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Explosion of technology a challenge for small Maryland law firms

For attorneys in small firms or solo practices, handling the explosion of technology in the legal field, caused in large part by the pandemic, has been a difficult, often expensive headache. (Depositphotos)

Attorney Robert L. Frank, who has a small legal practice based in Reisterstown, has a telling description of what it’s like to deal with some of the technological innovations that have swept through the legal community: “It’s like juggling a three-ring circus,” he said.

Frank, whose firm has only seven or eight employees, was specifically talking about the difficulty of managing virtual meetings that can involve other attorneys, clients, a judge and others.

But he could just as easily be talking about choosing and buying the technology now required for lawyers, figuring out how to use it and any number of other issues that have revolutionized and complicated the legal world – especially for small legal firms such as his.

Interviews with several area attorneys in solo and small firms yielded the same consensus with only slight variations. For these attorneys, handling the explosion of technology in the legal field, caused in large part by the pandemic, has been a difficult, often expensive headache.

“For the small firms I’ve spoken with and for our firm, the challenge is often with expense,” said Phillip Cronin, one of five attorneys in a firm with offices in Easton and Cambridge on the Eastern Shore. “You have to buy equipment to set up, have a conference room, cameras and microphones.

“That’s been the challenge – understanding the software and equipment necessary, and I think solos and small firms have a greater challenge trying to figure it out. I know we went through a number of trial and errors trying to figure it out.”

Patrick J. Palmer, part of a firm based in Centreville, called coping with the new technology “a challenge and a headache” for his four-lawyer  firm.

“As a small firm, it is difficult to assign all technology matters to one person,” he said. “As a result, we are all less than fully literate with the constantly changing technology.”

Smaller firms are at a disadvantage, he said, because they have limited manpower available to confront and solve technology issues.

‘I have an assistant, but I’m doing a large portion of the dirty work. It’s definitely been a learning curve,’ says Eleni vanRoden, who practices family law in a two-attorney firm in Belair. (Submitted Photo)

Further, he added, small firms do not have the “economies of scale” to buy and get trained on the equipment that’s needed to accommodate the technological changes.

“Smaller firms face more challenges based upon the limited manpower available to confront and solve technology issues,” he said.

Training remains “a difficult step” for his firm, Palmer added, so they try to limit the number of people involved in the update and procurement of technology.

Small legal firms in Maryland are not flying solo on the issue of high-tech advances in the field.

The Maryland State Bar Association and other local bar associations have stepped up to offer free webinars, advice and other help on buying and using the equipment needed, online filing of documents and more.

“The MSBA really stepped up on our behalf,” said Eleni vanRoden, who practices family law in a two-lawyer firm in Belair.

Assistance or not, the basic problem remains the same for the small firms.

“Profit margins for us are tight, we have fewer resources (than larger firms)” said Frank, who is chairman of the SOLO and Small Firm Section of the MSBA. “Every time I have to call my tech guy, I have to pay a bill.”

“Larger firms just have more help,” agreed vanRoden. “I have an assistant, but I’m doing a large portion of the dirty work. It’s definitely been a learning curve. The use of technology can be very effective, but because we have fewer people, we have to figure out how to work smarter – and work a lot harder.”

Headaches and expenses aside, the attorneys see advantages in the greater use of technology.  VanRoden, for example, said virtual platforms are especially useful in handling child custody cases. “It’s made it easier to meet the children, to check in with them, and do it in a safe way,” she said.

Moreover, she said, while the spiraling use of on-line filing in legal cases is fraught with  technical issues, it’s also more efficient. Filing  documents used to be impossible when courts were closed evenings and on weekends, but virtual filing can be done any time of the day or night.

“You can spread out the work a little more,” vanRoden said. “Plus, the system keeps track of what you filed and where, and if it gets lost, you can find it a lot easier than if it’s a piece of paper that gets misplaced.”

Benefits aside, dealing with virtual meetings, electronic filing, remote depositions and the like is not something most of the attorneys expected.

“It’s very different from anything I learned,” vanRoden said. “And I didn’t graduate that long ago from law school.”

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