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Bay area attorney embraces technology, goes paperless

Bill DeYoung

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According to the 2018 Report on the State of the Legal Market, America’s law industry – 400,000 firms and counting – is losing revenue by not adapting to current technology.

The Codex LegalTech Index reports that only about 900 U.S. firms are taking advantage of paperless technology.

“When it comes to change, new technologies and adapting, the legal field tends to be very slow,” says defense attorney Jhenerr Hines, who opened her Tampa office in 2016. “I think a lot of people are married to the traditional way of doing things. If you ever read a legal document you’ll hear language that you’ll never hear talking to someone in real life.”

A native of Montego Bay, Jamaica, Hines came to the United States on a scholarship, and graduated from Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, and with honors from Stetson University’s College of Law, St. Petersburg, in 2013.

Hines started her own practice after working at the Middle District of Florida’s Federal Defender’s Office.

As her caseload grew, she realized how much time and effort she – a one-woman office – was spending on repetitive paperwork.

Today, her office is completely paperless. She did it by experimenting and combining different software applications, until she created an automated system that keeps the small stuff off her desk.

“I just thought there had to be a better way of doing it,” Hines explains. “I started using the law practice management software programs, and there are a lot of them available. They’re meant to be simple and easy, but that means they can’t do as much as you’d like them to do.”

She looked at how other industries were applying automation. “Sales is one industry that’s always adapting, always on the cutting edge. I started using software designed for sales – they’re constantly rolling out software that can do the kind of things I wanted to do.”

Hines developed a customer relationship management (CRM) system. “I found those that were very customizable, and just sorta started from scratch,” she explains. “Developed everything from the ground up.

“Mind you, this was after I had used some other programs, so I had used some of the good information from them. I was able to put everything in one system.”

The common denominator is Zapier, the web-based service that allows different software to inter-connect and communicate.

How does it work?

The call center schedules her appointments, sets her calendar, and links to a system that processes customized contracts for clients. “So if I get an email from someone, they automatically get a phone call, and they’re automatically entered into my system,” Hines says. “They automatically have something scheduled as a followup.”

Incoming calls and emails from clients are automatically returned by the software, “encouraging them to take the next step. That saves me a whole lot of time, and it makes sure that things are consistent.

“If I have a day when I have a lot of court, I have a lot of stuff going on, sometimes it’s not as easy to pick up the phone and call back somebody who just had a quick question. But because I have a system in place, it takes care of all that for me.”

She was concerned, in the beginning, that clients would find the whole thing impersonal and a turn-off.

As it turned out, “People really appreciate the automated responses. Because one of the biggest complaints that I hear is that people can never get in touch with their lawyers. Or they never get a callback.

“I use the system for the non-essential stuff – people making their initial contact when they’re trying to get a lawyer. With me, they get an automatic message with a link to schedule their free consultation with me. They get text and call reminders, then they come in and meet with me. And we go through their case together.”

A lot of law work, anyone in the profession will tell you, is repetitious paperwork. Jhenerr Hines’ files are stored in the cloud, and can be accessed with the click of a mouse.

The time-consuming over-and-overs are handled by automation.

“Take a Notice of Appearance,” Hines says. “It’s going to be different for every case. But how we have it set up is, once we enter the key information about the case, then that document is automatically created. So we don’t spend an hour creating this document, and then inputting the client – when it could be done in just a couple minutes.”

It’s very possible, the young attorney concedes, that the profession is reluctant to embrace technological advances because less time creating paper, one sheet at a time, means fewer bill-able hours.

“My time is spent with the client,” she says, “and I’m not charging the client for busy work. I’m not charging the client for doing something for an hour that can be done in five minutes with technology.”

 The future is now

Hines, who works primarily with minority groups and specializes in social justice cases, has clients in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. She’s on the board of directors of the Hillsborough County Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the board of the George Edgecomb Bar Association.

Her proprietary communication and case management software has made her busy work life easier – however, she insists, she’s still making tweaks and changes as issues present themselves.

And yes, there’s actually still some paper in her paperless office.

“The court system controls a lot of a lawyer’s work,” Hines says. “With the court system, we’re dealing with government, we’re dealing with budgets and budget restrictions. Which means that things don’t get adapted as quickly.

“Pinellas County doesn’t even use email. Their state attorneys don’t use email. If you want to get something sent to them, you have to physically print it and mail it to them.

“I don’t think that’s very common; the state of Florida’s filing system is now electronic. But we do have barriers like that.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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