By Sheila Pursglove
Attorney Patricia Nemeth established her eponymous law firm 25 years ago to fill a void —the type of firm she was looking for didn’t exist, or if it did, she couldn’t find it.
“I wanted to work in a firm that put the clients’ interests first, where the attorneys were collaborative instead of competitive, where there was flexibility in work hours, and a place where I felt I could reach my full potential and help others do the same,” she said.
Clearly Nemeth Law fit the bill — and has thrived, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Nemeth has seen many changes over that quarter century.
“Technological changes in the last 25 years have impacted how the firm operates as well as how cases are litigated,” she said.
The firm now needs less secretarial assistance but more assistance from paralegals and computer-savvy employees; attorneys compose at computers, opting for e-mails instead of formal letters; and often nix office phones in favor of talking or texting with clients on cellphones.
Attorneys draft their own motions, briefs, and memos, leaving secretaries to make final changes and format for filing.
Attorneys conduct electronic legal research and other types of digital research relating to courts, judges, participants in cases, and more; and may file their own motions, briefs and exhibits electronically.
“For some attorneys, some of these skills don’t come naturally,” Nemeth said. “However, ethically, attorneys are required to keep up with technological changes and have a level of competence to understand the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”
Computerized legal research has leveled the playing field making it easier for firms of all sizes to compete with one another; and with the advent of the ‘cloud,’ data storage has become less costly, she noted.
“The advent of technology has also given birth to this phenomenon called social media requiring that our firm, like other firms, understands how to use social media to communicate with clients and reach out to potential clients. This has led to becoming familiar with LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, writing blogs and recording vlogs,” Nemeth said. “Keeping pace in this ever-changing landscape isn’t easy but is necessary.”
When it comes to litigating cases, people type instead of talk, she added.
“They text, they i-message, they e-mail, they message each other on LinkedIn — and all of that data could become discoverable,” she explained. “It’s important to understand where the data is and how to obtain it.
“Due to electronic discovery, some cases can involve hundreds of thousands of documents. It’s important to understand how to manage those voluminous documents and, when appropriate, challenge the production of the documents to the opposing party”.
The advent of Google in 1998 and Facebook in 2004 — and onslaught of iPads and smartphones — vastly changed the legal landscape.
“Many court records we can now access with clicks once required driving to the courthouse and waiting — sometimes only to be told we had to order the records and would need to return in two weeks. Legislative history for various statutes meant a drive to Lansing,” Nemeth said. “Truth be told, I do kind of miss those old musty books, getting lost in the stacks and finding that gem that no one else found because they didn’t take the time to drive to Lansing.”
The ease with which information about litigants, witnesses, and courts can be accessed, and how legal research is conducted today, could not have been imagined 25 years ago, she noted.
“There was a time we were office bound and it really wasn’t so long ago,” Nemeth said. “Now, we take documents with us. We have remote access. We can receive, act upon, and send legal work on the go. We can send documents and questions to attorneys at our office who can work on an issue while we are at a clients or in the court. We can work at lunch, at home, at the beach, in a hot tub. We’re always accessible — and everyone knows it.
“There was a time I loved long flights and then Wi-Fi appeared—which I still refuse, some things are sacred. All this accessibility does result in greater efficiency, lower costs and better client service. But it’s also important for attorneys to create some downtime because now more than ever, they are on call 24/7.”
Mediation also has made a huge difference in how cases have been handled in the last 25 years, growing in popularity, as has arbitration, as a way to resolve disputes.
“Initially, I was not a fan,” Nemeth admitted. “I felt as though it was just another step in the litigation process that would cost my clients money with no benefit.”
But as time passed, she not only saw how effective mediation could be, she became so convinced of its benefits that she became a trained mediator, and now focuses her practices on all forms of civil mediation and on employment and commercial arbitration.
“Becoming a mediator has helped me tremendously in my litigation practice,” Nemeth said.
In one high profile case in particular, her mediation training proved invaluable.
“The case had the potential to blow up and go on for years. There were a number of defendants and plaintiffs, so a number of moving parts,” she said.
The parties tried mediation but without success, which left everyone in front of the judge who tried to mediate the case.
“The mediation skills I learned started to kick in and out of instinct I began acting as a de facto mediator,” Nemeth said. “The case ended up resolving, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars for the participants.”
Nemeth said future goals remain unchanged from the 25-year historical goals of putting clients first and providing excellent legal service.
“I’ve learned the law firm business, like any business, lives and breathes and is always changing,” she said. “We will continue to be attuned to that and be flexible enough to allow the firm to further develop in ways that benefit our employees and our clients.”
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