Host Sean Harris talks with OAJ member and Cleveland attorney, Jeff Johnson, about effective law office technology, specifically in workers’ compensation practices.

Sean: Hello and welcome to Civilly Speaking, OAJ’s monthly podcast on practical and timely legal issues, I’m your host, Sean Harris. Our guest today is Jeff Johnson from Cleveland and our topic today is using law office technology more effectively, specifically in workers’ comp practices. Jeff thanks very much for joining us.

Jeff: Thanks for having me Sean, I appreciate it.

Sean: So what have you noticed about how workers’ comp lawyers use or don’t use technology?

Jeff: I’ve been doing workers’ comp about 15 years now and through OAJ have met a lot of practitioners throughout the state, by in large I don’t think workers’ comp practitioners utilize technology as effectively as they can you know workers’ comp, as all of our practice areas are unique in and of themselves, but with workers’ comp it is really a hugely volume based practice. What my firm has done and what we will be talking about shortly, it really allows us to more effectively represent our clients, manage claims, process claims on more of a volume basis and to be able to do that with less because you know let’s face it the cost and the cost of pursuing these claims and representing people and the return on the dollar invested is very small in the workers’ comp practice when you’re averaging a five hundred or thousand dollar fee. You can’t be spending an inordinate amount of time, energy, and resources to get that resolved.

Sean: Tell us about, for example remote access, what is it and how do you use that?

Jeff: Remote access I think is really the basis for everything that we do technologically speaking. We have hearings with workers’ compensation and hearings in a workers’ comp claim is much different than a hearing in front of a judge or a magistrate. Generally speaking there 15 minutes hearings, there are 4 scheduled on a docketing hour. What we have done is and we’ll talk a little later about going paperless, but by using remote access or a VPN program and our case management software that we utilize and the way we store our documents on our remote access server, we’re able to go into a hearing room with a tablet/computer and literally have access to our, everyone one of our files, our office, our internal note system, etc. directly in real time, real access with our clients, with the hearing officers and then secondly we have the 512 appeals were we end up in litigation and again the same thing to be able to take on a tablet your entire file and then be able to VPN in and access your servers from the home office.

Sean: So literally instead of caring the big file folder with medical records printed out you’ve got them all scanned in.

Jeff: Correct and on any given day, on a larger workers’ comp practice you could have 30 hearings in a morning session, between 9 and noon so to have to lug in all those files and some clients have multiple cases, but you may not be hearing that particular case, but you have to have access to all that information and the other thing I didn’t mention before with the remote access it allows, I have staff people who maybe have young kids that I allow them to work a day from home. Well, with remote access and the various programs of voice over internet phone system we have, it’s as if they are literally sitting in my office and my partner spends a lot of his time in Florida, same thing. He’s got a home office in Florida and it’s as if he is literally sitting in our office.

Sean: Now, I know you mentioned laptops or tablets these days and I see you’ve got a fake iPad here called a Microsoft Surface, why do you like that?

Jeff: Well the thing I like about the Microsoft Surface versus the iPod and I know you are a big Apple fan is this is a computer. It isn’t just a tablet. It functions just as a regular Microsoft computer. You have your Outlook, you have your tablet functions, but it also allows the VPN function. It allows you to store PDFs and files. It allows you to do everything a regular computer would and for me I also have a docking station. Take this off the little hand held keyboard, plop it in my docking station in my office and I have a full size printer, monitor.

Sean: So literally that is your computer?

Jeff: This is everything and every one of my attorneys have this. This is what we use for a computer so when you’re in the office you take it off, you put it in a docking station and you have a full, full screen there, but when you’re doing stuff like we’re doing here today sitting at a conference room and I can bring up my documents here or in a hearing room or in a courtroom. You have everything with you so long as you have internet connection whether it be you bring your own jet pack to bring your own internet with you or if you have internet you can access wherever you are, but you just have to be careful to make sure it’s secure because you have pretty confidential information on that.

Sean: Talk to us about going paperless, I know that’s kind of a buzzword in legal circles and I can imagine some folks would be somewhat trepidations about getting rid of paper.

Jeff: Absolutely. I started in this business in 1998 so I’ve been 20 years working in workers’ compensation. Five of which I was going to law school and working as a paralegal in a workers’ compensation practice, but it has been the last 20 years in our practice that we have gradually been moving towards paperless. It’s not a over the night type of a resolution. It is a hugely ongoing endeavor and you’ve got to be willing to change tasks move quickly, move nimbly to go in different directions. We have a case management system it’s called Needles. Some of our members may be aware of it, but within Needles there is a documents tab and so what we have is every client has their own folder, under that folder for every claim they have is another folder and within that we have ten or twelve folders that house these specific documents, medical records, orders from hearings, correspondents, whatever it is and we have trimmed down throughout the course of time so that it’s really as effective, right now at least as we can do that now the other thing is both the workers’ compensation, the bureau of workers’ compensation and the industrial commission are completely paperless. There was a day when I started this 20 years ago where you would go over to the bureau of workers’ compensation, hand them a release and they would literally hand you a file. You take that file, make copies, you’d give it back to them and that’s how you found out what was in a file. Well, everything is paperless with them now so if the state of Ohio and both of those administrative bodies have been able to figure out the paperless aspect, you know, we kind of have to follow suit for that reason and you can upload with the industrial commission. You can go on their website and literally upload a document in real time. I’ve been in hearings where I am talking about a document and the hearing officers says well I don’t have that, I can’t consider anything. I say give me two minutes and I find it, upload it, and I say alright it should be there now and it’s been able to do that so yeah, there’s a lot of different aspects that you have to go through and it is a long arduous process, we just about six months ago within our suit moved from one section to another and I used that as an opportunity to, I literally took all my active files that used to sit in a file room  which we lost in this process and put them in a storage bin upstairs and we haven’t needed  access to those so it’s getting comfortable with that and I just made the decision about two months ago, we used to at least keep a folder where I would have say a signed contract because my contract I have them sign it then I have a term to that where they initial allowing me to store user electronic signature to put on various documents and we used to keep those paper, well about around the turn of the year I just said you know what it’s out of redundancy and out of habit that we need to have a physical file so we don’t even keep those anymore. At this point we are getting very close to being completely paperless.

Sean: As a quick side note, I’ve actually gone now to having clients sign the fee contract on the tablet.

Jeff: Yeah.

Sean: Right.

Jeff: Yes, yes and I do that as well. I give them the option. Some are not comfortable with that.

Sean: Well I always thought you know when you go to Kroger and Lowes you sign the credit card thing right there virtually. People are getting more comfortable with that idea.

Jeff: So the other thing we just started yesterday in fact is, you know because I mean things are different. Our practices are substantially different and we’ve probably been in practice about a similar amount of time and things have changed in 12-15 years.

Sean: Indeed.

Jeff: So I don’t have a lot of clients that physically come down to my office to meet face to face much. If they want to I am more than happy to do that, but I have found we, you know, if we email them a contract to print out sign or sign on their tablet and send back the return time is often difficult, oh I ran out of paper or my printers out of ink or I don’t know how to do the scanning so sort of using this DocuSign. I don’t know if…

Sean: I was going to ask you about that.

Jeff: So we just started that this week and so we have five or six of our clients that I have been chasing around to get so I just had my office send them by DocuSign, sign all of them. Two of them came back yesterday.

Sean: Tell the folks what DocuSign is.

Jeff: So DocuSign is a web based program that you can send a document, it’s very secure and on a smart phone, on a tablet or even on a regular computer it goes to the email of the client, they hit the hyperlink it opens up, they read the authentication, they acknowledge that it’s them and then they can actually sign the document and once they save it, it gets emailed directly back to me and it’s just as if they were in my office signing, signing the document. I’ve seen that a lot before you know if you’re signing mortgage documents, loan documents that type of stuff. They’ve been using that program for years, but yeah we just started that so like I said before it’s an ever changing situation we’ve got and as you run into barriers or hurdles you say alright there’s got to be something else out here to do this and that is what we were able to do.

Sean: What one of the hurdles or one thing, one problem that lawyers run into is when you have form letters that go out right on a regular basis that take time, do you use ways to automate that process?

Jeff: Absolutely so again with workers’ comp there is so much communication that we need to have with our clients on a regular basis, especially on active claims of things that are currently going on and let’s face it you send out a letter with first class postage, you’re spending seventy-five cents by the time you pay for postage and letterhead and envelopes and all that stuff. We do have some old style letters that we do still send out, but there often times form emails as well and we also utilize texting now.

Sean: I was going to ask you about that.

Jeff: So I’ll get to that in a second, but so we have through our case management software, which is Needles, we basically have these form letters and it’s more, more the forms themselves than letters in terms of communication once we have all of the information input correctly into the case management system it’s literally as easy as checking a check list item and it automatically formulates that, populates it, extracts the information you need from the case management, puts it in the form or the letter and within you know fifteen seconds those letters are ready to go.

Sean: What used to take fifteen minutes.

Jeff: Right, typing up or modifying it so yes, it’s great and then we were just talking a little bit about the text notification and we’ve used a lot of that same function to send text notifications primarily for appointments so with workers’ comp as I have talked about hearings, some clients have hearings every six to eight weeks depending on what’s happening in their claim so rather than sending out letters or calling them or sending emails as soon as we have that entry into our calendar and our case management system it will automatically then once you save it then it syncs with a Gmail account, a Gmail calendar account then it goes to that and from the Gmail calendar account it goes to a texting software and they immediately get a text, a hearings been scheduled with your attorneys, here’s the address, here’s a link to the website, be there fifteen minutes before the hearing and you know make sure you bring a form of ID and then that will go as soon as its scheduled they’ll get a, I think we have a two day reminder, one day reminder, one hour reminder so they can never say they didn’t know and but again unless it’s input incorrectly, as long as you have the right phone number and they get that so the same is true for doctor examinations, state exams, that type of stuff as well and appointments with me so they’ll get you know a text and it’ll handle it that way.

Sean: And do you find, is texting more popular among younger folks or is it kind of across the spectrum?

Jeff: You know it’s kind of interesting. I found that the people that I wouldn’t think would be wanting to or willing to text and communicate that way really are. Certainly the young people without question, but  I mean it runs the gamut for sure.

Sean:  My eleven year old daughter asked me, she said now dad email that’s just texting for work right? I said yes that’s about right.

Jeff: Yes, and my boys are sixteen and thirteen and it’s yeah the email is just how they get communication from schools and parents. If they want to communicate amongst each other it’s the other way through texting, right or Snapchatting or whatever it is.

Sean: Is that a thing now?

Jeff: Oh yeah.

Sean: We got to know about that to?

Jeff: Yes.

Sean: How about website forms, contact forms through your website.

Jeff: Yeah so, one of the challenges of having such a volume practice in like with workers’ comp is to continue to update your database so you’re able to effectively communicate in mass with your clients cause again workers’ comp can be a pretty competitive area of practice and for those of us that don’t do a lot of advertising, what we have is whatever database, we have our clients we have represented over time so we are consistently and regularly using things like Cavs tickets giveaways or Indians tickets giveaways where we’ll blast out both because if we don’t have emails for our clients we’ll send it by text if we have their mobile numbers and we’ll ask them to come to our website, give us your email address and you’ll be entered into Cavs ticket giveaway so we have used that quite a bit to make sure we have up-to-date information for our clients and what we have just started to do is one of the processes we go through workers’ comp is called a permanent partial exam, which we talked about today in the board meeting, but the BWC is now requiring as part of the application process for you to tell them when you’re available for an exam. First thing in the morning, in the afternoon, Mondays, whatever it is and you cannot file an application without telling them that so what we have done is we just created again this just came up this week we created a text that would go out and there is a link directly back to our website where now we have our clients just they fill it out send it to us so now I have a document from my client saying when they’re going to be available and then it just goes right on the application and it gets filed that way. My assistants were spending a lot of time trying to call, I need to talk to you, I need to know when you’re available and then you spend weeks trying to get in touch with somebody versus send a text out yeah give us our information and we are good to go. So that has worked out as well.

Sean: Really, leveraging the power of technology to make your practice more efficient.

Jeff: Correct, absolutely. I love to employ people and I have had the same secretary’s and support staff for between seven and twenty years, but I’ve got two and a half paralegals, secretaries, I use those words interchangeably in my workers’ comp practice and I have two attorneys that essentially are a hundred percent devoted to that area of practice and I look at the size of the practice and fifteen years ago that would have required five paralegals, and probably three attorneys to do what we are able to do with much less man hours and time and so it’s really I think a necessary part of what we’re doing. I think some attorneys get kind of caught up in well that’s not real legal work or I’m not writing briefs or well if that’s what you want to do great, but in the area we’re in within workers’ compensation, if you’re not able to utilize all of these resources that are at your fingertips, you’re going to have a very, very hard time getting through a claim no less actually turning making any money in the practice.

Sean: Well Jeff thanks very much for joining us here on Civilly Speaking.

Jeff: Absolutely, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.