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Monday, Jul 15, 2024

Bar Code

or the first time in his career, attorney Adam Grant argued a case in court three years ago without using a single piece of paper. Grant, a partner at business litigation firm Alpert Barr & Grant in Encino, said the case lasted 14 weeks, involved 300 hundred exhibits, 10,000 document pages and 10 depositions. All the documents were submitted digitally – with barcodes for easy identification – and all the deposition testimonies were taped on digital video. “If we had not done a paperless trial, it probably would have doubled the time required. And it engaged the jurors significantly,” said Grant, also president of the San Fernando Valley Bar Association. “They liked seeing documents up on a screen. And when someone said something on the stand and then they saw the person saying the opposite on tape, it really impacted them. In the past, when you read back a transcript, it just didn’t have the same impact.” The case illustrates just how profoundly digital technology has revolutionized what is considered one of the most hide-bound of professions. And like in any revolution, there are winners and losers. Electronic court filings have replaced reams of paper and trips to the courthouse. Law firms have been able to reduce space as law libraries have given way to vast online resources, but have added information technology teams. Demand has dwindled for legal secretaries because now attorneys write their own briefs using specialized software. And the technology has created new businesses: some of which threaten firms – such as Glendale’s LegalZoom.com Inc., an online legal forms service – and some of which assist them, such as specialists that scan emails looking for evidence. John Grimley, a consultant to law firms in downtown Los Angeles, believes the new digital age is on balance a boon for firms, even as it possesses challenges. “The digital economy has had a significant impact on music, newspapers and a whole series of industries,” Grimley said. “Now it’s having a serious impact on the legal services sector. It’s both a challenge, especially for lawyers in a small practice, and an opportunity. But most lawyers aren’t taking advantage of it.” ‘Massive litigation’ Grant believes litigators are the lawyers who must deal with the most change, since they often handle complex cases. At the Orange County trial where he defended a former executive accused of taking corporate money, his firm had a computer consultant on site to manage the body of evidence. A good portion of Grant’s practice involves online privacy, Internet marketing and mobile app law. In fact, when he’s not racking up billable hours or volunteering at the bar association, he writes mobile apps for law firms. The apps allow clients to access a firm’s server from their mobile phone to see documents about pending cases. “The information available on the Internet and through mobile apps is virtually infinite,” Grant said. “The challenge is managing that information. You can get overwhelmed. Clients will send long emails asking about a case, opposing counsel and the legal process. You can spend a lot of time answering them.” R. Rex Parris, chief executive of R. Rex Parris Law Firm in Lancaster and the mayor of Lancaster, handles class-action lawsuits and other complex litigation. His court victories include a $31.5 million verdict against CalTrans for a catastrophic auto accident and a $29.5 million class-action settlement with Lowe’s Cos. Inc. over employee work hours. His most famous case was a $370 million defamation award against Guess Inc. co-founder Georges Marciano. For Parris, technology has proven a boon in helping to organize large projects that may involve identifying and communicating with dozens of plaintiffs. Email databases, questionnaires and analysis software are now tools of the trade. Parris even uses facial recognition software so that when some of his many clients walk into the office, the receptionist can greet them by name. “You can manage massive litigation now, whereas you really couldn’t before,” Parris said. “The biggest opportunity is the ability to conduct extensive surveying and polling of issues that are present in a case by using the Internet. This is done with both video clips and written surveys.” Grimley sees a future where everything is virtual – including law firms and their employees. Consumers will choose a lawyer from their mobile phone and consult via phone or email. The lawyer will deal with clients, courts, opposing counsel and his or her firm through emails and phone calls. “The opportunity is that now a lawyer who engages on digital platforms can be found by people all over world,” he said. “It’s perfect for L.A. If you’re a lawyer in the Valley, why drive to Westwood for a networking event when you could interact with 20 clients online?” At the same time, Grimley sees the technology as a threat to traditional law firms. As more and more people access lawyers on their cell phone, the need for online marketing savvy will increase, while the importance of formal offices and support staff will decrease. And the threat isn’t limited to consumer-oriented lawyers who handle disability and DUI cases. For a peek at the future, Grimley points to Axiom Law, a New York company that provides attorneys for in-house counsels at large corporations. While it sounds like a high-end temp agency, Axiom-like referral services could replace traditional corporate law firms, Grimley believes. “Look how digital changed music – that’s something lawyers should be worried about,” he said. “But the future is exciting for lawyers who are entrepreneurial.” For now, many attorneys see digitalization as a time-saver and a money-saver. Parris said at his firm, technology has reduced costs on everything from secretary salaries to rent to messenger services. Virtual services The drive to digital has created a plethora of companies that either compete against or service law firms. Large accounting firms and forensic companies offer electronic discovery services, wading through emails to find incriminating or exculpatory evidence. Other companies concentrate on online security, data storage, typing software or cloud services. Among the most high-profile challengers is LegalZoom right here in the Valley. Last month the company decided to forego an initial public offering and instead took $200 million from European private equity firm Permira. According to a prospectus filed for the cancelled IPO, the company had 2011 revenue of $156 million and profits of $12 million – money that could have gone to law firms. In Santa Monica, LAC Group provides library services for law firms’ growing collection of video testimonies, photos and documents. It also performs competitive research for large law firms on other firms, and it handles contract negotiations for law firms with other digital providers, such as online case database LexisNexis. LAC recently leased 40,000 square feet in Newbury Park, but most of that space will be built out as a digital film vault for Hollywood studios. Chief Executive Deb Schwarz said that for large firms, the bills from digital suppliers reach into the millions of dollars. At the same time, the technology revolution has brought pressure on a firm’s ability to charge sophisticated clients. “In the old days, lawyers had exclusive access to LexisNexis and they would charge to get access for their clients,” Schwarz said. “Now clients have the same access. They say, ‘We know what this costs, you’re over charging us. … Billing for time and material doesn’t work anymore because a lot of clients are pushing back.” To prosper in the digital age, consultant Grimley advises lawyers to develop a dynamic website with substantive, regularly updated content – essentially a blog. They’ll also need outbound email marketing to contact existing and potential customers, with customer relationship management software. Parris expects his Lancaster firm will soon be using facial expression software to assess the impact of different testimony on focus groups. But amid all of the changes of a high-tech present and future, Grant warns that in the legal profession there is no substitute for human contact. He knows older attorneys realize this; he’s not so sure about ones just entering the profession. “The challenge is to make sure the younger attorneys call to have a personal connection,” he said. “That’s how you develop relationships with clients and opposing counsel. Email and texting lose meaning, so pick up that phone.”

Joel Russel
Joel Russel
Joel Russell joined the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2006 as a reporter. He transferred to sister publication San Fernando Valley Business Journal in 2012 as managing editor. Since he assumed the position of editor in 2015, the Business Journal has been recognized four times as the best small-circulation tabloid business publication in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. Previously, he worked as senior editor at Hispanic Business magazine and editor of Business Mexico.

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