Trial by Fire
Upgrading legal technology during natural disasters, pandemics, and everyday calamities.
Written by Kim Ogg
The devastation Hurricane Harvey inflicted on Harris County’s courts
and justice community three years ago gave us a head start when the
coronavirus forced most of us to work from home while criminal cases
continued to roll in.
Even though every solo practitioner, small law office, and big firm has found solutions for getting through the roller coaster of the current pandemic, here are lessons we learned that may help others.
The most important: Communication is key. Email is not good enough, especially because most lawyers are bombarded with hundreds of emails a day. Group communication, such as Zoom for court hearings or virtual conferences, is imperative. File management and the ability to instantly share files must be a priority or projects stall.
The concept of “working remotely” was barely a goal for our profession just last year. Some jobs you can’t do from home, we told ourselves, especially being a “trial attorney.” Most had not used Zoom, and no one predicted we would see courts, our most traditional institutions, experimenting with remote access for hearings.
Today’s legal landscape requires a real paradigm shift. Lawyers can no longer just “set it and forget it.” In our office, we had to mandate scanning and train staff to use new software to make sure everyone was on the same (digital) page. We bought laptops for almost everyone and created our own training programs to overcome the attitudes that can keep an organization mired in paper.
The next lesson is to get moving, from wherever you are. Large offices need information technology professionals on staff. Solo practitioners likely need to confer with IT pros and consult local resources, such as law libraries. Setting up networks, file-sharing directories, and even servers can be accomplished when approached strategically.
Before Harvey, our office was in the same 20-story building as 38 criminal courts. After Harvey, we had employees working in 11 different buildings across Houston. Hauling more than 1,000 files to court every day (30 files in each court) was no longer an option. We scanned millions of pages in a matter of months and moved to a paperless office.
Finally, we learned it is imperative to stay focused with short- and long-term technology projects. Upgrading software and keeping up with security updates is important, and buying quality equipment, whether it is a laptop or a server, is a must.
When the prospect of a lockdown first appeared, we increased our lines of communication and started planning. First, we set up a static Zoom line and jumped in as needed—day and night—to talk through issues.
Gary Zallar, head of our information technology department, still keeps a Zoom room open all day for people to drop in.
For most lawyers, incoming documents are already digital and only require an appropriate storage solution. Information gathered and generated by any lawyer is sensitive and confidential, so security is important. Something like a Dropbox account that might work for solos is not the right solution for a district attorney’s office.
The number of old files to be scanned also has to be part of any decision before starting. It could be as simple as a file directory system so that all scans are easily accessible. With approximately 100,000 active cases each year, our larger system helps when we want to go back to old cases or give the defense discovery through a secure portal. When we started, the only things in the portal were DWI videos and 911 calls. Today it’s the entire file. That means defense lawyers can also work remotely.
Our office was an outlier after Harvey, but today’s legal technology needs to be constantly improved. There is a march toward new platforms and workflows in a world of ongoing disasters. Postponing new legal technology is no longer an option.TBJ
is the elected Harris County district attorney.