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High-tech legal aid helps attorneys

By Thomas Olson
Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008

The practice of law has progressed from the search for the smoking gun and the soaring courtroom oration. Nowadays, it's just as likely about the search for an incriminating e-mail and a video presentation in court.

To bone up on such skills, more than 300 local attorneys and other legal professionals attended a conference Monday and Tuesday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. The Best of Legal Technology, or T-Bolt, seminar and exhibit was sponsored by the Allegheny County Bar Association, as it has been since 2005.

"The technology we use every day to practice law -- portable devices or software to manage legal data -- keeps the costs down for the client and delivers a better work product from the attorneys," said conference co-chairman David Ries, who is an environmental and technology litigator at Thorp Reed & Armstrong, Downtown.

The really hot topic is electronic- or e-discovery, said Ries. Discovery is the process of gathering information -- in this case, by electronic means -- concerning a legal situation, either to prove a case or defend a client.

"Attorneys now have the added burden of finding out what's on computers," said Scott Ardisson, president of bit-x-bit, a Downtown company that was one of more than 25 exhibitors at T-Bolt. Bit-x-bit is a consultant on e-discovery and forensic investigations.

E-discovery began in the 1980s, said Ries, but really "started to mushroom" in the 1990s, when laptop computers started becoming commonplace.

"Since as much as 90 percent of business records are generated electronically, electronic evidence is where it is, especially e-mails," said Ries.

One T-Bolt session on e-discovery drew more than 80 lawyers who heard about the importance of accessing data that describe a document's source, history and characteristics.

"If it's an important communication, who sent or opened it and when can be important to the litigation. So you need to know that data," said Al Rosenthal, a commercial litigator for Babst Calland Clements & Zomnir, Downtown. "With a paper document, you don't know who opened the envelope when."

Technology also has spawned "virtual law firms," nationally and in the Pittsburgh region. Such firms maintain modest offices and a network of attorneys who communicate mostly via e-mail and operate from various locations.

"That can substantially eliminate rent, which is a huge cost savings, maybe $12,000 to $30,000 a year for a firm of six or seven attorneys," said e-discovery specialist Karl Schieneman, who formed 1-2-3 Law Group, a virtual law firm in Monroeville, in April.

Having fewer face-to-face client meetings also tends to lower legal bills, he said.

Delta Law Group was one of the state's first virtual law firms when it formed in August 2007. It has a network of 22 attorneys scattered throughout the region who rely on technology for client service.

"We scan any client documents with a high-speed scanner, upload them and turn them into PDF documents," said Brian Walter, co-founder of the Monroeville firm. "Then, we put it on a Web page that the client, as well as the attorney, can look at.

"The whole goal is to make law more accessible to the general public and make it quicker and faster," said Walter.

Technology is making the law easier for jurors, too, said legal experts. For instance, a half-dozen of the federal courts in Pittsburgh were outfitted with document cameras in 2006. The devices enable attorneys to project onto a screen or individual juror monitors documents, flow charts or even animations.

For example, an attorney using animation can reconstruct a traffic accident or the route a perpetrator took in the sequence of a crime, or illustrate how a machine injured someone.

"It keeps the juror's attention better, and they understand the case better," said Ries.



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