Country Lawyer 2.0 – Part 3: Changing Technology

0919-Country-Road-SunsetThe speed of the technological change in practice is overwhelming. Just five or 10 years ago, I was thinking I’d be retired before it catches me. I won’t have to deal with any of this. Boy, was I wrong. – Steve Peloquin




0919-Antonio-Tejeda-GuzmanAntonio Tejeda Guzman

Tejeda Guzman PLLC, Willmar

In terms of technology, I’ve been paperless for over 10 years. I absolutely hate paper, so I rely on technology in every possible way. My paralegal lives in Nashville, Tennessee, so he’s not even here in Minnesota. That’s how much we push the envelope. From voicemails being automatically transferred into a WAV file that goes into an email to FAXes that go in to PDFs to a great legal managing software that does everything under the sun. Technology is the key to being able to do this with two people. Without technology I couldn’t do what I do.

0919-Steve-PeloquinSteve Peloquin

Peloquin Jenson PLLC, Park Rapids/Perham

The speed of the technological change in practice is overwhelming. Just five or 10 years ago, I was thinking I’d be retired before it catches me. I won’t have to deal with any of this. Boy, was I wrong. I’m a Luddite, frankly. It’s not like I’ve embraced this stuff. In fact I do not carry a cellphone around the whole time. But my associates do. That’s how they communicate, that’s how they calendar, that’s how they correspond. That has been a huge change, and it’s probably not so different in rural or urban areas. 

In a rural practice, one of the things we deal with is geography. The connectivity out here really levels the playing field in that respect. It also levels the playing field when we have access to databases that only came in book form 30 years ago and were expensive and voluminous. They took up a lot of space. Now it’s all on a disc or on your phone because we’re in the cloud now. A year or two ago I didn’t renew Minnesota Statutes for the first time. That was hard. I like reading paper. But I couldn’t justify the cost if I have them in WestLaw. My associates, Amy [Jenson] and Alicia [Norby], were looking at it and saying, why do we need that stuff? And they were right. Now we can play on the same field with, say, the Dorsey firm in terms of information access. That’s a big change.

I don’t enjoy the practice as much where I have somebody send me an email and expect an immediate response. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to stay connected as much as everybody else does. I don’t want to carry my cellphone around. I don’t like to give my number out. I need a break. I also like to see people. That’s one of the things I insist on that I think a lot of younger lawyers don’t: Do we need to talk? Well, yeah—we should see each other. That said, the utility of being able to provide clients with complaints or letters to review, that’s great. It really helps a lot and it’s so quick. 

That’s the upside. The downside is, it’s so quick. You want a change in practice? That’s one that affects me every day, and I think about it all the time. We’re way too connected, and there’s too much said that is not really thought through. If you think back 30 years ago, bar associations met and socialized. Doing that is difficult. We still do it, but it’s difficult to get lawyers together. People are busy and they might have to drive 20 miles. Social media has exacerbated the lack of opportunity to interact personally. As a result, it’s less common to get on the phone and talk about a case and reach a resolution with another lawyer. That doesn’t happen as much anymore. Instead the mediation system we’ve set up becomes sort of a crutch. It’s like, I don’t have to talk to you—we’ll get a mediator and let them talk to us. I see that with younger lawyers in particular. They don’t want to deal with that; we’re going to send you a demand, and that demand’s going to be what it is, and we’re not going to talk back and forth. We’ll mediate this. 

If you looked at practice 30 years ago, you’d say it was slower paced. Had to be. You mailed stuff to each other. You talked on the phone. You don’t do that anymore. In fact, people avoid you by emailing you, because you don’t have to have a human interaction, and you can say difficult things because you’re talking to your computer screen. You don’t have to think about having an immediate reaction from the other side, or talking to the other side. Huge change in practice. 


0919-Molly-HinckenMolly Hicken

Cook County Attorney, Grand Marais

Our attorneys and staff have to have mastery over about four times as many computer programs as we used to. When I started there was basically one online resource that I used regularly, and that was MNCIS, the court calendar. And we used a case management system called Damion for evidence management and organizing our criminal files. So there were two systems back then. Now we have multiple online and cloud-based resources. Through the court, we have e-charging and e-filing, MNCIS and Odyssey, and those are all separate programs with their own login sets and procedures and training. If you have to start somebody new in the job, you have to deal with training.

Related to criminal history records and other things that prosecutors need to have handy, we now have systems through the BCA that my staff is more familiar with than I am. So we’ve asked for more access instead of leaving information in the sheriff’s hands only. That’s a new program with new training and new policies we have to institute as an office to make sure we protect that data from disclosure. 

That leads into something I wanted to talk about. All of this access to data and to electronic information, which is helpful for our cases, has also led to an increase in our obligations surrounding that data. As part of government, counties are required to be able to find and store that data and provide access to it if it’s public—or restrict access to that data if it’s private. We have a whole assortment of duties related to the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, chapter 13. We have BCA-related obligations as well.

So we have to figure out how to store all this data and to organize it in a way that ensures any time I receive a data request from a member of the public, I can respond. They are entitled to a response within a certain number of days. They either need access to that data because it’s public, or they need to be told why they can’t have access. If it’s in our possession, we need to be able to locate it. We put a lot of time into that. 

As government attorneys we have to both know the rules about data and we need to assist in enforcing laws and policies and training government employees so that nobody is violating that really important set of rules about transparency in government. The state of Minnesota has some really high standards for transparency in government.
It’s a constant conversation and a constant demand on our resources to be able to handle it all. Technology provides us with efficiencies and with a lot of information to use in the important decisions we have to make. But with it come a whole new set of problems and obligations.


0919-Paul-MuskePaul Muske 

Musk Suhrhoff & Pidde, Ltd., Springfield

I think with technology, the big thing is people demand more immediate response. Especially with email. It’s like, I want an answer and I want it now, and I expect an email in 15 or 20 minutes, whereas in the old days you had time to think about it [laughs] and draft a letter. The practice has gotten more intense in that respect. Technology has changed a lot of the way we deliver services, but it seems like the basic services have not changed that much.


0919-Steve-BesserSteve Besser

Dolan & Besser, Litchfield

The practitioners in town now have electronic filing with the courts; that saves having to send a runner or LA over to the courthouse with the filing fee and the documents or mailing them if they’re out of county. We can do it instantaneously. So that has greatly assisted small-town practitioners. Being able to file immediately in other counties saves you a lot of money. 

0919-Joellen-DoebbertJoEllen Doebbert

solo practitioner, Alexandria

When I was in law school in the mid to late ‘80s, Westlaw and other computer-based legal research tools were just being introduced. We learned the old-fashioned way—using large legal texts like Shepards [Citations] to check cites, and the West reporters—and, at the same time, we learned how to use Westlaw and Lexis. I have found it extremely difficult to transition to a purely digital format of legal research, without printing off cases, marking them up with notes, and writing up a few sentences summarizing major points. It is how I learned and it remains difficult to this day to read manuals or cases solely online and retain the information. The process of note taking, highlighting, and marking up a document has always reinforced my learning and retention of information.

Taking the time to learn new tools and technologies is always a challenge; not only is it not my favorite thing to do, it takes time and time is money. As a solo practitioner, sometimes you have to choose between serving your clients so that you can pay the rent and your staff versus spending time researching tools and meeting with vendors; it is the former that often wins out.

When I opened my practice in 1997, the biggest technology decision I had to make was what name I was going to use on my email address. About six years later, we hired a website designer and created a website. Since those early years on the web, the pressure to update the website and offer a presence (with frequent postings) on numerous platforms has been almost overwhelming. And yet, with all these new marketing methods, the old ones not only persist, but remain very demanding and expensive (Yellow Pages, newspaper and magazine advertising). As demographics change, the online marketing will likely replace the print media. But as long as we have people buying newspapers and using phone books, we are stuck in both the print and online media worlds.


0919-Angela-SipilaAngela Sipila

solo practitioner, Virginia

The practice of law in an office used to be a team, and now it’s more efficient for one person. I save time not having meetings to go over the files, save time not fixing someone else’s mistakes that I can’t bill for. Yet with all my saved time, I can’t leave for lunch. I eat Pop Tarts at my desk. I go a bit scooter-bug needing someone to talk to. 


0919-Robert-WoodkeRobert A. Woodke

Brouse, Woodke & Hildebrandt, PLLP, Bemidji

There wasn’t any such thing as case management software when I started practicing law. My case manager was a 3x5 index card deck that sat on the corner of my desk. But I’ve always believed in the importance of using technology to level the playing field, and you can. I was an early adopter of Amicus Attorney. Not that they’re the only game in town, but they came out with a product that had the look and feel of a physical office. The folders looked like folders and the calendar looked like a calendar. The filing system was built in the same way an old-fashioned four-drawer filing cabinet was built. It was easy to learn. That’s become a very valuable part of my practice. 

They’re internet-based now, but they have an option where you can put your database into a server in your office, and I have done that. So if someday they vanished, the raw data is in an SQL database where I can access it and work with it and don’t have to start from scratch to build something. The other change I’ve seen is the ease with which you can have redundancy through technology. And redundancy is critical, because hard drives fail. The USB-driven external drives make it so easy to back up your server and carry it out the door with you if you want to. Now that poses a cybersecurity risk, but it’s also an advantage, because if the office burns down and you’ve got the entire office in your pocket, you can be back up and running in an hour.

Next: Part 4: Changing Profession