How to Set Up a Modern, Tech Savvy, Legal Office
My practice serves people, almost exclusively individuals, sometimes small family groups, as in a will contest. Having people skills, therefore, is critical.
Of course, other building blocks are also critical, language and writing skills especially. Having some skills at math, in preparing a spreadsheet of a proposed equitable distribution of property or debt, or a demand package with extensive itemized damages, improves the productivity of the lawyer and paralegal.
Being well read and knowledgeable on a large variety of subjects is invaluable to a trial lawyer. If your lawyer is well read, healthy and enthusiastic, you are usually in good hands, but running a law practice as a hi-tech business is an ever increasingly important factor for a lawyer to be efficient, productive, and effective. The graph-line for this factor is trending sharply up. Some writers insist it is going almost straight up!
I have watched technology grow from the barely functional voice recorders, to the I.B.M. Electric Typewriter, to the Mag Card, Apple II, the PC, the Internet, Social Media and the iPad. In a cosmic sense, we are barely getting started, but I now have a sense of where we are going for the next 5-10 years. It is going to be fun too!
My sense is for all the moaning about connectivity, the distractions of cell phones, texting, Blackberrys, Droids and iPhones, most of us will have to become adept at handling and filtering a constant stream of information. In a way, that is how mankind has survived so far. It is the best hunters and gatherers who were most observant and who processed the most information that fed their families and reproduced.
For me, the ideal is to be constantly in touch with my staff and clients. I do that now with my Blackberry Curve, (Note: recently replaced with an iPhone 4s.) iPad, Laptop, and desktop. Redundancy is essential. All technology fails eventually. We still have phones and faxes, but the phone is likely to become “hosted VOIP” through our computer network, and all faxes will eventually be digital.
Scanning will be essential for every paper document, and trees may become more abundant. Clients will keep their files on thumb drives, or even “in the Cloud”; that is, stored remotely in secure servers.
More than ever, the ability to prioritize and focus on tasks will be at a premium. “Efficiency Experts” will probably remain in great demand. Yoga and meditation will become even more popular as information overload permeates our society.
To make this connectivity work, I retained a firm called HMU Consulting from Columbus Ohio, now part of Affinity Consulting Group. They replaced my Microsoft Exchange Server with “hosting” my Microsoft Outlook remotely.
What does that mean? It means that I can access my Microsoft Outlook Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, and E-mail from any of my devices. And they all are synchronized! When the judge says, “Are you available Jan 15, 2011 at 10:30 a.m., I do not have to call my office with my cell phone and pray my assistant is not in the rest room, and she will know of the appointment as soon as I enter it.
Next on the agenda will be learning to use services such as DropBox, Worldox, or Google Docs (Note: and now iCloud and related services. 2-28-2012. J.B.H.) to store documents “in the Cloud”. Download/upload speeds are a bit slow where I live, especially the HughesNet Satellite from home, but soon we will forget what it was like to keep a network server in the office to store all that data. And, if the worst happens, and we suffer a fire or break-in, we can open for business a day or two later at a new location.
Apparently the PDF document file format is the Gold Standard, and all of us will have to own Adobe Acrobat Professional. Federal Court already requires these skills, and attorneys who are not comfortable creating, editing, and using Acrobat and related programs will not be going there. PDF’s allow for collaborative editing of documents, and removal of metadata which contains the history of how the document was created, edited, and modified. We are even going to have to know how to affix the dreaded “Bates Stamp” to the documents we file.
Also, the pursuit of the “paperless office” is speeding up. Our office has a nifty scanner, Fujitsu 1500, on each desk. This $425 device comes bundled with Adobe Acrobat 9 Standard, and Abby O.C.R. (optical character reading) software. That’s $300 worth of software! With this machine, we can scan 20 sheets (40 pages) per minute, save to searchable PDF, and send via e-mail or save to the client’s folder. We can also save the file as a jpeg (photo) file or other formats. The key is “searchable” since we can retrieve the documents almost instantly with the right search software. Never again will we lug a paper file to the upstairs catacombs. Now to shred the 5000 I already have!
Thanks to Britt Lorish of the Roanoke, Va. Affinity office, I have focused my search for integrated office management software on Tabs3 and Practice Master. My hope is to replace my stand alone computer modules with an integrated double entry bookkeeping program, streamlined timekeeping and billing, payroll, and attorney trust account, all integrated with my Microsoft Outlook and word processing and document assembly. This goal is presently on hold. In spite of a very reasonable $295 license for a sole practitioner, the real cost is going to be closer to $10,000! My own proprietary systems will have to serve a bit longer.
While I admire the Mac aficionados who resist the Microsoft giant, I see no real choice but to use the Microsoft Office Suite of programs. This suite includes Word (word processor/outliner), Excel (spreadsheet), Publisher, Outlook, OneNote, and PowerPoint. I will be giving up my Microsoft Access billing and personal injury practice management databases. They served us well when other offices were peeling time entries off of sticky sheets and totaling bills with their calculators.
These Microsoft applications are so powerful and hard to master in detail, I have yet to figure out how to get a small, busy, staff trained in all their features, but it remains our goal. The online resources may be the answer; and turning off the phone and locking our doors once a month.
Word processing can become easier with two remarkable tools:
a. Pathagoras ( designer/President Roy Lazris) is a Microsoft Word based document assembly application that allows the attorney to mark the “variables” in a document and turn them into an easy to fill out questionnaire without knowing anything about programming. All commands in Pathagoras are Word commands. My goal is for the lawyers to Central WV to develop templates for virtually everything, sharing generously to our mutual benefits, and our clients. By freeing our time, we should be able to move negotiations, mediations, and cases forward more quickly and cheaply.
b. Dragon Naturally Speaking is still, elusively, “almost there”. It allows the user to dictate into the microphone while the words print to the screen. I use it for letters, long memos, and orders, but I will not be happy until I stop being “J. Burton Hunter the third”, or “Iii”, and my paralegal is “Letetia”, not “Letitia”. The instructions say we can “train it”, but my version is a slow learner. Dragon is best with letters, memos, and rough drafts. My paralegals like beginning with a rough draft instead of typing every word herself.
Here are some tips I got from various seminars that I am using right now:
a. Snagit: the tool that allows me to capture any image, photo, map, graphic, or text and save it in a variety of formats. I can print it or e-mail the file.
b. Copernic Professional search engine. Copernic Professional indexes all of the data on all of your drives, so you can search and find, via keywords, nearly instantly. This means that e-mail, order, memo, letter, or scanned document you vaguely remember can appear, almost magically, at your behest.
c. Recording phone conversations, WHEN BOTH PARTIES KNOW THEY ARE RECORDING, can be an invaluable tool for keeping the conversation civil. The cheap way to do it is the Olympus TP-7; $20. Recording without disclosure is usually a “no no”.
d. Handing over to and receiving the kids from other parent when “drinking” is a task that can be facilitated by the use of the Alcohawk Slim Digital Alcohol Breath Tester, @ $40. Such a tool can increase the level of trust between parents and alert when the alcohol problem is not under control.
e. Double Killer, or something like it, can find the duplicate files or photos that accumulate on your hard drive and delete the extras. Britt Lorish advised that there is no duplicate killer for double entries in your Outlook Contacts, but you can format them to be a line or two, and scroll quickly, deleting as you go.
HI TECH MARKETING:
a. Not every lawyer can advertise on TV. Buckhannon, on the edge of the TV coverage area is particularly problematical.
b. While a robust website such as my www.hunterlawfirm.net site, hosted by West/Thomson’s Findlaw, is not cheap, it can be used in conjunction with some very low cost enhancements.
c. Google Maps, Places, AdWords, Alerts, and Tags, are free or low cost ways to advertise. It may take work to locate your “bubble” in Google Maps, but if I can do it, you can. Then you can upload photos and videos, and list special offers and promotions. Setting an alert for your name or special interest will keep you informed when those words appear on the Internet. The yellow tag draws attention to your entry, and when I added it, my posting got higher on the list. If they don’t find you in the first 2-3 entries, they probably won’t call you!
d. Chatty lawyers like me can, of course, have their own BLOG! I love educating potential clients and challenging and sharing ideas with my colleagues, via my very own magazine/newspaper, the blog titled: www.burtonhunteresq.blogspot.com . Boring it may be (I’m trying!!), but there is substance and thought there for someone who needs information or wants to evaluate me by what I espouse. And there is always the chance it will “take off” and create chatter and attention to you site. But remember, “Content is King.” so provide your readers useful information.
e. Other Social Media allow an attorney to identify “friends” and colleagues and connect and communicate with them. Facebook, while social and personal, allows you to create your Professional or Business page with unlimited “friends” and link it to Twitter and your blog. The more links, the more visible you are on the Internet.
f. LinkedIn is more formal and allows a broader network of purely professional and business connections. Recent updates show that my professional contacts are adding some personality to their sites too, books they are reading, organizations they are joining, etc.
g. Twitter can be linked to your other sites, and the 140 character limit requires you to be concise, but you better have good content, or wit!
h. YouTube is a good place for your professional ads and informational videos. It can link to your other sites.
We all must find our way in this challenging profession; perhaps I am tired of the old grind and playing with these “toys” out of boredom. I admit to loving, and hating, the technology. But the true attraction is using these tools to multiply my capabilities and my staff’s.
Adding a dab of creativity, humor, and originality adds interest to my days. In the end, only technology that makes us more productive and effective meets the test for survival. I hope these thoughts help some other attorneys work through the maze of options, and show a few potential clients that I am serious about using technology to protect their interests.
This post was written by Burton Hunter