Bringing order to work

Parwani & Co has, like many businesses worldwide, entered the digital age.

Vijai Parwani may not be a technology expert, but he knows enough about IT to ensure his law business benefits from it.

Ask him about IT and he rattles off the virtues of e-mail, having a Web site and online research tools. And he's not all talk. Parwani, who used to work in a medium-sized law firm, is able to trouble-shoot IT problems himself. Only when situations become too complex will he need to call his IT vendor to come take a look at the computer system.

Parwani told ZDNet Asia that times have changed. Many lawyers today are well-versed with using IT, compared to the early 1990s when lawyers were among the slowest to embrace IT.

"That was because the older generation of lawyers in practice hated technology," he said. "Seldom would you find a lawyer using a computer."

Back then, most of the copy-typing was done by secretaries, who helped to prepare letters and documents. "[Lawyers then] did a lot of dictation," Parwani noted.

In contrast, many lawyers today are "very techie", he said.

Although Parwani has a secretary, he said both he and his partner do their own typing. "That may seem a given or a common thing to you, but a lot of lawyers--and even today, in medium-sized firms--don't do their own typing. They have secretaries to type for them," he said.

Parwani & Co is a typical law firm with lots of files and paper documents. But don't be fooled by the stacks of paper and files. The two-lawyer outfit has, like many businesses worldwide, entered the digital age.

Besides using e-mail to keep in touch with clients who travel frequently, Parwani & Co has a Web site which "helps clients understand who we are and what are our areas of practice, especially with newer clients", Parwani said.

"While no two clients are the same, having an IT system can only benefit the clients no matter what their goals are."

"While no two clients are the same, having an IT system can only benefit the clients no matter what their goals are," he added.

Litigation matters
In early 2002, Parwani & Co installed an Electronic Filing System offered by IT vendor Crimson Logic. "Having an EFS system in the office is to me, an essential tool for every litigation lawyer," he said.

"It was a no-brainer," he said, of the decision to implement the system.

The electronic system cuts out the reliance on a third party, and gives Parwani full control of how and when documents are filed in court. "There is no alternative to not filing documents electronically as it is compulsory," he explained.

Firms that do not have EFS have to make use of the service bureau at the courts to e-file the documents. According to Parwani, the bureau charges a fee on a per-document basis.

Acknowledging that some law firms may baulk at the set up costs, Parwani said: "In the long run, the savings you derive will pay off the costs of setting up the system."

"In the long run, the savings you derive will pay off the costs of setting up the system."

There are also the intangible benefits. "With EFS, you can turn around matters quickly and are not constrained by the 5pm deadline when the service bureau closes for the day," he noted.

According to Parwani, as a litigation lawyer, being able to file documents any time of the day is important, especially for documents that are time sensitive.

He explained: "If someone commences an action against you by serving a writ of summons on you, you literally have eight days to enter an appearance to defend on the matter. If I get a client who sits on it and calls me on the 8th day at 5pm, I can still file for him because I am not dependent on the bureau. By having the system in my office, I can file it myself.

"As long as it's filed by 12 midnight, it would be deemed that it was filed on that day," he added.

Setting up the EFS requires a PC, an Acrobat writer and reader, a scanner, and a smart card reader. Crimson Logic issues a smart card to every lawyer, who has to use it each he uses the EFS, which is secured with Public Key Infrastructure technology. Those who need to use the EFS will also have to attend a one-day course.

"Some firms may find the initial cost a bit prohibitive, but those views are short term and myopic. The initial cost may set you back by a few thousand, but if you're planning to be in the game for more than a year or two, the cost will level out. And the benefits derived from it far outweigh the initial costs," he noted.

Tools of the trade
Online research tools are also an integral part of a litigation lawyer’s arsenal, Parwani said. "While lawyers try to keep abreast of the latest developments in the law, they simply cannot be expected to know everything at their finger-tips, but they should know where to look for [information] when the need arises," he noted.

CrimsonLogic has a tool called the Legal Workbench which is a database containing records of all Singapore and Malaysia court cases, and it is constantly updated with new cases. "This tool has helped the small and medium-sized firms to provide the level of service that previously only the larger firms could offer", Parwani said.

"Given the constraints of space and costs, the smaller law firms cannot afford to maintain a library and have to do the research at the libraries of the courts," he said. "This again was constrained by the opening hours of the library which meant no work during weekends and after office hours, when this was the best time for lawyers to get work done uninterrupted."

Now with Legal Workbench, "the only space I need is that of my LCD monitor and with Legal Workbench being Web-based, I can continue with the work from home if I need a change of environment", he said.

Friendly advice
Speaking from experience, Parwani admits that it is not easy knowing where to start when one is new to IT. "But that should not stop you," he said.

"A good friend of mine, who is a sole proprietor, even has his own server at his premises. He was fed-up with the run-around advice that he was given and decided to buy books and read up himself. So now he even builds his own PC to his own liking," he said.

"While I am not advocating that everyone should go down that road, you should not let the thought of IT scare you. It’s a slow learning process, and you should not be afraid to sometimes ask dumb questions," he added.