The technological rebirth of law practice you’ve been hearing about since the days of the dot-com bubble is finally here—if only because lawyers have no other choice.

The rapid migration of U.S. legal processes to the internet in response to COVID-19 has also created more opportunities for firms to automate administrative tasks. When implemented correctly, the changes can allow legal professionals to shift a larger share of their work hours to substantive, billable tasks that increase revenue.

Actions taken this summer can lay the groundwork for years of success and reduced stress when the barrage of daily tasks resumes. Here are some good places to start.

 

1. Draft an automation plan

According to a recent webinar by Clio lawyer Joshua Lenon, anything you handle more than once can be automated to improve its efficiency. But to realize the greatest gains, you’ll want to look at processes that fit the following simple criteria:

  1. The process occurs frequently
  2. The process does not require interpretation or analysis

When you find a good candidate, make a simple outline consisting of the following:

  • Area to automate
  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Implementation lead
  • Budget
  • Sustainability plan (How will you ensure employees stick with it?)

It’s also important to not take these ideas too far. For both ethical and financial reasons, processes requiring legal analysis are not usually good candidates for automation.

Lenon cited the case of Frederick J. Hanna & Associates, a debt collector sued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2014 for violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, including using software to determine who to sue. The firm paid $3.1 million in penalties, and was prohibited from filing lawsuits without attorney review of key facts related to the defendants’ debts.

 

2. Enhance existing software through integration

Budgets may be tighter in 2020, and extra software might not be realistic for your firm. If that rings true for you, consider how you can do more with less by getting existing systems to work in tandem.

Lenon’s webinar cited three key areas that are ripe for integration at many firms:

  • Document execution. If the software you use to edit legal documents integrates with your customer relationship management (CRM) or eFiling provider, it can often pre-fill documents from those sources so you don’t have to type information twice.
  • Calendaring. Subscription services like LawToolBox integrate with eFiling providers or CRMs to automatically create calendar events for a filing based on a lookup of local court rules. General purpose software like Calendly can allow clients to book free time on your Outlook or Gmail calendar without any back-and-forth.
  • Billing. Anything your firms spends money on should be recorded as an expense. Thankfully, some legal softwares now offer billing integration to log expenses automatically. If expenses are all transactional, it may even be possible to automatically generate invoices that pass costs through to the client.

You can even find integrations that retrieve information from court systems so you don’t have to search through them regularly. For example, services like CourtDrive (for PACER) and DocketSync (for New York/New Jersey states courts) monitor docket information and can transfer updates to your practice management software automatically.

 

3. Create automated processes in Zapier

Zapier makes it easy for people with no programming experience to create simple automation routines using more than 500 popular software programs like Google Sheets, PracticePanther and Actionstep.

Zapier workflow law firmSimply tell Zapier which action you’d like to happen, then set a “trigger” event that determines when that action takes place. This is called a “zap.”

By setting up different triggers and actions between software you already use, you can make common tasks run automatically, minimizing your non-billable administrative work.

For example:

  • When I receive a hearing confirmation email from a specific court email address, create a calendar event in my practice management system.
  • When the calendar event for a hearing includes a particular client, send that client a text reminder the morning of the hearing.
  • When someone fills out a Google Form on my website, send an automatic response using the information they submitted to ask routine pre-qualifying questions.

For inspiration, check out this post from AttorneyAtWork.com.

 

4. Make your website more accessible

In an age of rolling stay-at-home orders and restrictions on office visits, your digital storefront is more important than ever. But a website can do more than source leads—with the right setup, it can also develop them.

One key aspect of your automation plan could be making it faster and easier to collect information from prospective clients.

Many legal marketing websites already come with lead forms as a standard feature. These allow you to ask for the information you need up front, and can be easier for a prospect than asking them to draft an open-ended email.

Providing your clients the convenience of online payment can save them a potentially risky trip to the office. It also can improve your cashflow. According to Clio’s 2019 Legal Trends Report, 57% of electronic payments made to law firms get paid the same day.

This also may be a good time to upgrade your website to a responsive design, making it easy to use on a smartphone. Though the legal category currently ranks below some other industries for mobile search traffic, a growing percentage of prospects will arrive at your site using a mobile device each year.

 

5. Get documents signed electronically

Even if your team is working as efficiently as possible, you can still find yourself at the mercy of a client that’s slow to respond.

Ditching “wet ink” signatures for eSignatures is almost always an effective solution to this bottleneck. But it’s especially helpful—and arguably necessary—at a time when many clients may be limiting in-person errands due to Covid-19.

Thankfully, many U.S. courts now allow for signatures to be recorded electronically through online services like DocuSign, PandaSign and HelloSign. These can be purchased as stand-alone solutions, or integrated with your practice management system or even your eFiling provider.

Regardless of the service you use, basic advantages of eSignatures vs. paper signatures include:

  • Instant distribution of documents via email
  • Built-in verification that documents were received
  • Ability to send mass reminders
  • Elimination of printing and shipping costs

No doubt, these are challenging times. But as courts reopen in entirely new ways, the opportunity to differentiate your practice from competitors has perhaps never been greater.

For more tips on how to adapt your law firm to these changing times, follow InfoTrack on LinkedIn. 

 

As U.S. courts explore ways to reduce foot traffic during a global public health crisis, they are adapting to the use of videoconferencing at breakneck speed.

On March 23, 10 days after issuing an emergency order authorizing the use of videoconferencing for civil proceedings, Texas civil courts held 101 Zoom conferences in a day. Less than two months later, that number had increased to over 1,000. In recent weeks, states such as Illinois have made permanent revisions to their court rules to support the adoption of remote hearing technology, and expand it to criminal cases as well.

Zoom mock hearing
Judge Amy McFarland of the 11th Circuit Court of Illinois (top right) leads a mock criminal hearing held remotely using Zoom.

Comfort with virtual hearings is quickly becoming a basic technological competency, but it shouldn’t be intimidating. Many of the procedural details are left to the hosts of the conference, with relatively little for attorneys to figure out. With a little practice, you might find that appearing via Zoom or another videoconferencing solution is more convenient and less complicated than showing up at the courthouse.

This basic prep guide for Zoom hearings will help you understand how this popular videoconferencing technology is being used in the context of the United States courts. It draws primarily on an excellent judicial training presentation by Assistant Judge Amy McFarland of the 11th Circuit of Illinois, as well as several relevant articles from legal technology publishers.

While we won’t cover every last feature in detail, we will set out to prepare an attorney user with the fundamentals they will need to perform confidently in their first virtual court appearance.

 

Basic requirements to join a Zoom conference

To join a Zoom video conference, participants will need:

  • An Internet connection
  • Speakers or headphones (for hearing other participants)
  • A microphone (for speaking to other participants)
  • A webcam (built-in or USB)

While an account is not always required to join a Zoom conference, certain courts may require them for security reasons. To prepare for this possibility, attorneys should consider creating a free personal Zoom account.

Free Zoom accounts have a time limit of 40 minutes for any hosted conference, but this limit does not apply to users joining a conference hosted by a paid account. In any case, McFarland noted, it’s not hard for courts to circumvent the restrictions of the free plan.

“When the hearing exceeds 40 minutes, everyone logs out, logs back in and they proceed,” McFarland said.

 

Alternative participation via telephone

McFarland acknowledged that not all parties will have access to a web-enabled device with a microphone. In some of these cases, the court may still be able to allow participation in a virtual hearing using a dial-in number. You will still likely need to enter a password to join.

Unless the host has specifically masked dial-in numbers in their Zoom settings, your phone number may be visible to other participants. If you want to ensure it remains private, it’s a good idea to confirm with the court that they will be using the “Mask phone number in the participant list” setting in advance of the hearing.

 

Before the hearing

Zoom currently allows meetings to be booked in 30-minute increments. However, to provide participants with ample time to join and get settled, some courts may issue an invite that starts up to 30 minutes before the actual scheduled hearing time.

Be sure to check your official start time prior to the hearing, and arrive at least 5-10 minutes early so you can test your connection and setup.

Use this time to ensure the room is free of visual and audio distractions, including pets or people coming and going. Ensure that the main source of light in the room is behind (not in front of) the camera, which will prevent your face from being enveloped in shadows.

If you haven’t already done so, consider adding a professional headshot to your Zoom profile by navigating to Settings > Edit Profile. If you need to deactivate your camera momentarily during the hearing, the profile image will replace your video feed and minimize the appearance of a disruption.

You may also wish to prepare a business-appropriate “virtual background” (Settings > Virtual Background) to replace the environment behind you with a more flattering image or video. Not all courts will allow you to use this feature, so it’s still important to prepare the area in front of your camera as if the judge will see it.

By default, the last virtual background you used will reappear on you next conference unless you reset it. If you use more casual backgrounds for chats with friends, get in the habit of switching the background to ‘None’ before you log out.

 

Security and visibility

While dialing into court remotely removes many physical security risks, it introduces some online security considerations as well.

Early in 2020, news outlets were abuzz with reports of “Zoombombing”—wherein uninvited guests could cause havoc after joining a conference without permission. This could happen when no password was set for the conference, allowing pranksters to randomly type in different meeting room codes until they found a live session.

Zoom responded by embedding passwords for each conference into each invitation link, making it easy for invitees to join a password-protected conference where “Zoombombing” is not a threat. McFarland recommended that courts don’t alter this setting.

Courts such as the 11th Circuit also take advantage of Zoom’s “waiting room” feature, which allows the hosting judge to screen participants from a queue before placing them in the live videoconference. If they prefer, they can also specify that each conference is hosted on servers located in countries with strong data protection laws.

In many states, it is illegal for participants other than the court reporter to use recording software to capture a hearing. However, if the hearing is to be publicly available, participants may ask if it will be streamed live on a platform such as YouTube for outside observers.

 

Procedural disruptions

McFarland explained that judges and court staff have a number of tools for maintaining order during a virtual hearing.

As hosts, court staff can:

  • Mute participants. McFarland called this “the No. 1 setting” she has used when side conversations threatened to derail the proceedings.
  • Disable video. If a participant’s video feed becomes distracting, it can be deactivated.
  • Lock the meeting. This prevents any new participants from joining the conference.
  • Place participants on hold. If the court staff needs to step away from the bench or pause proceedings, they may do so.
  • Disable private chat. This prevents participants from typing messages to one another that can’t be seen by the host.
  • Remove participants. Finally, if a participant becomes exceptionally disruptive, he or she can be removed from the conference. This may be accompanied by sanctions for contempt of court.

 

“Once you are in the virtual courtroom,” McFarland said, “you become your own virtual bailiff.”

 

Useful shortcuts during the conference

As a participant, there is less for you to manage while a videoconference is taking place. A full list of shortcuts for all platforms is available here, but here are some of the basic controls for Windows users:

  • Mute/unmute your microphone: Spacebar
  • Video on/off: Alt+V
  • Full screen on/off: Alt+F
  • Jump to chat: Ctrl+T
    • Opens a window where you can type messages to other participants.
  • Switch to Active Speaker view: Alt+F1
    • Focuses your screen on participant at a time; typically the one who is speaking.
  • Switch to Gallery video view: Alt+F2
    • Divides your screen into equal-size camera views for all participants, regardless of who is speaking. Think “The Brady Bunch” or “Hollywood Squares.”

This article is excerpted from InfoTrack’s free eBook, ‘How to prepare for a Zoom hearing.’ The full eBook also includes how to share documents and hold private conversations, and a recording of a mock Zoom hearing.

This post originally appeared on the InfoTrack US blog. An excerpt is provided below with a link to the original post.

As Illinois’s civil courts scramble to adapt to public health measures during the global Covid-19 pandemic, a clearer picture is emerging of what court operations might look like through most of 2020—and perhaps beyond.

On May 13, a panel of clerks from three Illinois judicial circuits joined McHenry County trial court administrator Dan Wallis for a CLE roundtable outlining steps each court is taking to counter the threat of contagious disease. In ’Circuit Court Clerks: How to Reopen Court After a Pandemic,’ listeners previewed safety plans from clerks Ronda Yates of Marion County, Kim Stahl of Ogle County and Tammy Weikert of Rock Island County that differed in the details, but shared several key themes.

 

Use of videoconferencing technology

Crucial to most courts’ reopening plans is the adoption of videoconferencing technology such as Zoom, which allows case participants and judicial staff to interact from the safety of their own homes.

As Wallis noted, Illinois Supreme Court rules already allowed for the use of videoconferencing technology in trial proceedings prior to the pandemic. Rule 185 permits arguments to be made by telephone and videoconferencing if agreed upon by all parties, and Rule 241 specifically extends this option to the presentation of testimony in civil cases.

Stahl added that each court can decide which case types to standardize on the videoconference format. However, parties can still request that a case be heard in-person if videoconferencing is the default option—and the opposite is also true.

Though Ogle County uses Zoom as its standard videoconference platform, parties may also object and suggest another.

According to Weikert, Rock Island County courts hold a conference call by phone to formally schedule a hearing date. If participants agree on the date and time, hearings can be scheduled up to one hour beforehand.

 

Operating virtual court appearances

While the panel unanimously agreed the clerk’s staff is responsible for hosting any proceeding conducted remotely, in-session hosting duties were split between the court reporter, judge and clerk, depending on the county.

In McHenry County, Wallis’ staff says his staff has experimented with using Zoom’s “waiting room” feature to enable virtual hearings in high-volume case types such as traffic court. At the designated appearance time, parties are directed to a public waiting room link posted on the court’s website. The clerk’s staff can then select them when they are ready to begin the hearing.

Once a videoconference begins, Stahl said, many things are conducted as if the parties were in court together. Ogle County mandates that the environment must be free of audio or visual distractions. The clerk’s staff also has the right to terminate the proceedings due to technical problems or disruptions.

“Disruptions are first addressed by muting,” Weikert said. “If someone becomes extremely disruptive, they may be ordered to pay attorneys’ fees.”

For public hearings, several clerks reported experimenting with or investigating the use of livestreaming via YouTube. While Stahl expressed concerns that public streams could be illegally recorded, Wallis said recordings could be audited in YouTube so the court could hand down punishment for violations.

 

Procedural issues in virtual courtrooms

According to Weikert, Illinois’ transition to mandatory, statewide electronic court filing in 2018-19 prepared Rock Island County to manage exhibits in the new virtual courtroom. Emailed copies in PDF form were already required for each exhibit, and these copies are saved to a shared drive online so they can be accessed by the clerk’s staff.

Yates and Weikert said each of their counties are now able to sign proposed orders electronically if needed.

To read more, continue to the original post on the InfoTrack blog.

As litigation firms adjust to a distributed workforce and unpredictable revenue streams in the age of Covid-19, many must rapidly learn how to simplify their business operations for the months ahead.

The answer isn’t the “robot lawyers” of your legal blog nightmares. But it may well be automation of more menial processes.

Today, most law office tasks that can be more effectively accomplished via automation than human labor are still relatively simple. What’s more, they tend to help enhance the value of legal support professionals by freeing them up for more meaningful case work.

Not sure where to start at your firm? Look first at these common examples.

 

1. Filling out court forms

Some law practice management software systems, such as Smokeball and LEAP, come with court form libraries, which allow forms to be generated automatically with information pre-filled from the software. Others may include tools for building custom forms on your own that meet your courts’ specifications.

LEAP legal forms
LEAP’s forms library allows you to pre-fill more than 7,500 legal forms for 1,600+ matter types using data saved to your LEAP matter.

Either method can reduce or even eliminate the tedious task of filling out required court forms by hand. But even if you don’t have access to a form library or form builder, there are ways to fill forms automatically using data from a spreadsheet report.

Microsoft Word’s “mail-merge” feature allows you to set custom fields in a Word document that can be populated with information from a spreadsheet column, then copied to produce a different document for each row in the spreadsheet. There are similar features available as third-party plugins for Adobe Acrobat, often for a nominal fee.

 

2. Retrieving and organizing file-stamped copies

When an electronic filing is returned with file-stamped copies, the court clerk will typically notify you via email. This email may include a link to download the documents, or you may have to search through your e-filing service provider (EFSP)’s filing history so you can download and transfer them to your matter record.

If your practice management software is integrated with InfoTrack, none of that work is necessary. File-stamped copies automatically upload to your matter as soon as the court releases them.

 

3. Filing notices or proofs-of-service

When a court filing requires explicit notice of an event to be documented—for example, in a notice-of-motion or proof-of-service—you might not have to start an entirely new filing.

In some jurisdictions, the court’s website or filing process may include an option to automatically generate and file the required document. Alternatively, this might be a local feature of your e-filing service provider.

Even if automatic filing is not possible in your jurisdiction, form libraries or form builders can help you draft the form itself, eliminating one step in the process.

 

4. Calendaring

Knowing each court’s deadlines for appearances and other mandated events can be daunting, especially if the clerk’s website is disorganized or updated infrequently. Services like CalendarRules (available via InfoTrack) allow you to save mandated events or deadlines as calendar items in Outlook or your matter record, so you don’t have to create reminders on your own.

 

5. Obtaining signatures

In early 2020, e-signature solutions exploded in popularity in response to social distancing requirements of the covid-19 pandemic. But many firms had implemented this technology well beforehand to reduce delays and extra steps (i.e. printing, faxing) when multiple parties need to sign a document.

eSignature platforms like DocuSign, Adobe Sign and PandaDoc are useful enough as stand-alone products, allowing you to designate signature areas on a PDF, securely send it for review and distribute final copies to a group.

Integrating them with your practice management software via services like SignIT may confer additional benefits, such as the ability to choose documents directly from your matter and sync back fully executed copies.

 

Share your ideas

Does your firm use other types of automation to reduce grunt work and keep litigation running efficiently? Share them in the comments below.