Point of order

Change has always come slowly in the legal profession, but if turn-of-the-century legal eagle Clarence Darrow walked into the offices of high-tech patent attorneys Marger Johnson McCollom & Stolowitz, he'd see plenty of it. While he might feel at home amid the clutter of briefs and documents, he'd do a double-take at the sleek NeXTstation in the corner.

Lawyering is no longer a one-man affair; today, volumes of information must pass between a law firm's counselors and its support staff – and that means having powerful computers. "Here and now, right out of the box, this machine will do more to promote connectivity within a law office than any other computer," says Alex Johnson, senior partner and co-founder of the Portland, Oregon firm. Marger Johnson has chosen the NeXTstation as its office standard, with 12 machines already installed and three more expected by the end of this year.

On the NeXTstation, Johnson can format documents without memorizing strings of complex commands. Bundled software lets him send mail and faxes to clients and co-workers with the click of a button. Johnson says in the future he plans to expand this connectivity by working on-line with clients to edit documents and by dictating documents directly into the computer.

Interestingly, it was the release of Microsoft Windows 3.0 for PCs that drove Johnson to abandon his existing base of DOS machines and choose the NeXT. "Windows 3.0 was intended to bring to DOS users what Mac users had long had," says Johnson. "We did a cost analysis of DOS machines with Windows and found that we had to go to '386 machines to make full use of 3.0." The company then considered buying similarly priced Mac IIcx's and networking them with its PCs, but found that with additional hardware and software needs, the cost would equal that of low-end workstations.

That's where the NeXTstation came in. Marger Johnson tried out base versions of Sun Microsystems's SPARCstation SLC and the NeXTstation, both of which cost $4995. Johnson said that although the Sun machine was an able performer, the NeXTstation came equipped with bundled software, e-mail, and voice annotation. And the NeXT machine is poised for adding new technology as it comes along.

"What I liked about NeXT is that the hooks are there – when new technology is available, they're ready," Johnson says. Major operations, such as maintaining the company's database of case and docket information, have been moved to the NeXT from DOS machines. So has all  Point of Order of the lawyers' routine work. Most of the first NeXTstations went to the firm's higher-paid employees, because they were most likely to use its features for real cost savings. For example, Marger Johnson's lawyers must submit both written materials and graphics with patent applications. NeXT's operating system lets them run word processing and graphics programs simultaneously and link changes in written documents to accompanying drawings.

Lawyers also rely on programs that count billable hours and on databases that keep track of project schedules that, for patent renewals, may stretch as far ahead as 20 years. Some lawyers at the firm are currently using Insignia Solutions's SoftPC emulation program, allowing them to run DOS-based financial programs like Intuit's Quicken. Marger Johnson's lawyers are also using Lotus Improv for time capture and financial projections. Interest in Marger Johnson's work with the NeXT has been so great that the firm helped launch a small custom-software and systems-consulting firm called Inherent Technologies. The company has developed a complex vertical application that can act as a legal-docket manager, a service interface for the Lexis/Nexis legal database, and a client/server database for the legal community.

"The key for us was our own judgment that they have a winner with this machine," said Johnson. "Our feeling is that we're adopting not just an open architecture by moving into the UNIX world, but a world of open-ended possibilities." It's a world never envisioned by the likes of Clarence Darrow.

by Mitzi Waltz