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Small firms taking over in-house work THE ENTREPRENEUR


As a former partner with Piper & Marbury, a major Baltimore law firm, Kenny Frank remembers the sound that greeted him when he first opened the office door in 1979.

"You heard the sounds of old technology, of typewriters clicking away," he recalls.

Today, Piper & Marbury is aglow -- literally -- with new technology. Word processors appear on every desk, its accounts and recruiting systems are computerized, and the preparation of mortgage and estate documents is being automated as well.

Mr. Frank, however, is no longer there. He runs his own company, The Technology Group Inc., from a skyscraper suite on the 22nd floor of 36 S. Charles St. He produces software programs for businesses, banks and government. He started with three employees in 1989 and now has 42 in three offices in Baltimore, Boston and New York.

He is part of a trend that is helping define the new workplace -- the creation of small entrepreneurial companies, many thriving on supplying services that corporations used to do themselves.

For four years after Kenny Frank left Piper & Marbury, he served as the firm's technology consultant. Today the firm is one of his own company's major customers. His original product line was the software he developed at Piper & Marbury, which he immediately began to market.

His flagship product today is a package called "General Counsel," designed to reduce the time it takes to produce legal documents from days to minutes. It allows much of the work to be transferred from a lawyer to a paralegal or even a secretary.

This puts him on the cutting edge of change that is reshaping the legal profession, affecting the way lawyers work and how they bill for their services.

"What this [computer software] will do is get the work done with the size of law firm you can afford to support and your clients can afford to pay for," Mr. Frank says.

At Piper & Marbury, partner Stanard Klinefelter, who is adapting Mr. Frank's software to the firm's estate-drafting needs, said that automating various legal tasks was more efficient and economical but might cost jobs.

The faster, more efficient service also places a new value on the lawyer's work. The old hourly rates could drive a partnership quickly to bankruptcy when documents can be produced in minutes rather than days.

"The movement clearly is that firms are looking to value-based billing or some other billing alternative other than hourly because of these types of [computer] tools," says Jon Klemens, a partner with Altman, Weil, Pensa Inc., a Philadelphia legal consultancy.

Such technology can enable a law firm to cut its lawyers and support staff by up to a third, improving efficiency and increasing the partners' profits, he says.

And lawyers can do more legal and less clerical work, Mr. Klemens adds. "Now they have more time to do consultation, more time to hold hands, more time for planning as opposed to doing documents and ad nauseam legal research."

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