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TECHNOLOGY AND THE LAW

Rick Georges keeps his entire law practice on a 7-pound notebook computer, along with his consulting, teaching and presentation materials. All properly backed up, of course.

When he travels, he carries the equivalent of an entire law library with him _ on CD-ROM.

He calls himself FutureLawyer.

"FutureLawyer means I'm interested in what technology can do to increase the practice of law in the future," said Georges, a St. Petersburg lawyer who has slapped a trademark on that name and displays it at his own Web site (www.futurelawyer.com).

Georges has been active for years in teaching and preaching about the benefits of technology for lawyers. It's a topic that has picked up steam with the growth of the Internet.

It also has raised complex issues _ from matters of confidentiality and liability to the logistics of conducting online research _ that have lawyers going to seminars and seeking advice about technology and their profession.

Some concerns are specific to the practice of law, such as what a lawyer in one state can say to someone in another. Others are what any consumer or business faces. "What kind of computer should I buy?" is the question Georges hears most.

About 40 percent of the thousands of calls to the Florida Bar's Law Office Management Assistance Service are about technology, according to J.R. Phelps, the office's director (www.flabar.org). The office is asked everything from how to use the Internet for research to whether it's best to buy the Florida statutes in book form or on CD-ROM.

For Georges, what started with an Atari game machine in 1981 has turned into such a passion for technology in the '90s that he teaches, lectures and consults on the subject.

"I was getting so many calls from other lawyers during the daytime asking my advice that I finally had to start charging for it, because otherwise I would have gone out of business," said Georges, whose consulting fees don't match what he charges for practicing law. His resume includes stints as chairman of the state Bar's technology committee, of which he is still a member, and the state Supreme Court's Court Technology Users Committee.

Georges uses his computer to prepare legal documents, to keep track of his calendar and docket, to manage his time and billing, to communicate and to do research.

But not all lawyers have journeyed as far into new technologies as Georges, a self-described gadget guy whose solo practice gives him the flexibility to experiment.

"The pioneers in legal technology are solos and small firms," said Andrew Z. Adkins III, director of the Legal Technology Institute at the University of Florida College of Law. "They have the energy, time and know-how to make it work."

Plus, those firms don't have to deal with the committees and internal bureaucracy of larger firms, making it "a classic case of the guy who is small can move quickly," said the Bar's Phelps.

The use of technology is creating new competition in the legal field, Adkins and Georges said, and technology levels the playing field for smaller firms.

"Lawyers are under a lot of pressure from a lot of other professions, as well as their clients, to do things less expensively," said Georges. "It's become more of a business and less of a profession. With all the competition out there, you have to do things efficiently, for less cost, or else you won't survive."

Georges' enthusiasm for the Internet as a lawyer's tool is shared by Robert Carroll of Perenich & Carroll (www.usalaw.com) in Clearwater. He called it "like being in a candy store" with all its resources.

Carroll and the Clearwater Bar Association started a monthly seminar for lawyers, called Travels in Cyberspace, to help lawyers get more familiar and comfortable with the online world. He also does a monthly session in Tampa.

The March seminar, which drew about 30 people, covered how to use the Internet for legal research, including a discussion of search engines and sites of interest to lawyers. Carroll's son, Nick _ who works for Sitelogic, a Tampa Web site developer _ talked about how lawyers can use the Web to market their practices.

"It's just become more and more productive for me to spend time in cyberspace," Robert Carroll told the group.

Georges says that eventually all legal data bases will migrate to the Internet, along with court decisions and case law, giving unprecedented access to information about the judicial system.

First, though, there are some knotty problems that must be resolved.

Among the issues: how to get all those legal records online; procedures for filing electronically; who pays for the information and how; and preserving security and confidentiality.

"You don't know who you're dealing with on the Internet," Georges said. Even when video conferencing becomes more prevalent, a lawyer might not be sure of who's on the screen.

Georges says his Web site is mostly an information source for other lawyers, not a vehicle to promote his practice. Jurisdictional questions arise if a lawyer in Florida gives advice to someone in another state.

Georges is setting up a virtual office on the Web, complete with animated figures, to demonstrate vividly how a lawyer and client might communicate through a computer. But, he said, it is only for demonstration purposes.

"I'm not really going to dispense legal advice over the Internet," Georges said. "Trust me. I'm not stupid."

To get the most out of technology, lawyers are going to have to spend a fair bit of money to equip their offices. They're also going to have to spend time and money learning how to use it.

"If there's one failure in technology, it's that people focus on buying the latest equipment and the newest software, but then they don't train their people to use it," said Phelps, adding that most lawyers probably would not admit to being intimidated by technology.

UF's Adkins, who has been a technology consultant to lawyers since 1989, says there's no danger of running out of work.

"This is always a changing market," Adkins said. "Theoretically, someone will contact us every three to five years because it's time to move to the next step."

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