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Some people refer to themselves as “recovering lawyers.” And then there are the lawyers who call themselves “recovering programmers.” At least, that’s how Naperville, Illinois, attorney Mark Metzger describes himself.
Although his busy law practice revolves around business law, real estate, and elder law, his technology background does not go to waste and plays an important part in his success. Not only does Mark often represent high-tech businesses — he also uses his technology know-how to increase his firm’s efficiency and provide the best possible representation to his clients.
One of the ways he does this is by using databases, which play a pivotal role in streamlining his practice and keeping his small law firm competitive. “We use database tools to generate documents. So, I input information about a case into the database one time and then can, for example, scan IRS forms into the database. If you think of the blanks and boxes on the IRS forms as fields of information, I’m using database tools to pull that specific information from the database and automatically insert it into the IRS form.”
Of course, that sounds simple enough, but what does it really mean? What exactly is a database and why is this idea important? When I asked Mark this question, he replied: “A database is a collection of records, which consist of a collection of fields, each of which you can think of as discrete boxes. Examples of this concept are the card catalogue in a library. An individual card is a record of a book and each card is formatted in the same way — title, description of the book, the Dewey Decimal assigned to it, etc. Another example of a database is a telephone book which organizes entries as the first and last name and a phone number. Those are three fields of information and so that’s the record and the book is filled with a collection of those records and each of those pieces of information are discrete fields. And, database software is a blank slate data maker tool that you can use to configure that data to do whatever you’d like. It’s like a spreadsheet.”
The database software program Mark uses in his practice is Filemaker Pro. “All the information we need to collect about a client is stored in Filemaker and from Filemaker we can automatically generate many of the documents we need during our representation of a client,” he explains. “When we collect and input all of those pieces of information into Filemaker at the start of the case and they later become useful, whether we’re seeking to search or sort or format that data or are trying to glean information from it.”
His firm then uses the data stored in Filemaker Pro to generate a vast assortment of documents for the different types of matters his firm handles. “One way we use it is to generate documents for a new corporate formation. We use all of the same data — shareholders names, addresses, social security numbers, etc. — and all of those pieces of information are used to create the different types of shareholder and corporate documents. We also use Filemaker to complete government forms and that’s a huge timesaver. ”
When I asked mark to explain how using databases works in a specific type of case, he broke down this process for documents created for his law firm’s real estate clients as follows: “We’ve determined that completing a real estate transaction for a seller involves collecting and using 61 pieces of information but you only have to collect and enter 47 pieces because you can derive the others from the data you’ve already input. And once that data is in the database, I can generate every document I need to sell a home.”
Why does his firm take the time to input all of the necessary data into Filemaker Pro at the start of each case? Efficiency. “Using databases is much faster. We generate all of the seller’s information for a real estate transaction in a minute. Instead of using find, search, replace, and copy and paste, which typically took us anywhere from 30-60 minutes per transaction, I’ve reduced that time to a minute or so,” he says. “And with the old-school method you would inevitably miss a search and replace and leave information such as an old client’s name in the doc. I’ve removed that error possibility off the table since the computer does all the work and a computer will only do exactly what you tell it to do. The payoff is better quality documents, faster results, and you also now have the data available to you, which you can then use for other purposes, too.”
For those thinking of using database software in their practices, Mark has this advice: “Every time you see something you know you’re going to have to do again, it’s worth taking the time to automate that step so you won’t have to re-create the wheel each time. And it’s not just transactional lawyers — even litigation attorneys can benefit from this. They often draft subpoenas and other litigation documents on a regular basis. Look for anything you do that’s the slightest bit duplicative of anything you’ve done before and let the computer do it next time. The guiding principle for me and my team is that if we’re doing something now that we think we’ll do again, let’s automate it from the get go. It takes a bit of time up front but saves tremendous amounts of time down the road.”