Paul Cambria used to feel chained to his desk and surrounded by books and paper.
Now, the Buffalo attorney travels all over the country, runs a California practice from Western New York and gets to see his family, all while still meeting his clients needs. And he attributes that to technology.
"It's completely transformed our practice," said the senior managing partner of Lipsitz Green Scime & Cambria LLP, the fifth-largest law firm in Buffalo, with a total of 65 attorneys.
"It's made us more accessible, more efficient, and it has allowed us to have turnaround time to our clients become 10 times faster than it ever was."
The jury's in, and Western New York lawyers agree that the introduction of new technology has revolutionized the legal world.
Where attorneys used to lug or mail thick documents and boxes between offices to their clients and to courts, today they zip electronic files across the country in seconds. They also can make changes quickly, conduct extensive research remotely, and still complete work faster than ever before.
"Technology provides us the ability to conduct business seamlessly, anywhere at any time," said Edward G. Piwowarczyk, managing partner at Jaeckle Fleishmann & Mugel LLP, the area's No. 4 law firm, which uses technology to link to an international network of law firms when clients need special help. "Most critically, our technology provides the mechanisms to respond immediately to our clients."
Telephone systems are more advanced today, with the ability not only to get messages remotely and transfer them to each other, but also to retrieve them over the computer or other devices. And newer forms of communication, including Blackberrys and other wireless devices, mean attorneys a r e available to their clients b y phone or e-mail 24 hours a day, no matter where they are.
"It's really completely revolutionized the way we do everything, including our business model," said Gary M. Schober, president and CEO of Hodgson Russ LLP, Buffalo's largest law firm with 225 attorneys overall, including 160 in Western New York. "We want our clients to be able to get us whenever and wherever we are."
"That's the downside. You're never away, no matter where you are," said Dan D. Kohane, senior partner at Hurwitz & Fine PC.
> Work from anywhere
Video conferencing enables face-to-face meetings from a distance. E-mail alerts, electronic publications and Web sites keep clients abreast of new developments and trends, while also marketing the firms globally. And remote server access means attorneys can work on documents or conduct research from home, a client's office or the road.
"Wherever I go, I have with me access to every resource I could possibly need, so I can do legal research anywhere," Kohane said. "I haven't gone into a law library in years, because I carry it with me. Who uses books anymore?"
Technology means law firms no longer need to have staff and offices everywhere in order to practice everywhere. Buffalobased firms can operate regional offices around the state or around the country and still offer a full range of services to clients in those locations, even with very few attorneys or skill sets on site. And they can handle large litigation or corporate transactions from a distance.
"We are fortunate to serve clients in Western New York, across the country and internationally, many of whom operate from multiple locations," Piwowarczyk said. "Our ability to serve them at a level that we feel is acceptable is contingent on our use of up-to-date technology."
For example, Hodgson Russ has regional offices in Toronto, Albany, New York City, and Boca Raton and Palm Beach in Florida. But only Buffalo and to some degree New York have a full range of attorneys and expertise. So lawyers in the other offices who get clients with specific needs simply reach out over the Internet to Hodgson attorneys elsewhere to get the work done.
"That only works if we have adequate technology that enables seamless communication, as well as the ability to quickly transmit documents, because practicing law still involves a great deal of document production," Schober said. "I'm not going to pretend it's perfect. There are still kinks in the system, but we're getting better at it."
> Geographic expansion
That's especially beneficial for small firms. "It has closed geographical boundaries," Kohane said. "It's now as easy for us to do work in other parts of New York state as it is to do work right here in Western New York. That's been a tremendous advantage for firms who don't have offices in multiple cities. We now have a national presence."
Lipsitz Green's 14-year-old Beverly Hills office has accumulated "numerous" corporate and other litigation clients in California that are largely served by Buffalo-based attorneys. In the past, that meant Cambria had to spend two weeks at a time in the Golden State.
Now, he only spends three days every other week in California. With computers and the Internet, Cambria and other attorneys here can create the necessary contracts, briefs, letters and other legal documents. Then they e-mail them across the country, where they can be printed and signed without an attorney leaving Buffalo.
"We couldn't do that in the past," Cambria said. "We might have been able to fax them. But now we can have instantaneous corrections."
Similarly, when Hurwitz & Fine started in 1977, its practice was limited to Western New York, where its clients and the courts in which it operated were located. Today, though, "we practice all over the state," said Kohane, who has clients in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Binghamton, in the North Country and on Long Island. "I have as much business outside of Western New York as I do inside."
He also consults nationally and even in Europe in his area of expertise: litigation over commercial insurance coverage. He's able to send an electronic newsletter of up to 35 pages every other week to 1,200 subscribers, without the cost of printing and mailing it. And he's able to do it more often, and with more current information, than firms used to do.
"So much of what we do is transmitted electronically, filed electronically with the courts, communicated electronically between our clients and counsel," Kohane said. "It's eliminated the miles that existed between where our office is and where our practice is. The borders have disappeared."
It even changes the courtroom experience. Lawyers can open up a laptop, get real-time transcripts of testimony from just minutes before, and quote from the testimony in cross-examination. Or they can shoot off a quick e-mail with a technical question for an expert and have an answer in time to question a witness. "It's totally reinvented the law practice," Cambria said.
And while technology means attorneys could be doing work at 2 a.m., it also affords the flexibility to make a date or a child's school performance that might have been missed in the past.
"It's made a huge difference in my personal life," said Cambria, who has five children. "If my 3-year-old has a recital at the Little Red Schoolhouse, I just put the laptop under my arm, check my e-mail during the intermission, and then go back to the show. I could never do that before."
With firms like Hodgson spending well over $1 million a year on hardware and software that it never spent before, the need for capital is greater than in the past.
"We've taken a business that historically was not very capital- intensive, and converted it into a capital-intensive business," Schober said. "That's going to keep growing, because the technology will continue to improve and we'll have to keep up with it."
"It's expensive to stay state-of- the-art. But you have to do it," Kohane said. "There's no excuse anymore for not responding to a client quickly. If you don't do it, the clients are going to go down the street."
Hodgson Russ is now renovating the landmark Guaranty Building as its new headquarters. As part of the renovations, the firm is building a large conference room with state-of-the-art technology, including video-conferencing, flat-screen TVs, and sophisticated audio.
"You'll be able to see the people with whom you're speaking, and they'll be able to see you," Schober said. "That will be helpful in making it easier for us to work across a broader geographic area."
Indeed, attorneys said, the only thing technology can't do as well for lawyers is bring in new business by itself, although Kohane said Hurwitz & Fine has received "a lot of business" through its Web site. That's because law is still generally a personal profession.
So technology also won't remove the need to have lawyers in local offices, or to travel occasionally to meet clients. "Our clients still want to know their lawyers," Schober said. "They want to be able to see their lawyers and talk to their lawyers in person."