Original VirtualCourthouse Articles

Issue 2.3 Ten Tips For A Virtual Law Office

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VirtualCourthouse; Issue2.3
Ten Tips For A Virtual Law Office
Judge Hon. Arthur M. Monty Ahalt

This Article was first published in the Prince George’s County, Maryland Journal/Newsletter

TIP 1 – Get the Right Equipment. The foundation for a virtual law office is composed of hardware, software and networks. Prices for equipment have dramatically reduced. A workstation should consist of a Pentium processor, 2.0 Gb hard drives, 24 MB of memory, 33.6 modem, 6X CD-ROM. Without a monitor or keyboard this computer (or a close equivalent) can be purchased for under $1,500. Better yet, start a simple local area network (LAN) in your office with your secretary and law clerk. You can start a simple LAN for under $3,000.

TIP 2 – Get Connected. Becoming connected to the rest of the world should be a top priority. Internet connections are available for as low as $5 per month for limited access. Don’t overly analyze the market. The pluses and minus of each ISP (Internet Service Provider) probably do not make that much difference to the rookie. The national online services provide the easiest opportunity to get connected. They have good online help services. They also have multiple access numbers. They do not require a large investment, usually a one-month fee of less than $20. If the current controversy about America Online’s busy signals is troubling, try Compuserve.

TIP 3 – Use the Computer. The fast way to learn how to use a computer is to put your hands on a keyboard and start using it. A good way to accomplish this task is to start using a software program which requires inputting several times a week entry such as a checkbook program.

TIP 4 – Start Scanning. Scanning software and hardware have also dramatically come down in cost. A simple scanner with software can now be purchased for under $300. The point of this exercise is to begin getting some experience creating an electronic file. Jim Lombardi, Esq. started by using his fax software to copy interrogatories so he did not have to retype the question when he answers the interrogatories.

TIP 5 – Use E-Mail. Electronic mail is a powerful method of communication which is reliable, quick and a great cost saver. The electronic mail work spaces of web browser software are easy to use and generally user friendly. The Bar Association web page has compiled a list of E-Mail addresses for Bar members. You can look those addresses up at If you want to have your E-Mail address included on this list, E-Mail Don Patterson at

TIP 6 – Read Periodicals. At first a terminology barrier exists. The best way to overcome this barrier is to start reading about computers on a periodic basis. A good place to start is the newspaper. Most newspapers now have a weekly section of columns about computers. Some are very basic “how to” questions and answers while others are more narrative articles on some new software or hardware. The point is that if you start using the words often, you will soon know and understand the terminology. Another good idea is to buy a different computer magazine a month off of the newsstand and just read the advertisements and articles of interest.

TIP 7 – Go to Conferences. Hardly a month goes by when there isn’t a bar technology conference somewhere in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. The programs are high quality, practical, educational events. The quality is similar to the usual high-quality Continuing Legal Education seminars for years sponsored by local, state and national bar association leaders.

TIP 8 – Talk with Other Lawyers. Experience we know is a great teacher. If you make the use of computers the topic of conversation as you talk to other lawyers about your cases, you will be surprised at the amount of information you will gain in a very short period of time. What works. What doesn’t work. What new developments are helpful. What new developments are duds.

TIP 9 – Be Willing to Take Risks. Nothing ventured is nothing gained. In order to begin to use technology to your advantage, you must be willing to risk some of your time and a little bit of money. With risk comes reward. The track record for technology is that until you put your time and money at risk, your learning curve does no begin. The sooner you start the less time you will lose.

TIP 10 – Embrace Change as a Friend not an Enemy. Change is an inevitable product of the technology offered by the information age infocosim. Ordinarily, people resist, fight or ignore change. When those dynamics of resistance occur, change in people’s work patterns occur very slowly and productivity decreases. On the other hand, when change is embraced with an attitude of acceptance, people’s work patterns change very fast and productivity dramatically increases.


Issue 2.2 Electronic Public Access

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VirtualCourthouse; Issue 2.2
Electronic Public Access

Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt

This Article was first published in the Prince George’s County, Maryland Journal/Newsletter

Electronic public access (“EPA”) to court information is a quickly-evolving segment of the information age. In Prince George’s County, the Circuit Court has been at the national forefront of providing the public with electronic access to its court records.

In 1990, the Circuit Court along with the Prince George’s County Information Services Division entered into a public/private partnership with Bell Atlantic’s information service known as “Intelligate” to provide access to subscribers through it service known as “PGONLINE.” Subscription increased to a high of approximately 250 individuals and businesses. A subscriber was given access to case dockets and some limited scheduling information. Subscribers were charged $.45 per minute. In 1995 Bell Atlantic made a corporate decision to terminate its information service provider Intelligate and consequently PGONLINE was operated for a short period of time by the Information Services Division of the Prince George’s County Government.

In early 1996, the County entered into a public/private partnership with Ameritech to provide public electronic access through its service “CIVICLINK.” CIVICLINK was an information service which was intended to provide access to all government information — the courts being just a part of the total picture. This service charged for information on a transaction basis rather than a per/minute basis. For instance, if a subscriber wanted to obtain the scheduled events for a specific case, that would cost $2.50. If another case’s events were needed, an additional charge of $2.50 would be assessed. In December 1996, Ameritech determined to withdraw from the partnership and subsequently it is reported that it has abandoned the CIVICLINK service.

Concurrently with the CIVICLINK partnership, the Court and the County also entered into a public/private partnership with Andersen Consulting to conduct the first state court national pilot for electronic filing of court documents through its service “JUSTICELINK.” That pilot was successfully completed in August 1996 with over 200 pleadings successfully filed electronically. The pilot is awaiting negotiation and funding of a permanent partnership agreement.

The Court and County are presently in the final stages of negotiation of a public/private partnership with DataWest and their information service “COURTLINK.” It is expected that this service will be available in the Spring of 1997. COURTLINK is a service similar to PGONLINE and CIVICLINK. It charges its customers $75/hour billed to the minute and second of usage. COURTLINK, however, promises to be here to stay. Currently, COURTLINK provides public electronic access to 85 United States District Courts and United States Bankruptcy Courts, and the state courts of Washington and Oregon. Among its customers are 100 out of 200 of the largest national law firms, General Electric Credit and numerous other national businesses.

Members of the Bar and public should consider this valuable resource even before the Court’s information has been published. First, it will allow a user to complete the learning curve ahead of its local information availability. Second, the current information available from the regional U.S. District Courts will be a valuable tool. Subscription information and a demonstration disk can be obtained from the East Coast Account Manager, Mary Anne Karia at 1-800-774-7317 or E-Mail at A single station software package is priced at $49. Multiple-station packages start at $395.

Some very clear lessons have been learned as a result of this seven-year experience. First, EPA of multiple courts is a complex problem. It is not capable of ordinary “cookie cutting” patterns which the telecommunications industry has become accustomed. The databases of each county and each county’s courts are as diverse as the personalities of the executive, legislative and judicial branch of a county’s governmental structure.

Each county has its own personality which will be reflected in its computer database. Likewise, the structure of each county’s communication with other public and private agencies will represent the same diversity. Secondly, the bar and public are discouraged to use a system which has a complex method of determining the cost of use. Third, the bar and public will be motivated to use a system which presents a single method of accessing multiple and diverse databases. A member of the Bar has need for information from three states (Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia) and ten major counties. If each county or each state has its own protocol for access, then use is cumbersome, time consuming and thus not cost effective.

Public electronic access to court records is here to stay. Recently, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts proposed technical standards for electronic filing. These standards provide for flexibility to the local court.

A copy of the standards may be obtained by requesting a copy from Electronic Filing Standards, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, OIT-TEO, Washington, DC 20554 (or via facsimile at 202-273-2459). Generally, the standards are broken into several categories: (i) document and file format standards; (ii) electronic filing process standards; (iii) document and file format guidelines; (iv) communications guidelines; (v) document and system security guidelines; and (6) electronic filing process guidelines. The standards are well thought out and allow reasonable flexibility for a changing technological environment. At the same time, the standards protect the accuracy, security and permanency of the Court’s record. The details of the standards are worthy of future discussion.

Issue 2.1 Internet Communications

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VirtualCourthouse; Issue 2.1
Internet Communications
Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt

This Article was first published in the Prince George’s County, Maryland Journal/Newsletter

This is the third month that this column will focus on the Internet. By way of review, you will remember that the Internet provides an attorney help in three areas: (i) access to information; (ii) ability to publish information; and (iii) communications. Last month (Issue 1.9), we looked closely at access to information and some helpful Internet sites (bookmarks). This month we will look more closely at the communications aspects of the Internet.

First, let me digress. As you may be aware, over 300 attorneys a week pass through my chambers in the scheduling, pretrial and trial activities in the Court. Many of your colleagues are beginning to see the bigger vision of productivity which the information age is offering to the legal profession. Most all of the converts are over 40, as the younger generation already has the vision. The difficulty with change is that while the under 40 generation has the vision, the over 40 generation controls the resources. The over 40 generation has to be convinced that they will make money and save time instead of losing money and time. Little by little that process is occurring. Recent converts who say a computer will be on their desks (not their secretary’s) are George Brueger, Esquire of zoning fame and Richard Finci, Esquire of trial fame. We are still working on our President, Walter Laake, Esquire, who recently confessed to not reading this article or looking at the Bar Association’s web page at ( He thinks he has joined the information age because his secretary has E-Mail on her desk and his kid has a computer at home. Every day, he puts off having his fingers on a keyboard is a day he will not recapture. That day is lost forever.


Now to communications. To some the communications aspects of the Internet begin and end with E-mail. To be sure E-mail is an incredibly valuable tool. It will soon replace much of the current paper communications between lawyers and between lawyers and clients. In fact it will not be long before corporate clients will not do business with a lawyer who does not have E-mail. This is a step further from the lawyer who recently had a hard time competing for a national client because of the lack of voice mail. The fact is much of what the legal profession is now using is three to five years old in the business community.

The real power, however, is not in E-Mail but in the use of groupware. The difference is that E-Mail does not handle document databases, nor does it allow for collaborative work on a document in progress. As I have previously covered (Issue 1), Lotus Notes is the de-facto standard in the industry. The legal profession is just catching on that this software was made for the paper and document problems of the profession.

Diana d’Ambra has an excellent review of the capabilities of this software in the Spring 1996 issue of AmLaw Tech. She puts the value of this groupware to the legal profession as follows: “It’s no secret that Lotus Notes, a powerful tool for communicating and sharing information, has set the groupware standard. Moreover, unlike some other products and technologies, Lotus Notes has special appeal to law firms. Like much of lawyers’ day-to-day work, the building block of Notes is a document; the basic structure of Notes therefore mirrors the way lawyers work. Inherent in its design, Notes has document-based distributed databases that are mail-enabled with excellent built-in security capabilities. Seeing this potential, an increasing number of companies, including American International Group, Inc., USF&G Corporation (formerly U.S. Fidelity & Guaranty Co.), and The Dow Chemical Company, have started to use Notes as a preferred method of communication with some or all outside law firms. Dell Computers will now factory-install Notes at a very competitive pricewhen purchasing new computers. Moreover, since the purchase of Lotus by IBM, and the release of Notes 4.0 in late January, broader integration and deeper market penetration is anticipated.”

The litigation support aspects of Lotus Notes with tools such as JFS Litigators Notebook is truly amazing. This litigation support system was covered in, Issue 1.6. It is worth your time to call there representative: Brigitte Miklaszewski, Regional Sales Manager, J FeuersteinSystems, 1025 Boucher Avenue, Annapolis, MD 21403, 301/261-2601 for a demonstration. You will be inspired to join the information age when you see the productivity which can be realized.

But, the value only gets better because Lotus has developed a process which marries Lotus Notes with the Internet Web, yet keeps all of the security aspects of Notes. This is made possible by the Notes Domino web server. ( The Domino web server turns any Notes database into a web site, where access can be open or limited. This allows clients or others who do not have a Notes program access to notes databases with web browser software such as Netscape. You no doubt have heard of the new turn of the Internet to an Intranet. The Domino server takes this process one step further which for all practical purposes is spelled, security, security, security which has been holding back the use of the Internet by the legal profession.

Two lawyers in Iowa, David Beckman and David Hirsch are using this server to better serve their clients. They have made a conscious decision not to use the Internet to advertise, but instead to do business with their clients on the Internet. You can read more about this powerful communications ability of the Internet in the December 1996 issue of the American Bar Association Journal in an article written by these two innovative lawyers from the Midwest.

Issue 1.9 Internet and Legal Research

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VirtualCourthouse; Issue 1.9
Internet and Legal Research

Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt – December 1996

First Published in the Prince George’s County, Maryland Bar Association Journal – Newsletter


Last month we looked at the Internet in terms of what it could do for the busy cost and productivity conscious attorney. Generally speaking the Internet, as you will recall, helps an attorney in three areas: (i) access to information; (ii) ability to publish information; and (iii) communications. We will look at access to information that will help a lawyer find the law.

First let’s go back to our law school legal methods class and recall that we were taught to organize the law into two general areas — PRIMARY AUTHORITY AND SECONDARY OR PERSUASIVE AUTHORITY. Primary authority was further divided into three categories: (i) statutory law; (ii) case law; and (iii) regulatory law. Secondary authority or persuasive authority can be divided into many categories, such as (i) law review articles; (b) continuing legal education; and (c) law libraries. Using this frame of reference, I will list some Internet sites which will help you get started.


1. STATUTES. The best place to start most all legal research is on U. S. House of Representatives web page. Our representatives have really done a fantastic job in putting together an easy to use organization of the law. You can quickly get right where you need to be, get your information and start using it. Another good resource is Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institutes web page. If you are looking more to the State side of things rather than the Federal side Washburn University School of Law provides access to state statutes from many of the states. The U S House site also gives you the same type of information.

2. CASE LAW. As time goes on more and more case law is becoming available on the Internet. The good thing about the availability of case law on the Internet is the ability to do word searches for cases which might be helpful to your research. On the Federal side of the law your search for Supreme Court decisions should probably begin with the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School. Full text opinions are available back to 1990 as are a limited number of older cases. This site also has syllabi for the decisions which are also searchable. Cornell also maintains an index to United States Courts of Appeals as well as full text opinions. On the state side of the law, Project Vote Smart has web page links to state court decisions as does the Law Journal Extra. The Villanova Center for Law and Policy provides additional state court information, opinions, other state court links and indexes.

3. REGULATORY LAW. The United States Superintendent of Documents now distributes it documents on the Internet and the Federal Register is available back to 1994. The University of Michigan also provides a complete guide to all types of federal regulatory sources. State regulatory information can be obtained from the Regulatory Resource Center. You also might want to check out State Capitols. Com.


Marvin R. Anderson from the Minnesota State Law Library has put together a very helpful list of bookmarks which follow:

A. Statutory Sources

1. Federal Statutory Law constitution.html


2. State Statutory Law state.html

B. Case Law

1. Federal Case Law html

2. State Case Law stateli


C. Regulatory Law

1. Federal Regulations GPOsearch.cgi federalregs/fulltext.html#fullfr

2. State Regulations

D. Legislative History

1. Federal

2. State Topics/legbill.html

E. Specific Sites

1. Appellate Procedure

2. Articles lamindex.html l_schl.html


Issue 1.8 The Internet and Lawyer

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VirtualCourthouse; Issue 1.8
The Internet and Lawyer

First Published in the Prince George’s County, Maryland Bar Association Journal – Newsletter

Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt – November 1996

Over the last year there has been more commotion over the Internet than the Olympics. Indeed, the Olympics had its own Internet controversy. Enough print has been spent on what the Internet is and what it is going to do to the future to fill the Pentagon several times over. However, after all the fuss the skeptical bar member still asks the nagging question — How is the Internet going to make me a better more productive lawyer? How can I serve my clients better and produce better results with less expense for both my client and myself? The answer to these questions will be found through a multiple step analysis. First, there has to be a basic understanding of the concept of connectivity — this foundation has been set in previous issues. Second, there has to be knowledge of what the Internet can provide. Third, there needs to be the ability to use what the Internet can provide.

Determining what the Internet can provide requires the examination of three areas. (1) Access to information. (2) Ability to publish information. (3) Communications.

Before we take a look at these three areas let me report to you a very important development for the bar membership. The bar association has its own web page. It can be found at and has been provided by Don Patterson of Patterson Video. Don is now in the web page business. By offering the bar a free web page, Don hopes to develop an Internet business to better serve the legal community. The bar leadership, headed by our fearless president Walter Laake, extends Don its thanks for keeping the Prince Georges Bar Association as a statewide and national leader by being the first local bar association in the state to take this important step. Drop them a line or an e-mail and let them know what you think.


The amount of information available on the Internet is incredible and is expanding on a daily basis. There were 1,700 businesses on the Internet in 1994. By 1995 there were 19,000 and by the end of 1996 the number will probably exceed 50,000. Remember now that the Internet in its simplest form is the connection of many, many, many different databases. You might think of it as a connection of all of the law and law-related libraries. Sitting in your office, or at home in your reading chair you can access information from the Cornell Library at\, or the United States House of Representatives at


While the Internet provides access to large databases of information it also allows for the advertising of goods, services and information. Most all major producers of goods have an advertisement (web page) on the Internet. You can find most all of the Fortune 500 companies through the Internet and discover what those companies have to offer the public. Likewise the legal profession advertises the services it provides through web pages. Of the 100 largest law firms in the United States only eight lack an Internet presence. As each day passes more lawyers are discovering that prospective clients are making attorney selection decisions on the Internet. Indeed, some law firms are aggressively taking advantage of the electronic information age and are developing software which allows clients to use common business forms and then licensing the software to their clients. Regular updates to the forms are licensed for additional fees. The benefits of publishing on the Internet are not fully known at this time. The best way to describe the benefits is that they are in a state of evolution. What is becoming clear is that those attorneys who have started web pages are further into the learning curve than those who have not yet started. As the saying goes – those who snooze lose.

To check out what your competition is doing check some of the following pages.

Venable, Baetjer & Howard, LLP:

C. Michael Bradshaw, Glen Burnie:

Linda M. Schuett, Annapolis:


While access to information and the ability to publish are important aspects of the Internet the most useful is the ability to communicate. Internet communications take the form of e-mail, voice mail and video mail. E-mail is by far the most popular and the one which has the greatest utility, particularly to information intensive professions such as the law. As time goes on clients will not pay for a letter which has to be dictated to a secretary, typed, reviewed and then sent in the U.S. mail two days later only to take another three-five days to reach the client at a cost of at least $100 per letter. Clients, especially businesses, are also demanding e-mail ability of their lawyers or they will take their business elsewhere. The bar association is building an e-mail address list on the Prince Georges Bar Association home page. You should send your e-mail address to Don Patterson at

Voice mail and video mail are in their infancy and equipment costs are high, but the evolution will come faster than you think.

Next month we will explore the Internet further to see how it can make us more productive.