media from the new firm. They expressed great interest in my blog and tweeting habits; I learned that several attorneys in the firm blogged as well and almost everyone had a LinkedIn profile. In the last few weeks, a couple of other attorneys have announced their intent to start a blog and several others have joined Twitter.

Simply put, my new firm, a young, prestigious boutique firm, handling highly complex commercial litigation matters, embraces the social network. My old firm, an aging asbestos defense firm, rejects the social network. Two firms moving in opposite directions who share a very different outlook on the fusion of technology and law.

My last post promoted my sister’s new book dealing with social networking and legal professionals, specifically attorneys using social media tools to market themselves in a job search. However, I firmly believe that the value of these tools extend far beyond landing the perfect job. Indeed, the perfect job involves utilizing  these tools to promote, market, inform and engage clients, co-workers and the general public.

As part of her book promoting tour, my sister travels around the country speaking at law schools and law firms on how to best utilize these social media tools. She reports that while many seem receptive to her presentation, many of the “old guard” still express reservations. Others may seem hesitant to change, but simply need to have the new tools explained in order to understand their importance.

Where does your firm stand? Do they encourage you to actively engage in the use of social media tools or do they block Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, leaving you to believe they see these tools as toys? Going forward can a firm remain relevant without embracing these tools? Share your thoughts and I may use your feedback in an upcoming piece on this issue.

A Book for Every Legal Professional

1 10 2010

“What can President Barack Obama and U.S. Senator Scott Brown teach law students and lawyers about finding a job? Both Obama and Brown obtained their current jobs through successful campaigns focused on social networking. Law students and lawyers can incorporate social networking in their job search campaigns as well.”

That is how attorney turned author, Amanda C. Ellis, describes her new book The 6Ps of the Big 3 for Job-Seeking JDs. I believe the advice found in Ms. Ellis’ book applies not only to law students and lawyers, but all legal professionals.

Ok, so I am the author’s brother. Can you say nepotism?

Seriously, the book contains great insight on how to turn your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts into job creating machines. The results speak for themselves. Even if you’re not looking for a new job, the book contains many great ideas for getting the most out of your social networking accounts in your current place of employment. Who knows, it may help you land that next big bonus or promotion.

Copies are available through Amazon.com and Ms. Ellis’ website.

The Beauty of Electronic Service

30 09 2010

Allow me to start by apologizing for taking so much time off from blogging. On July 23, 2010, I left my firm home of 5 1/2 years for a new job. I know I wrote as recently as June that I loved my old job, and I did, but simply put I received an offer I could not refuse.

My new firm specializes in complex commercial litigation matters and each day presents a new set of unique problems to solve. After working in toxic torts for so long, it has taken some time to adjust to such a diverse practice. On my first day, I learned that I would be working for eight attorneys–four partners (including the managing partner) and four associates). Each met with me to briefly to go over their active case load and I soon learned that my new position would require my complete focus to ensure a smooth transition.

In a little over two months, I have managed several different cases, including branching out into areas of law completely foreign to me (i.e. bankruptcy and IP litigation).  Though challenging , I’ve learned that these “new” areas of practice require the same basic fundamentals I have employed throughout my career. As legal professionals, we seek to form logical arguments based on the evaluation of facts and details. Likewise, we seek to identify the weaknesses of an opposing argument, either through the misrepresentation of facts or logical fallacies.

However, on the administrative side, I have noticed one glaring difference–the service list.

Asbestos litigation spoiled me! In Texas, all pretrial activity goes through a central, MDL court, before being remanded back to its original court for trial. The Texas Asbestos MDL Court requires all parties to electronically serve all documents, whether it be pleadings, discovery, notices, etc. This keeps things extremely simple and makes service extremely efficient. Instead of searching for a docket sheet, you simply log in, post and submit. You receive instant electronic confirmation that your document has been served on all parties and there are no confirmation sheets or green cards to clutter your files or office.

While all of the cases I work on now feature electronic filing, signing up for electronic service is left to the discretion of each individual party. Furthermore, this only applies to pleadings. Almost all of the discovery requests we receive or responses that we serve are through the archaic method of “traditional service.” This eats up valuable billable time that must be sacrificed to prepare the documents to be served and wastes firm money on the expenses related to the delivery of the documents.

As more and more offices move towards becoming “paper-less,” all courts will eventually move towards mandatory electronic service. I just hope that days is sooner, rather than later. Until then, I’ll let you go. I need to go check the fax machine for my confirmation sheet.

The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

7 07 2010

I test drove literally every degree program that the humanities department at my colleges offered before ultimately earning a bachelor’s degree in English. Even though we were some of the brightest, most creative and unique students on campus and even though we took the most interesting classes, being able to write a paper on the role of misogyny in Hamlet or being able to thoroughly explain the difference between an Italian sonnet and a Shakespearean sonnet has yet to earn me a single job.

God knows I spent many a sleepless night in college asking myself, “what in the hell are you going to do with a degree in (depending on the semester and college: philosophy, history, religion, political science or English), but through it all, I never once considered pursuing a degree outside the field of humanities. For me, and many other liberal arts students, college was never about developing marketable skills, but rather about the pursuit of knowledge and honing our analytical skills, which in turn produces students prepared for any field.

You learn early on the importance of detail, whether it be reading in context or even the placement of a comma, in the process of formulating an argument. Likewise, you learn to identify the weaknesses of opposing arguments, whether by spotting the gross misrepresentation of facts or the use of faulty logic and reasoning by an opponent to strengthen an argument.

Obviously, this is similar to the practice of law. On behalf of the client, we aim to construct effective arguments based on the evaluation of facts.  We strengthen these arguments by integrating our knowledge and understanding of laws, statutes and codes, relying on sound logic and by exploiting the weaknesses of opposing arguments. The attorney serves as the chief architect of arguments, while paralegals and support staff work together with the attorney to make their blueprint a reality.

The Things We Do…

8 06 2010

Every paralegal should read Practical Paralegalism on a daily basis. Lynne DeVenny runs perhaps the best paralegal blog on the ‘net filled with tips of the trade and humorous tales to get you through the day. Last week, she posted a piece on the changing role of paralegals in law firms. It’s definitely a piece to read when you’re having a bad day at work and you need to remind yourself that it could be, and used to be, worse. However, even though we no longer have to wash dishes or insert paper supplements into statute books, we are called on to perform tasks that make us scratch our heads and ask, “did I sign up for this.”

A few years ago, we experienced problems tracking data for national counsel for one of our largest clients. They had designed a new database for that specific purpose, but had very specific rules for updating data that made it difficult to generate accurate monthly and quarterly reports. National counsel commissioned me to head a project to draft an internal database for our office that would mirror the national counsel database.

While I welcomed the responsibility, I had very little experience using Microsoft Access and had no clue where to start. The database would track information regarding over 18,000 cases handled by our section and would require the analysis of tons of petitions, discovery, depositions and medical records. First, I decided to call a meeting with the paralegals and support staff in my section to get feedback on how we wanted the database to look (i.e. what features did they like about the NCC database and which features they would change). Next, I decided to buy a book on Access to acclimate myself further with the program.  I then began to construct the skeleton of the database.

For the next three months, when I wasn’t involved in case management of files, I worked on the database. After work, I would go home, eat dinner, rest and return to work at 9 P.M. and work until 1 A.M. I put in several 12 + hour days a week. Finally, we had a completed product to show our national counsel. Then began the project of reconciling the two databases.

What I originally viewed as a “data entry” project, turned out to be one of the most intensive legal research projects I have ever been assigned and, for that reason, one of the most gratifying projects.  Along the way, we experienced a lot of frustration and learning by trial-and-error, but all of the lessons, both practical and technological, continue to be an asset to this day.

What’s the most “wheels off” project you have been assigned? Did anything redeeming come out of it? Would love to hear your stories.


4 06 2010

About a year ago, our firm conducted an on-site document production for a client. Attorneys sifted through a storage building worth of boxes, flagged documents they wanted and our firm outsourced the scanning of these documents to a third-party vendor. The vendor scanned all documents onto external hard drives, sent them to our home office, where they routed them to the proper party. Our home office coordinated much of the project, but since the third-party vendor leased space in our building, they returned the finished hard drives to me to give to the vendor. The same agent from the vendor visited our office on each occasion and each time he asked to present a demonstration to my section on a particular software program his office designed. I told him that our section had no use for this particular kind of software, but he insisted that he could convince me otherwise.

After avoiding his phone calls and e-mails, I finally gave in and arranged for a demonstration for myself and one other paralegal in our section. We took the elevator up eight floors, arrived on time and found that the agent had forgotten our appointment. He apologized, invited us to his office’s conference room and patched in a sales call to our demonstration. After going through his entire presentation, he turned to us for gratification.

“Isn’t this program amazing? How often have you needed something like this?”

When we told him “never” and explained to him the areas our section focused on. He agreed that we would get little use out of his program.

I had a similar experience a few weeks later. Opposing counsel provided medical records through a third-party document production company. When I called to order a CD of the records, the agent tried to sell me another product. When I told him we had little use for that product in our practice, he began to ramble off a list of clients our firm represents out of other offices that would be perfect for the product. Again, I told him that we handled different clients out of our office and we had no say in the purchasing decisions of our other offices.

It seems like every week, another vendor contacts our office wanting to give presentations for their various products. They eat up valuable time that could be used on billable work and they refuse to listen to you when you tell them you have no use for their products. I’ve been in this position long enough to know the services I require and have a pre-set list of vendors I’ll call for these services. No amount of candy, lunches, gift cards or other perks will convince me to switch my loyalty.  I am not for sell.

Anyone else out there have any “horror” stories to relay regarding vendors?

4 Keys to Effective Writing

3 06 2010

Good writing skills allow us to maneuver a reader’s mind through a series of complex ideas. Success in the legal field hinges on our ability to do so on a daily basis, whether in an inner-office memo to an attorney or in a case evaluation letter to a client.  We must own our words and employ the proper mechanics at all times, even in our e-mails to co-workers. Remember these four keys as you write and watch as your writing evolves into a more powerful and effective craft.

1.) Grammar – Soon after I began my current job, I noticed a disturbing trend among e-mails from my co-workers. Inexcusable errors in grammar, syntax and verb tense filled my Inbox on a daily basis. I learned that these errors extended far beyond e-mails and into the drafting of pleadings and correspondence with attorneys, clients and carriers. Poor writing reflects badly not only on the writer, but on the firm as well. Practicing law involves communicating nuanced ideas. As such, even the most seasoned wordsmith stands to benefit from a refresher course on the “elements of style.” Pick up a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and reference it whenever in doubt.

2.) Passive VoiceAvoid the passive voice! Consider these two different sentences:

“This memo was written to discuss techniques for effective writing.”‘ (Passive Voice)

“Josh wrote this memo to discuss techniques for effective writing.” (Active Voice)

One sentence feels lazy and leaves unanswered questions in the mind of the reader (who wrote the memo?); the other oozes action by a clearly defined subject.

3.) Adverbs – Though not as egregious as using the passive voice, adverbs fill our writing with superfluous words, making the other words less effective. Instead of “Josh wrote this memo to discuss techniques for writing effectively,” say “Josh wrote this memo to discuss techniques for effective writing.”

4.) Cliche – One of my political science professors issued the following line when assigning essays: “use English that makes the Buddha smile and the angels weep.” Though my professor made a good point, his statement leaves some room for interpretation (i.e. what kind of English makes the Buddha smile and angels weep) and lacks originality. Remember, in the introduction I implored you to own your words, using cliches prevents you from truly owning your words.

Political Aparthy Among Paralegals

28 05 2010

The Texas House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee conducted an interim hearing on the Borg-Warner v. Flores standard of causation in mesothelioma lawsuits on Wednesday. The hearing represents a continuation of discussions regarding H.B. 1811, which never made it out of committee the last legislative sessions. If passed, the bill would relax the causation standards for mesothelioma cases in Texas.

For those of you not familiar with Texas asbestos litigation, it was once the envy of plaintiffs’ attorneys from coast to coast. However, in 2005, the Texas legislature passed an asbestos tort reform bill, SB 15, which became law in September 2005 and dramatically altered the litigation landscape. Consider these numbers from Harris County, Texas. In 2004, there were 2,797 asbestos cases, many of them multi-plaintiff matters filed in Harris County. In 2005, 3,651 asbestos cases were filed in Harris County, but starting in 2006 a sharp decline began to take shape with only 1,363 new asbestos cases filed, followed by 520 in 2007 and 358 new asbestos cases in 2008. This trend even greater in other counties across the state.

On June 8, 2007, the Texas Supreme Court released its Borg-Warner v. Flores opinion, which required numerical proof of dose as to each defendant. In effect, this decision established an insurmountable and unattainable standard of causation for mesothelioma claimants. This led Texas plaintiff attorneys scrambling to file their suits in other states, drawing the ire of the out-of-state judges along the way. Other states flat out rejected the Borg-Warner decision. Representative Craig Eilan sponsored HB 1811 as a means of eliminating the requirement of quantifiable dose.

The potential impact of this bill, and it’s companion bill, S.B. 1123, extends far beyond asbestos litigation in Texas. Indeed, if left unchallenged Borg-Warner could change the way product liability exposure cases are handled all across the country. It stands to reason that paralegals involved in asbestos litigation in Texas have an active interest in tracking these bills as they make their way through the legislative process, yet you’ll find very little chatter about these bills on blogs, Twitter or other social media outlets. It seems that this is indicative of something far more disturbing, a general sense of political apathy among many in the legal community, including paralegals.

I was raised in a political family, so following these matters seems only natural. Regardless of what area of law you work in, your job is directly affected by the decisions made by our elected officials. To show no interest in these matters, to have no opinion on the bills they pass or legislation they block makes no sense to me.