Future Automation and The Virtual Lawyer

Some have asked why I don’t enable comments for this blog.  The answer is two fold. First, moderating and filtering the “spam” wasn’t worth the benefit.  The second reason is that there are better and more effective forums for these discussions.  They include “The Virtual Lawyer” group on LinkedIn.com and my new group “Future Automation (Documents, Data and the Cloud)” also on LinkedIn.  I am also managing a group for HotDocs Wizards, Amicus Attorney Wizards, and “The Time Matters Connection”.  So if you find anything I write provocative enough to comment on, I hope you go to one of those groups and have your say.

Future Automation represents an attempt to bring together the thinkers and developers who are shaping the future of document assembly and legal practice management.  It’s goal is to be forward thinking and positive; to celebrate what is good; and to occasionally point out what is not yet good enough.  Future Automation recognizes that much of software is still “too hard” for people to grasp.  Much of that difficulty has been in the hardware and management of networks.  In this “Wild Wild West” with malicious attacks, trojans and virus, just running a server can be an act of faith, or a very expensive proposition.  So much energy has been directed to “protecting” and “defending” that many have forgot that computers are about “doing” and planning, and structuring data for quick retrieval, and integrating data for “document assembly” and other forms of automation.

And so, Future Automation is about looking at a bring future for software that bring real productivity to lawyers and business people; to celebrate software that “makes lawyers smarter”, that “makes lawyers more productive”, and that “makes lawyers richer”.  For face it; if the technology is not bringing a tangible return, why invest in it.

Sales vs Consulting – The Cost of Independence

What is the role of the “independent consultant”?  And should the “independent consultant” be allowed to benefit from a “sale” based on his/her independent recommendation?  Software vendors with “reseller” programs have always wanted a “free sales force” of consultants who offer their software “exclusively”; no salary, no benefits, no costs. These consultants are “paid” by the vendor in the form of commissions on sales (often narrowly defined) or referral fees and access to NFR copies of the software.  And yet, the questions arises, when one vendor demands exclusivity, what is the “price” for independence.  This article looks at the price and the benefits of an in independent non-exclusive consulting program to clients.  Some of the arguments are obvious, but they bear restating.

Read moreSales vs Consulting – The Cost of Independence

Inbox backwards – XOBONI – The Ultimate Exchange Addon

If you use OUTLOOK or EXCHANGE, you must get XOBNI.  That is inbox backwards.  And it works that way.  It turns your inbox upside down.  From a morass of emails and other crap, XOBNI brings order.  And it does this without you providing any organizing principle.  No need for folders and rules etc.  Rather, there is a simple search box.  It indexes your inbox.  It creates profiles of all your senders and recipients.  It pulls their data automatically from LinkedIn, Twitter, Hoovers, Facebook and other social networking services.  It shows the relationships between that person and ALL your other contacts.  It takes your emails and threads them together in conversations (remember GMAIL).  And it exposes and makes searchable ALL attached documents.

So what is the cost … well FREE.  The free version should be adequate for most people.  For $35 you get a little more.  If you are looking for a needle in a haystack, XOBNI is your metal detector.  It sorts the chaff and out comes the needle.  Want to know who knows whom.  Use this handy little sidebar.

Try it.  You’ll like it.

By The Lake – Dog Training

In our last home, we had a postage stamp sized back yard.  With a wooden pike fence on one side, a hedge on the other, and a wire mesh fence on the third, as well as a gated driveway, we had the dog contained. Chloe, a border collie/pointer cross, weighing in at 70 pounds could do 3 full circuits of the backyard before you could count to 60.  And so, each morning, each afternoon and each night, she bolted out the back door at mach speed to reign terror on any wooded creature that dared to cross our threshold.  It is all different now.

She Escapes, Again and Again

Here, by the Lake, we are on a level wooded lot with a large front lawn, and a larger back lawn.  There is a barrier, some might call it a fence on north and south sides of the yard.  Such barrier, however, to Chloe is aspirational.  For within five short minutes, she had escaped through a gap large enough to drive a tractor through.  In fact, the purpose of the gap, was likely to bring lawn mower tractors through.  In the first week in residence by the lake, I have gotten to know several of my neighbors.  First they would see the blur of black and white that was Chloe charging.  Then they would hear the long drawn out command: “Chloeeeeee … come baaaaaack!” repeated a few times and increasing volume.  Next, they would see me marching across their private back yards, leash in hand, scowling … What an introduction!  Luckily, Chloe is a very friendly happy dog, and not the menacing type.

A Solution … Or a Start at a solution

And so, after a week of this I moved on to the next phase.  My first thought was to patch the fence.  One square acre of land.  That’s a lot of fence.  And with a dog that runs at light-speed, rapidly patrolling the perimeter, and also a dog who could dig a hole deep enough to sink a tractor in minutes, I was hesitant to try.  If I didn’t succeed, I would hear from my new neighbors.  Moreover, I would be working on their border.  If I put up an “ugly patchwork fence”, I would actually be invading their site-line and marring their property.

With this concern in mind I saw an advertisement for PetSafe(r) Pet Containment System.  For $200 I could bury a radio-transmitting wire around my property.  I could then administer electroshock therapy on my rambunctious dog.  Home Depot had the equipment.  Shortly after buying it, my wife found an advertisement that heralded $200 for a fully installed system, training included. I was ready to return my system to Home Depot, but decided to check the advertisement.  On closer reading, it turned out to be “$200 off” which consisted of a $100 discount on hardware and $100 discount on training.

And so … I went ahead with my plans, laying out 600 feet of yellow wire, connecting it to electricity, and determining the radio-frequency border-width.  I then took my son Itzak around, electronic RF collar in hand.  We approached the border at 10 foot intervals to determine at what point the collar would indicate the “zapping point”.  With 50 flags in place, it was time to take out the dog.  I read the training manual.  I armed myself with the tastiest liver treats …

…. More later ….

A Room With A View

It’s day two in the new office.  You have seen the layout in a previous post. What you may not realize it has windows from desk level to the ceiling on three sides; that’s a lot of window and a lot of heat.  We put in new electricity line to handle all the equipment, and put in new baseboard heating on a separate zone.  The view out the window is nothing short of stupendous.

The room sits on the “premier etage” – the first floor above the ground level.  In front of me is a small lake covered with lily pads.  Surrounding the lake are several 100+ year old trees.  There is a graceful oak tree with branches that span out over 100 feet.  And there is a soaring maple tree with a girth the size of a small cypress tree.  All around is a riot of color.  Leaves are turning yellow and red, and orange, mixed with a sea of green.  A small drizzle is rippling the lake. Occasional ducks land on the surface en route to warmer climates as the seasons change.  We hear the gaggle of geese.

The tranquil moment is marred only by the steady hum of my computer fans.  Not sure whether it is my Dell Server or whether it is my switch that has the louder fan.  The shelves in the back of the office are up.  We now have two large white cabinets to store the messy wires that come from running a computer business (old USB cables, network cables, power cables, serial cables, parallel cables, mouse cables, and an assortment of devices whose purpose have drifted out of memory).

Moves are interesting.  In packing up we left a wide pile of devices in the waste bins.  Who needs a “floppy drive”?  Anyone continue to use a ZIP Drive … wore 100 MB of storage?  I had a serial to mouse adapter.  Remember when serial ports were all the rage.  And now there is the universal serial bus (USB).  Bluetooth was supposed to replace that.  But my latest acquisition, a Plantronics wireless headset still uses a USB to power the device.  I finally decided to retire permanently my Dell Pentium III server. With a RAID V SSCI drives of 50GB (once immense) , the whole system only can store 150 GB, not even enough to backup my current server.  And weighing in at 80 pounds, that was one solid hunk of metal. It certainly has freed up space on my computer rack.

The Search for the Perfect Baguette

It has been a few weeks since the return from our trip to Paris.  We have mostly readjusted.  We will shortly be moving our office from Croton-on-Hudson to the neighboring town of Cortlandt Manor. But there is one area where we feel as great loss; for we miss the perfect breakfast.  In Paris, or rather Boulogne-Billancourt, we had 3 boulangeries (bakeries) within walking distance from our apartment.  Each morning we would make an expedition (two blocks) to the bakery and pick up a fresh baguette (.95 Euros / USD $1.25).  We would also pick up croissant beurre, croissant almonde, pain au chocolat, or brioche.  We would top it with fresh butter, nutella or confitures.  And for the adults, drink it with freshly brewed French Roast coffee. And so, on our return, we sought to reproduce this simple pedestrian breakfast.  The pastries and baguettes were ALWAYS fresh from the oven.  The had delicate crips crusts.  The insides were light and airy, almost delicate.  The bread “snapped” in your fingers and crackled under your teeth.  The croissant were light, flaky and exuded butter.

Well, it hasn’t been easy.  Our local ShopRite (which has everything), sells loaves that are shaped like French bread, but resemble more in texture partially cooked pizza dough.  The bread is soggy to the touch when bought, with a cold clammy texture. When warmed up to get a crispy crust, the bread is hard and tough.  Sharp teeth are required to tear the break.  Rather then melting in your mouth, repeated chewing is required to aid in digestion.

The croissants are even worse.  They “look” like croissant, but the resemblance ends at the external appearance.  The French croissants were layer upon layer of delicious flaky crust, such that you could unpeel the croissant, and eat it layer by layer. The ShopRite croissants were a single undifferentiated mass of dough.  Yes, there were not too dense, and they were buttery, but they had none of the texture and feel of the French version. Once you went beyond to the Almond croissant and the Pain au Chocolate, it got worse.

I then moved on to the local “Gourmet” establishment.  They had a wider selection and variety.  The French breads (when they were available) had a gold crust and crackled when you squeezed them. But the weight of the bread was wrong.  They were too heavy.  The dough was dense and chewy.  They were interested breads, but they lacked the Artisanal flavor and texture we could get in any boulangerie in France.

Part of the reason, I am told, has to do with CULTURE.  In France, the local bakery has two production runs: early morning and mid-day.  The breads are made without any preservatives.  The means that the lucious baguette of the morning is the stale loaf of the evening, fit only for bread crumbs and croutons. And bakeries are located on every other block.  Each morning and each evening the “chefs”, including little chefs, cue up to get the fresh breads out of the oven.  In the U.S. we have “factory-sized” bakeries that ship breads through distribution centers to large markets.  Breads may take 24-48 hours from when they are made to when they show up on your shelve for you to buy on your weekly (not daily) shopping expedition.  In such a food cycle, French bread, with its 12 hour life cycle, would be long dead and stale before it got to your table.

For us, “lost in suburbia”, our option is to take the train to Zaros at Grand Central Station or learn how to make our own bread.  At present, we are decided on the later.  We will begin to yeast our our starter loaf, and put it in the convection oven while the rest of the family does their morning showers.

Potatoes and Peas

Back in April, when the first breath of spring was in the air, my son and I went out to the garden plot, shovel in hand.  We applied manure, peat moss and other natural fertilizers and turned over the soil We then chopped up a number of spuds (with eyes) and stuck them deep in the soil (six inches under).  We also planted two rows of peas (snap peas and sugar peas). And then we sat back and waited, and waited.  The nights were still cold, and some of the days were cold.

The first to pop up were the peas.  Being planted only an inch underground, they had less distance to travel.  They stuck out their green necks into the cold spring air.  Slowly, they mounted to the sky, sending out runners to connect with neighboring plants and up to the trellis beside them. Some went off along the ground in the wrong direction and had to be reigned in.  Now, six weeks later they are a foot high mass of green leaves, runners and stalks.  We can see the first nascent flowers.

The potatoes (Yukon gold and Fingerlings) took longer.  After a five weeks of no-show, I was concerned the entire patch of potatoes had rotted in the ground with nothing to show.  There is a change that rot sets in before the plant can grow.  And so, it is with anticipation that we caught the first grows above the ground.  By then, the weeds had invaded, including some Hosta roots that had been left in the soil and were now springing up where the potatoe patch should have been.  My son and I pruned the weeds, carefully distinguishing friend from foe.  I am glad to report that the potatoes quickly made up for lost time.  In fact they are now a sea of green covering the entire patch of soil, and nearly a foot talk.  The few extra spuds that I dumped in a shaded area of the front yard have also materialized.

The peas should be ready to harvest in another four to six weeks and keep sprouting throughout the summer.  By contrast, the potatoes will sit in the ground all summer and into the fall, storing up solar energy from the leaves in the roots and tubers that we find so tasty.  I let you know when they are ready to eat.

For now … Happy Planting.

Nolo Press – Invovator, Threat or Nuisance

I posted the following topic on the Legal Innovation group on LinkedIn:  Is Nolo Press (www.nolo.com) an innovator, a “threat”, or just a nuisance? Nolo Press ( http://www.nolo.com/ ) started out as a counter-culture response to the high cost of lawyering for the “average Joe”. It has morphs from “legal kits” to online legal forms and rakes in tens of millions of dollars a year. I got some interesting responses that I thought worth posting here.

Solomon Bedford writes:

The question is a good one. A related question I would like answered is whether attorneys should ingore, compete with, or partner with such businesses? The threshold issue is whether a lawyer can be involved with such a product/ service in manner consistent with the rules and spirit of professional responsibility. The trend has developed strong momentum because there is a segment of the population that desires a finite service and or product at a finite price. This is an issue the ABA touched upon in a publication regarding limited scope representation. I would like to know if anyone has any thoughts on this issue.

Richard Durfee writes:

The short answer is “yes.” It is an innovator to consumers who don’t like paying big legal fees, a threat to lawyers without imagination or self confidence, and a nuisance to the do-it-yourselfer that doesn’t complete the paperwork. It is good for people to take responsibility for their own legal affairs, and a huge mistake in this day and age for attorneys to assume that the public needs them as much as they used to, or that consumers are as ignorant of their options as they were in the pre-internet days.

Maurice Hendriks writes:

Hi Seth, my short answer is “no”. It is not an innovator as there are numerous others who operate following an identical business model. My brief analysis on what NOLO does is that they do nothing more than providing references to legal information as per their ‘About Us’ statement ‘We are the nation’s oldest and most respected provider of legal information’. To the best of my knowledge they do not actually provide legal advice but only provide access to legal information, but please correct me if I am wrong.

I definitely do not see their model as a threat. People buy kits online as a first step. Then they start filling them out and not infrequently find that is all too hard and decide to go the local small legal firm for a free consultation after which they often end up as a ‘small’ client. Looking at it from that perspective, it may actually generate work for lawyers. Filing in the forms online is a service that has grown as a natural progression of the Internet and as Richard mentioned, it is time for professionals to adjust their business and mind-set to the innovative Brave New World.

A nuisance is something personal, if it is a personal nuisance then it may be time to ascertain why it has become one and possibly start thinking about leveraging and benefiting from the facts rather than wasting time being frustrated by it. It can of course also be ignored.

Mitchell Kowalski responds:

This is about as threatening to the legal industry as online trading is to stock brokers. This group and the others who do the same thing, will have a nice niche market. But there are also a lot of people who are interested in personalized service to ensure that things are done “right”.

In short, there is room for both.

And, at the risk of being seen as more cynical than I am (a huge stretch!) as a lawyer, I’m happy to be rid of the type of client who would buy these kits.

Bruce Marcus responds:

his is intermediation, in which a customer bypasses a traditional middle man. When you trade online and skip a broker, when you log on to the internet with your symptoms instead of calling your doctor, when you read your newspaper online instead of buying it at the news stand, even when you do your own taxes with a tax software package, that’s intermediatin.Is it a nuisance? Only if you let it be, but it’s a fact of life. Adjust your practice, and move on. you can’t stop it.

Further Thoughts on the Discussion

Solomon makes a good point: “The threshold issue is whether a lawyer can be involved with such a product”. Nolo has a sister site http://lawyers.nolo.com/ which feeds business to lawyers; I don’t know what fees they charge. They may also have links when you complete a form to “find an attorney” to help you with the form.

A second player, LegalZoom, a competitor to Nolo ( http://www.legalzoom.com/ ) also is offering a legal directory, along with automated forms and paralegal services.

A third player, http://www.directlaw.com/ offers a different pitch. For a fee, they will set up practitioners with their own space in directlaw where they can sell directlaw products, along with their own legal counseling services. DirectLaw handles the billing and takes a fee for its document production services.

So the question Solomon raises is apt; should a lawyer get involved with one of these vendors. It could lead to referral business. While the typical person who approaches these sites is not a “big spender” everyone knows that some small spenders become big spenders, and enough small spenders can constitute a viable business.

Off-Shore Word Processing

In this time of economic downturn, a number of firms are looking at making Staff cuts.  And one of the areas they are looking hard at is word-processing.  There has been an aggressive pitch by “vendors” offering to outsource the word-processing department.  With the advent of high-speed color scanners and high-speed internet, it is possible to send your document (or your dictation) around the world, and have it delivered back to you 24×7.  With worldwide networks and hosted document repositories, it is possible to have a service provide with offices in every major time zone.  And so, what is missing in the bid by these vendors for your work. What are some of the choices.

Read moreOff-Shore Word Processing

When the Paralegal Down the Hall Is In India

This morning I received an email from mindspring.net offering outsourced legal services in India:  research, transactions, document coding, drafting services, all at prices that would be a fraction of the cost of having a paralegal on staff.  No benefits.  No taxes.  No overhead. And I only need to pay them when I actually use them.  The frequency of these offers, and the fact that many law firms are seriously considering them, represent a tectonic shift in the practice of law. It is one, of several possible outgrowths of the commoditization of the practice of law.  There are other options.

Read moreWhen the Paralegal Down the Hall Is In India