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Technology Solutions for Small Law Firms
by Tom McNichol
For small and solo practices, technology offers as much promise as peril. On the one hand, technology can be a great equalizer for small firms, allowing them to compete with much larger practices. Document management software can do jobs that once required hiring a secretary; practice management tools can take the place of an accountant; legal databases can perform research tasks once palmed off to a paralegal. Yet technology that’s poorly implemented or doesn’t get the job done can hit small and solo practices especially hard.
Here are three technologies that, when intelligently deployed, offer small firms much more reward than risk.
Tablets are the biggest breakthrough in computing in the past several years, and they’re popping up in courtrooms across the country. The leader in the tablet field is, of course, the Apple iPad, which debuted a little more than a year ago. This March, Apple released the iPad 2, a model that’s 33 percent thinner than its predecessor and has a processor twice as fast. (Prices for the iPad 2 start at $499 and go up to $699 for a model with 3G capability and 64GB of memory.)
But the iPad isn’t the only tablet in town anymore. New tablet computers are flooding the market, many of them running Google’s Android operating system. Among the new tablets are Motorola’s Xoom ($599 to $799), the Dell Streak ($399 to $449), and the Samsung Galaxy ($349 to $550).
For lawyers, tablet computers can be especially useful because of their portability. (The iPad 2, for example, tips the scales at just about 21 ounces, or 1.33 pounds.) Another advantage of tablets is their stealth. When an attorney opens up a laptop in the middle of a trial, everyone in the courtroom (including the jury) notices, and that can be distracting. By contrast, a lawyer can tap away on a tablet without drawing attention. There’s no clicking keyboard or swishing mouse to distract jurors from focusing on the real issues (unless you use an optional wireless keyboard).
Before shelling out cash for a tablet, lawyers should be clear about what a tablet is not. A tablet doesn’t take the place of a desktop or laptop computer. Typing onscreen on a tablet’s virtual keyboard often takes significantly longer than typing on a conventional keyboard, making tablets unsuitable for writing lengthy documents.
Ergonomically speaking, tablets are somewhat unforgiving as well, since they don’t have room for a wrist rest. And while prices are expected to fall as more models enter the market, tablets aren’t that much cheaper than laptops. But for portability, stealth, and ease of use for modest tasks, they’re hard to beat.
Legal Tech Webinars
One big hassle for lawyers in small and solo practices is finding the time to learn new software or hardware–especially with no IT department to lean on. One relatively painless solution is to participate in a Web seminar, or webinar. These are live, online presentations during which participants can submit questions and comments.
As it turns out, dozens of software and hardware vendors offer free sessions designed to teach lawyers more about a particular product. For example, LexisNexis regularly conducts free webinars on topics ranging from electronic discovery to legal research. Clio, which sells online practice-management tools targeting small and solo practices, offers webinars twice a week to walk potential customers through their product. One of the country’s best known legal publishers, Nolo, has free webinars that cover topics such as social media for lawyers. The State Bar also offers webinars on some aspects of legal technology. They’re not free (most cost $55), but you can sometimes earn MCLE credit for taking one.
Of course, vendors that offer free webinars aren’t being completely altruistic–they’re selling a product. But having an expert walk you through a piece of legal software can be highly illuminating; sometimes a mouse click is worth a thousand words. Law tech webinars can also be valuable long after you purchase a particular program. After all, many users (and lawyers in particular) get comfortable using just a handful of an application’s features, never learning the tool’s other capabilities. A vendor webinar can show you what you may be missing.
The growing popularity of do-it-yourself legal document sites such as LegalZoom and Legaldocs has disrupted business at small and solo firms. Millions of people use these sites to create wills, set up LLCs, and apply for patents and trademarks–services that for years have been the bread and butter of many small practices.
One way to compete with these sites on their terms is to set up what’s known as a virtual law practice. Basically, it’s an electronic adjunct that offers legal services electronically to your clients. For example, a service called DirectLaw sets up a secure Web portal where your clients can log in and get access to the documents relevant to their cases. (Prices for the service range from $49 to $199 a month.) Clio also offers a secure Web-based client portal, allowing attorneys to share information and collaborate with clients through an online interface. (Clio costs $49 a month per attorney and $25 a month for support staff.) And WiziLegal lets lawyers assemble and deliver customized legal documents to their clients online day or night ($79 to $169 a month). Like LegalZoom, WiziLegal poses simple questions to clients to elicit information that ultimately will produce legal documents to meet their specific needs. Attorneys can add multimedia bells and whistles (text, images, videos, etc.) to their portal to offer clients a “sitting across the table” experience.
If sole practitioners and small law firms expect to compete with the LegalZooms of the world, they have to make drawing up a will or applying for a trademark at least as easy for consumers as the document preparation sites have. Rather than complaining about their online competition, attorneys would be better off bundling legal advice with reasonably priced document preparation. True, small and solo attorneys need to educate the public about the importance of sound legal advice and the real complexity of a seemingly simple legal document. Delivering that advice through technology in a way that’s convenient to clients can be the great equalizer.