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Small Law Firms Technology Resources
by Tom McNichol
By taking advantage of cloud services, cheap scanners, and free online seminars, even sole practitioners can compete against firms with much greater tech resources.
Big law firms may have many advantages over small and solo practices – big piles of money and shiny offices spring to mind – but technology can be the great equalizer. Lawyers who can collect and process information quickly and efficiently do better in the long run than those who can’t. And while big firms tend to throw bodies at big problems, small firms can get a lot of mileage out of smartly applied technology. Here are some small-firm tech solutions worth looking into.
Make Friends with the Cloud
You’d think that by 2012, practically every attorney with a license would have converted their practice from paper files to a digital storage system. But you’d be wrong. According to a recent survey by Total Attorneys, less than half of surveyed lawyers manage their case files on computers, and nearly a quarter still rely on hard copy files.
Not only that, about 35 percent of respondents reported that they or their staffs manually compile client invoices.
That adds up to a lot of paper and even more time wasted to perform duplicate tasks. Many holdout attorneys resist the computer age because they fear that doing case management or billing electronically will be too complicated and expensive. While there’s certainly a learning curve involved in converting to digital, it’s now a lot more affordable, thanks in part to the growing number of so-called cloud services. For a monthly fee, these companies deliver software over the Internet to handle practice and document management, time tracking, and billing.
Legal small and solo firms are particularly well suited to this approach. Since cloud services bill by the month, there’s no large up-front capital outlay for software, nor any long-term commitment to maintain. For example, Clio, a Web-based practice-management product that specifically targets small and solo firms, costs $49 per month per attorney and $25 for support staff. A similar cloud service called Rocket Matter costs $59.99 per month for the first user, $49.99 a month for the next five users, and less for additional users. Both services provide case management, time tracking, billing and reporting, client contact and document management, and task scheduling. (To allay what-if concerns, both services escrow the user data they collect with a third party so it can’t be held hostage when there’s a billing dispute or the company folds.)
For law offices that don’t need integrated time-tracking and billing, NetDocuments is a cloud-based content management and collaboration service that lets users store, manage, and share documents securely from any Internet-connected device. The basic edition costs $20 per user per month and more advanced versions cost up to $38.
With so many inexpensive cloud-based services available, attorneys can also choose to make documents available to their clients through a secure Web portal, a convenient way of keeping clients up to date. Another advantage of cloud services is that they shift the burden of tech support and infrastructure maintenance to the vendor. While big firms often maintain enormous computer mainframes and workstations serviced by a perpetually understaffed tech-support team, cloud services handle all the storage and support needs for their clients.
In short, except for attorneys who have their heads stuck in one, the cloud can be a friend.
Save Money – Go Paperless
The idea of the paperless office has been around for decades, but only recently has it become practical. And going paperless (or as close to paperless as the law will allow) can be a competitive advantage. Aside from the money saved on buying paper (and the benefits to the environment), having all essential documents in digital form means that everyone in the firm can access them any time, anywhere, so that everyone is literally on the same page.
One piece of equipment that’s essential in the paperless office is a good document scanner. Some leading scanners for small and solo practices include the Canon CanoScan 9000F Color Image Scanner, the NeatDesk Desktop Scanner, and the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500. The Fujitsu comes bundled with Adobe Acrobat Standard software for easily converting paper files into electronic PDFs. The Acrobat software alone can run $200 or more, which makes the $495 ScanSnap a good value.
Another important step toward a paperless office is signing up with an online storage service such as Dropbox , Mozy, or Carbonite. Users can back up all their files online, where they’ll be easily accessible with a secure login. The files are then protected against natural disasters such as fires, floods, and earthquakes; from computer viruses; and from being lost or stolen. Many of these services offer a limited amount of storage for free and then charge monthly fees for larger amounts. The free Dropbox account, for example, comes with 2GB of space, enough to send or receive 10,000 one-page email messages (excluding attachments). For $19.99 a month or less, Dropbox offers Pro plans that provide up to 100GB of storage. Of course, in the law some paper cannot be disposed of – such as original wills, contracts, fee agreements, promissory notes, and signed paper contracts. But by vastly reducing the paper it stores, a small firm can turn itself into a lean, green legal machine.
Get Tech Savvy on the Net
Many small and solo practices turn to professional consultants for help with their technology problems. But plenty of good advice about legal tech is available on the Web for free or at little charge.
Many vendors that sell legal software offer an array of online training seminars. Naturally, these vendors are promoting their own products, but the seminars can be a good way to learn about specific software and hardware options. For example, practice-management cloud vendor Clio runs webinars every Wednesday at 9 a.m. and every Friday at 11:30 a.m. (Pacific Time) that give a complete walk-through of what Clio has to offer. Lexis also offers online seminars specific to its products, as well as covering general topics such as electronic discovery. A recent Rocket Matter seminar was titled “Everything You Wanted to Know About Solo Practice but Were Afraid to Ask.”
Online discussion boards geared to small and solo practitioners are worth checking out. SoloSez is an ABA-hosted electronic mail discussion; its 3,000 solo and small firm practitioners trade tips on a wide range of subjects including technology problems and solutions. Access to the listserv is free, and you don’t have to be an ABA member to join.
Technology alone can’t win cases or make clients pay on time. But it can help small and solo practices level the playing field where they compete with big law firms.