A Proposal on Behalf of New and Small Firm WV Lawyers – A Turnkey Office Technology System

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By on April 22, 2015 11:51 pm Leave your thoughts

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Burt’s Office: A Study in Transitional Technology

This is an idea I got it as a result of attending my first West Virginia State Bar annual meeting as a board member.

I was amazed at how few people in attendance that I knew, but I was pleased to see a large number of young lawyers.

So many small firm lawyers live an isolated existence, largely unaware of professional organizations such as the WV State Bar, West Virginia Association for Justice, West Virginia Bar Association, The American Association for Justice, or the American Bar Association. They feel they cannot afford them, or do not need them. That’s not my topic for today, but that attitude is wrong.

Unless they are “tech nerds”, the new, small, and isolated are going to have a lot of challenges in starting an office in a small town. From my experience, law schools to not train in business and accounting, and are not that “tech savvy.” If they are teaching it, their grads do not show it.

I am sure there are exceptions, and, at the least, they are comfortable with Internet legal research, since the “big law book companies” died or merged into online services more than a decade ago.

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When I returned from four years in the United States Air Force JAG Corps, I was pleased to learn of a two-volume set called The West Virginia Practice Handbook.

It was two large, three ring, volumes with approximately 100 tabbed subjects, each written by an experienced West Virginia practitioner. Whether it was guardianship, eminent domain, a right away or easement dispute, drunk driving, or a juvenile case, there were checklists and forms and narrative content. I clung to it like a baby to its blanket. I own the latest edition, published in the year 2000. There is a dire need for a revised edition, but that’s big task, also a discussion for another day.

A more manageable project, at least from my perspective, also derives from the fact that many young lawyers have trouble finding jobs, so they decide to return to his or her hometown, “hang out a shingle”, and make a living. I once wrote a blog article for a young lawyer just opening her practice in Buckhannon. It is a bit outdated, but here are my ideas: http://hunterlawfirm.net/hanging-out-your-shingle-not-for-the-faint-of-heart/

I have observed that model, which includes heavy reliance upon the “court-appointed system”. Lawyers who take on court appointments, for criminal defense, juvenile delinquency and abuse and neglect, and guardians ad litem are called “panel lawyers”. Guardians ad litem represent people who are under a “legal disability” because of infancy, military status, or incarceration. Panel lawyers get paid less than half of “the going private rate” for lawyers.

There are several solid barriers to the “hang out your shingle” model:

a. The court appointed rates ($ 65 – $85/hr.) are too low for the lawyer to pay qualified staff;

b. The WV Public Defender’s Office often runs short of funds, so the lawyers “starve” while awaiting a new fiscal year or allocation;

c. The is always a chance a Public Defenders’ office will open to serve that county;

d. There is a tension between county Public Defenders’ Offices, of which there are now 18, and the “panel lawyers”, and there is disagreement  over which group is more effective and efficient;

e. There is great pressure to replace the panel lawyers with paid (overworked – stretched too thin?) public defenders. The argument is they are 20% cheaper to the State. Hmmm? And;

I was both shocked, to learn how much abuse of the system had taken place by approximately 800 “super-billers”, and  pleased, to learn of the efforts made to clean up that abuse. Some lawyers had billed 2-3 times full time hours! But I digress.

I agree with senior attorney Dan Callahan of Summersville, who wrote last year in WV Lawyer magazine article that young lawyers should endeavor to work under the supervision and guidance of an established attorney.

Truth is, those “established” lawyers are often struggling somewhat too, cannot really afford to guarantee substantial salaries, and, if they have an experience similar to mine, have invested in a young attorney only to find him leaving for a job such as the Public Defender’s Office! I have “been there, don’t that, and won’t be repeating my mistakes. Small town lawyers, even established ones, are also rather “technology challenged”.

So, what is my idea already!?

I believe that the Young Lawyers’ Section of the West Virginia State Bar and WVU College of Law Continuing Education Office should collaborate for the benefit of the sole and small firm “newby” lawyers by defining, pricing, and finding vendors for, several levels of “turnkey” office technology systems.

I consider law office technology and social media marketing to be my hobbies/avocations and an essential part of my practice. Thus, I can put 25% of my efforts into that direction and have it be the equivalent of a good game of golf.

Most people do not have the time or inclination for that level of effort, but everyone likes a good tool, as a golfer loves his favorite putter, but he wouldn’t want to build it.

I think there should be available to an attorney who wants to get established, the specifications and cost of an entire office technology management system.

That would include, at a minimum, a multifunction copier/printer/scanner, telephone system, primary computer, a tablet computer such as the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 or iPad, with separate horizontal and vertical, or portrait, monitors, a smart phone, a small sheet feeding scanner, a software office suite such as Microsoft Office Pro or Google docs, a “practice management system, and, for now, a laptop with docking station.

Yes, even if one has a Surface Pro 3 or Dell Latitude Laptop , I think they need an iPad or Samsung Galaxy, a smart phone, and a practice management software package.

Sadly, for someone like myself, with nearly 40 years’ worth of paper files and data, the cost of establishing a practice management suite is cost prohibitive. But, it should be possible for someone just starting out, or with less than a year of practice, to purchase the software train, and begin entering the new data, as part of an integrated system.

A “turnkey system” would need to offer two or three days of training. An attorney needs to know how to operate the spreadsheet, a basic database program, calendaring, task list, contacts, publishing and presentation software. These are tools college should provide, and if lacking, the lawyer needs to get some intense training. He/she will use these tools for life.

My system will also include an organizational toos such as Evernote or Microsoft One Note. The Lexis/Nexis CaseMap suite, from Casesoft, is excellent but probably too expensive for a small firm. And do not forget the “document assembly” software Pathagoras (www.Pathagoras.com) for systematized document assembly!

A turnkey system would already have selected for the purchaser cloud-based storage system such as SkyDrive, DropBox, Google Drive, iCloud, or WorldDox. Potential purchasers must be able to communicate with the vendors through initial contact with member of the “Young Lawyers’ Turnkey Office Technology System Committee” in order to get a guaranteed discount and financing options.

They would fill out a detailed questionnaire regarding location of their office, size of their office, practice areas of interest, size of his or her staff, number of attorneys, etc. The detail will be necessary for the lawyer who will need a small business loan in most cases.

I have used local and remote experts in maintaining my computer network. Companies come and go.

Constant changes in technology require that this committee be a permanent committee aggressively keeping track of new technology and regularly revising the “turnkey packages”. The big question is whether one vendor to provide this or whether it would be several. It probably should several vendors having the opportunity to compete. WV law firms such as The Duffield Law Firm in Huntington and many others will have invaluable insights in putting this project together. Vendors could even submit bids.

The key to such a the package would be “the details”. A “turnkey system” needs to have to have email addresses, passwords, protocols, support arrangement, and all the software installed. Criteria for file creation and management has to be standardized.

Any attorney purchasing a “turnkey system” will have to have a realistic idea of how soon various components will have to be replaced or revised. The basic software suite for litigation management of case management should be a well-established company, not likely to disappear. The hardware itself should have robust specifications with the hope the equipment will last at least five, perhaps seven, years.

Here is the system I presently have:

a. A Windows Seven, five-year-old Dell Latitude laptop. It is my last laptop.

b. A Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with a 12 inch screen and a vertical monitor and horizontal monitor so that I can read an entire document and horizontals screen for calendaring, email, The Internet, etc.

c. An iPad,. Many people will find an iPad mini to be just fine.

d. An iPhone 5, a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner, a Toshiba Studio e3500 conventional copier, scanner, fax. That will be my last one. There is no need for a sole practitioner to own a $30,000 monster like that, although it will be hard to wean myself away.

e. Microsoft Office Professional, Word, Outlook, Excel (spreadsheet), Access (Database), Publisher (publishing), and PowerPoint (presentation).

f. I use DropBox for my cloud storage, which allows me to access large documents from any device.

I pay a local vendor $25/month for cloud back up storage, with new data backed up every night.

I find the Microsoft Office Pro Outlook” “tasklist” to be cumbersome, so I am presently using a multi device product called Wunderlist. Wunderlist also saves to the cloud and is keyed to an excellent system described by author of “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity“. There are many tutorials on YouTube covering the features of Wunderlist. Googel

Related to Wunderlist is the information management app “Evernote” which likewise is accessible by every device. All of these products are “cloud based” so you have access from anywhere and from any device.

I use a Kindle Paperwhite for my personal e- reading. My recreational and avocational reading is now equally divided between “real books” and e-books”

As for “practice management” software, mine has accumulated over the decades. A new lawyer should not try to “invent the wheel” and should let the vender set her up with an integrated system.

We use QuickBooks Pro for our accounting, payroll, and taxes,

Microsoft Outlook for contacts calendar and tasks, and separate proprietary databases for our personal injury practice and another for our client data and billing. They are not systems I can sell or give away, nor can I give them up, because replacing them will be cost prohibitive.

That is why every young attorney should get fully established in a long term, full-featured, practice management software application at the beginning. Even if he/she later switches, the transfer of data will be much easier than with mine.

IN SUMMARY, the young attorney who is coming out of law school, hoping to “hang out a shingle” or form in association with another young attorney, should not have to “invent the wheel” relative to the basic office management technology. He should have a path to a “fighting chance” to make a living in our small and medium sized towns and cities.

The State Bar, and our state law school, and the West Virginia continuing legal education, should be able to collaborate in a way to provide simple answers for a fair price. I forgot to mention, if any vendor signing onto this program should be willing to offer a significant, perhaps 10%, discount to anyone making application in accordance with their specifications.

This post was written by Burton Hunter

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