14 October 1992
By Norman Bauman
When Technical Equities, the San Francisco investment advisory firm, went bankrupt, the litigation was a mess. Dozens of law firms filed suits on behalf of hundreds of investors. The documents reached millions of pages.
One firm handled it with a simple data base.
McDonough Holland & Allen, in Sacramento, represented one of the parties, and the paper came pouring in. "When we got into this litigation," said Legal Assistant Nora R. McDaniel, "there were approximately 350 individual cases filed, 75 law firms, and a large number of pleadings. We would get, easy, a 3-foot stack of pleadings and discovery a day."
"First we had to just determine what cases were there, who the plaintiffs were, who the defendants were, and who was representing whom," said Ms. McDaniel. They finally identified 40 cases involving their client. Then they opened case files and pleadings files.
On the Macintosh II, Ms. McDaniel set up four data bases: one to track document service, a second to track the deposition transcripts, a third to track calendar dates, and a fourth to summarize documents. She used FileMaker Pro, a popular and easy-to-use flat file data base. "It took me about 8 hours apiece to set up the original data bases, but now I could clone a new one in half an hour."
"FileMaker Pro couldn't be easier," said Ms. McDaniel. "I worked on an R:Base system on DOS, and I had to hire a programmer every time I had to do something. But with FileMaker Pro, anybody can come in and set up a data base."
A different kind of user, with a different kind of task, might prefer a more powerful program, even though it's more difficult. Consider 4th Dimension, a Macintosh relational data base. "It's the most powerful data base I've seen, a sort of souped-up dBASE III," said patent attorney Ernest E. Schaal, counsel for Chevron Corp. It takes "a certain amount of development time and upkeep time," he said. Mr. Schaal estimated that he has spent 100 hours a year on it for the last four years, getting it into a smooth point-and-click form.
Now Mr. Schaal has a system that is customized to his specific needs, that tracks his patents and other activities, and that prints out individual letters, rather than reports, to keep his inventors, managers and vice presidents informed in greater detail than he could have without the computer.
But 4th Dimension is not for everyone. "I would not recommend it for people who are not power users," said Mr. Schaal, who is upgrading his Macintosh SI's memory to 17 MB to handle his data base. "There are flat files for the Macintosh that are easier."
There are also powerful, difficult-to-learn data bases such as 4th Dimension or Double Helix for the Macintosh, or Paradox, dBASE, Clipper, and FoxPro for DOS, which can be developed into elaborate office automation systems. These programs are the tools of power users, data processing managers, and full-time programmers. Many attorneys are excellent programmers, but data base development is a time-consuming task. A relational data base in Paradox is a major project usually done by full-time programmers or power users.
This article will describe how four law firms use simple and complicated data bases, on the Macintosh and PC. It gives case histories of how they set up simple, useful flat-file data bases, to track clients, memos, and files; and how they set up more complicated relational data bases, to manage more complicated lists of names, calendar schedules, billing data, and document assembly.
Toxic tort cases are document-intensive. "A lot of documents are generated as the litigation is going on, with the state and federal government overseeing it, and environmental engineers constantly coming out with technical reports," said Mr. Hull. "A lot of times you go back through the chain of ownership, and generate a lot of documents on the history of the property," he said. "You can get into a lot of paperwork real quickly."
To handle those documents, they use a Macintosh system with MS Word, under a System 7 operating system. The attorneys have Macintosh SE 30s, and the secretaries have Macintosh IIcx's with large-screen black-and-white monitors. The attorney workstations communicate with other machines over QuickMail, and can access the back office system for billing and other information. They can easily convert and exchange files with DOS-based machines.
First, to get an overview of the litigation, Ms. McDaniel created a data base of attorneys, with their names, addresses and phone numbers, their clients, and the cases they were handling. This became the Service List Data Base, which inter alia generated mailing labels for the 32 attorneys who received pleadings. The advantage of FileMaker Pro, Ms. McDaniel said, is that it is very easy to modify--you can start simple, and add fields as you need them.
"We started out with a simple data base, of attorneys and who they represented," said Ms. McDaniel. "Then I added a fax number field." As she dealt with the other firms, some paralegals were particularly helpful, so she added a "Paralegal Contact" field. Later, the cases were consolidated, so she added a field for the consolidated case number. "So the data base can continually grow as you need it," she said.
"I can shape the size of the fields," said Ms. McDaniel. "I can move them around." In contrast, to move a field in Q&A, the user must enter a revision menu, erase the field, and retype it in the new place.
Third, to handle the frantic scheduling of discovery, hearings and briefs, Ms. McDaniel created a Docket/Calendar Data Base. Three to six depositions were scheduled per day. The schedules were changed "on a daily basis, and occasionally on an hourly basis," and she had to update the docket and notify the attorneys. The firm now uses a similar data base to handle the entire docket for the firm. They can print calendars of appearances and deadlines for the entire firm, individual departments, individual attorneys, and individual clients.
Finally, for tracking and abstracting individual documents, Ms. McDaniel created a Document Summation Data Base. The problem with some packaged litigation support software, she said, is that the fields may be limited. A data base like FileMaker Pro can have an unlimited number of fields.
A good document summary data base will control data entry to minimize mistakes or variations. "You want to have menus for as many fields as possible," said Ms. McDaniel. The "Name" field should have a menu, so that the names will be entered in a consistent style. The "Type of Document" field should have a menu for Letter, Agreement, Contract, or other type.
The Macintosh clearly favors good graphic design. Ms. McDaniel's reports and screens used a graphic display to organize the fields by category to make them easier to understand. The same design would take much more effort in a DOS environment.
Mr. Schaal's main responsibility at Chevron is patent prosecution, preparation and licensing. "I track everything from initial disclosure from the inventor to us, to the issue of the patent," he said.
After a substantial amount of time customizing 4th Dimension, a difficult data base, he's tracking his patents on the Macintosh, sending out routine correspondence automatically, and keeping his inventors and managers better-informed than he did before.
Mr. Schaal uses a Macintosh SI, with 5 MB memory and an 80 MB hard disk, although he is upgrading to 17 MB. "The upgrades on my programs are getting bigger and bigger, so 5 MB isn't enough any more," he said. "On a Mac, you can have a lot of things going at the same time. But I have a huge data base, so I can't have 4th Dimension at the same time as a Microsoft Word."
"I use the document assembly aspects to it," said Mr. Schaal. "Much of my routine correspondence is generated by the data base. If I enter a new event from the patent office, it will ask me if I want to send a letter to my inventors, it will check to see whether they are still with Chevron or not, it will send the letter, and make a note that I sent a letter. It sends quarterly reports, in the form of individual letters to each inventor, to their manager, and to their vice president.
"My secretary is doing a lot less typing and a lot more photocopying," said Mr. Schaal. "With the same amount of effort, we can keep a lot more people informed of the status."
4th Dimension has modules for word processor, spreadsheet, graphics, drawing, and project planning. The word processor makes it easy to insert fields into mailmerge letters.
"It's more of a development tool," said Mr. Schaal. "I would not recommend it for people who are not power users. There are flat files for the Macintosh that are easier."
"What I got done by the first year was perfectly adequate, and I continued using it, improving it as I went," said Mr. Schaal. "A lot of it now is point-and-click."
"Instead of typing in, it gives me a menu," said Mr. Schaal. "It creates an array of all my inventors, and when I add an inventor, or subtract an inventor, it keeps that array up to date. So I can type the inventor's name one time, and never type it again. The patent numbers, the serial numbers, the key words, are all done by arrays. I use dialog boxes. It's tailored to my particular desires."
"Every week I print out my docket for my own internal use, including a hot item list of things that must be done over the next month," said Mr. Schaal. "The docket prints out in three ways, by due date, by transaction type, and the special hot items, in paragraph format, for the one or two things that I have to immediately. The paragraph gives me enough information to know what it is," he said.
"Every month, it does some internal checks, to see if there are missing fields, and it shows me a list of all the people who owe me responses, and what they owe me, and allows me to choose the people that I want to send a trace letter to," said Mr. Schaal.
"Every quarter it turns out this massive mailing of letters to my manager, to the inventors, to their vice presidents, and to their managers," said Mr. Schaal. "Before I did this, we didn't keep the clients as informed as we did now."
"The paragraph would take the fields for U.S. serial number, the filing date, the type of application, the first inventor's name, the status, the title, and then a report description, which is a text field that tells what the invention is about," said Mr. Schaal. "I can create this stock paragraph right out of the data base, and put it into a letter."
"I don't print out reports, I print letters," said Mr. Schaal. "I'm trying to make it easy for the person to read."
For complicated data bases--like document administration and conflicts--they use Clipper, says legal administrator Larry Green. For simple everyday data bases--like their closed case file, expert witness list, plaintiff list, and employee data base--Q&A can usually do the job, he says. Sometimes they develop data bases in Q&A, and move them to Clipper when they need advanced features.
Q&A is easy to learn, "and addresses about 95% of all of our data management problems," said Mr. Green. "People can generally pick up the basics of Q&A with 30 minutes of instruction, and with an hour can create simple data bases. If we need anything more sophisticated than Q&A can offer, generally we'll have them custom written"
In Clipper, however, their conflicts management system can be a front end for the document management system, and for the time and billing system, which is beyond the capabilities of Q&A. Clipper also allows more sophisticated searches and document management.
"The main thing is, whatever they use, they spend the least amount of time possible and give us the best product," said Mr. Green. "If it's something that could be programmed in Q&A, why sit down and write a complicated program in Clipper?"
Before they moved it to Q&A, Blasingame, Burch used to keep their closed file records on a Wang word processing system. "As the file was closed, the secretary would make an entry into that closed file management system, noting the case name, case number, storage box number, and the location of the storage box," said Mr. Green.
"We had four distinct documents, as big as Wang would allow," said Mr. Green. "So if you were looking for a particular closed file, you had to go through each of the four files, and use the Wang search function." Some searches took 20 minutes. In Q&A, "I can search 20,000 records in a couple of seconds," he said.
But accuracy and control is more important than speed. "There were many times that we couldn't find files that we knew were there," said Mr. Green. They were forced to send a courier to look around the storage warehouse.
You can control entry into a data base, but you can't control entry into a big word processing file. "Whenever a secretary calls up that file, there's a possibility of accidentally deleting some lines," said Mr. Green, "and I suspect that's what happened."
"There were no control factors in terms of what information was put into that data base," said Mr. Green. "Each secretary could type any form of information into that data base. And there was no validation." For example, there was a field for the date the file was closed. "That could be a particularly useful piece of information, especially if that's the only thing you remember about the file," he said. A well-designed data base would only allow you to enter a date in the range of your recently-closed cases. A word processing file has no such control. "I've seen things entered in the year 2000 by mistake," he said.
"It's important to design a data base entry screen that controls and validates the information," and restricts it to a valid range, said Mr. Green. For example, the screen should only allow the operator to enter document dates inside the range of documents of the case. The screen should validate the range of storage box numbers, so that, even if the operator makes a mistake, the storage box will still be in the same vicinity.
Some data bases, including Q&A 4.0, give you the ability to write your own help screens, said Mr. Green. He sets up help screens with menus listing the attorneys' names and initials. Q&A can convert initials to full names, so the operator need merely type the attorney's initials from the help screen. "If I type in the wrong initials, the machine beeps at me," he said. "In many cases you can get away with the data entry person not entering any data except the pick list and the enter key," said Mr. Green.
"You need to settle on some kind of standard key word system," said Mr. Green. "You may or may not have a pulldown menu, but you can't suffer people making up their own key words. I don't think any individual could create it himself. I'd use West's or something like that."
The employee data base has about 50 fields, including information the firm would need to get a quote for health insurance. It has about four screens, with a field for Social Security number, a field for birth date, a calculation field that calculates age, a field for the starting date, a calculation field that calculates tenure with the firm, fields for last salary review date, current salary, next salary review date, family or individual health care coverage, names and Social Security numbers of spouse and children, firm credit cards assigned, and parking slots assigned.
Q&A 4.0 allows different levels of access, so that the data base has basic information like names, addresses, and emergency phone numbers, available to all employees, and confidential information, which is restricted to certain classes of users. "Everybody has access to our personnel files, but they don't have access to every field in that file," said Mr. Green.
"We are in the midst of creating a conflicts data base, and it's just too involved for Q&A," said Mr. Green.
"Our conflicts data base is extremely fast, because it's written for that sole purpose," said Mr. Green. "This program brings up several different records at one time, opens several different files, and scans several different files, in fractions of seconds. We have 10-15,000 closed asbestos files alone. The conflicts file has to have the name of everybody we ever dealt with."
"We represent several banks," said Mr. Green. "You not only want to check with the bank's name, you want to check with board of directors. Clearly you don't want to sue anybody on the board. You don't want to sue any of the bank's employees, so you punch in all the employees."
Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can be elusive, warned Mr. Green. Blasingame, Burch represents several manufacturers. Another firm represented a manufacturer that supplied 28 companies with spray paint under 28 different labels, he said. The firm received a walk-in case from a woman who lost sight in her eyes after a spray paint can burst, and the firm was preparing to sue the company on the label. The client was the OEM. "The only way they caught it was by circulating the new case list," said Mr. Green. One of the old-timers said, "That paint name sounds familiar, I don't know where, but you got to check it out."
"In our firm, the second line of defense was reading the dockets," said Mr. Green. "All of our attorneys meet every Monday morning to review every case that has come up every week. You can't depend on your computer to find conflicts for you. Circulating a new case list is mandatory."
"Our conflicts data base has a very sophisticated soundex, and it's not the kind of thing Q&A was designed to handle," said Mr. Green. "Later we will integrate this system with our accounting system."
Dealing with names, their legitimate variations and misspellings is major task of data base design, explained Mr. Green. A name may appear in one form on a business card, a second form on a letter, and third form in a directory. There must be some provision for nicknames, such as the pairs William/Bill, Richard/Dick. Last names like Cohn/Kohn/Cohen/Cohan or Macintosh/McIntosh can be misspelled. Programs that find variations are called soundexes. Soundexes are sometimes packaged with the program, and sometimes purchased separately, and a good soundex or fuzzy search program can make a big difference in a data base's utility for a lawyer. For example, Chaim Caron, a Manhattan, New York, FoxPro programmer, doesn't use the FoxPro soundex, but instead substitutes the PhDbase phonetic searching, from Korenthal Associates, New York.
Scheduling is done automatically, said Mr. Barkley. "A secretary scheduling a deposition triggers all the documentation and paperwork automatically." The dates flow into the attorneys' calendars, and each attorney gets a weekly calendar printout. Another data base helps secretaries share their workload.
"I wouldn't recommend that a small firm do what we do," said Mr. Barkley. A system like this requires a dedicated data processing person on staff. "Can you adjust your life to fit the off-the-shelf product?" he asks. Lawyers tend to want to do things their own way, but packages from the major vendors can't be modified to meet those individual needs. You can develop a data base in-house, which is costly, but gives you exactly what you want.
The data base is named, with tongue-in-cheek seriousness, "The Firm".
As a relational data base, The Firm has a master record and several detail records, Mr. Barkley explained.
The master record includes fields for name, address, parent company, matter, person to contact, CPA firm, CPA contact, client number (which keys to the accounting system), two phone numbers, fax number, federal ID, SIC code, NAIC (insurance) code, lawyer responsible, billing lawyer, and rates.
One detail record deals with the matter. Its fields list the name of the matter file, the date the file was opened, the lawyer responsible, the branch of the firm, and the areas of law, said Mr. Barkley. There is a memo field with comments.
Another detail record is the client contact record, which is used for marketing, said Mr. Barkley. One client organization can have fields for 20 or 30 people contacts, with the title and phone numbers for each. This record has marketing material, and generates mailing lists for Smith, Haughey's newsletter, and invitations for events like the Christmas party and golf outings.
"The Firm" data base will eventually be integrated into the billing computer, said Mr. Barkley.
Mr. Barkley spent about "30 person-days over six months" to develop "The Firm" data base. "If you know how to program, it's not difficult, but if you don't I could see it being a real bear," he said. "We have a lot of expertise in-house."
"When a secretary gets work, she puts it on the system," said Mr. Barkley. "Every job has a sequential record. Every job has a deadline. Every job is in a priority sequence, which the computer generates according to how close it is to the deadline. Every job has an estimate of the time it should take."
When a secretary becomes overload with work, she can broadcast a message, "Subject: Help," on the electronic mail system, to groups within her department, within the office, or within all three branches around the state. Every secretary's terminal in that group beeps, and, if another secretary is free, she can respond to it.
Mr. Barkley estimates that he spent 90 days putting together the schedule system in Paradox.
This system works well because it fits into the firm culture. Before the computer, if someone needed help, they would post a message, "I need help," on the lunchroom bulletin board, Mr. Barkley explained. He called up the "Help" messages on his terminal. "Anyone going to our Travers City office?" read one. "I have a packet that needs to be delivered to this lawyer at our Travers City office."
Prior to installing the "Hot Tapes" data base, "our overtime was out of control, and we had a lot of temps taking care of crisis jobs," said Mr. Barkley. "That's been almost completely eliminated."
It's important that the secretaries feel the system is helping them, rather than turning their office into an electronic sweatshop, said Mr. Barkley. "We had a great sensitivity to letting the individuals who do this work schedule and manage this work among themselves. We've created a better feeling among the staff because people feel they have someone to turn to. We've never used this system as a bludgeon. If we improve productivity, that moves to the bottom line in terms of benefits, better pay, and general happiness."