General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Running Two Law Offices with One Computer

By Cynthia Alicea Dade

We all need to choose technology based on the particular needs of our individual practices. This is like saying that you can lose weight by eating less and exercising more. I now have two offices and one computer, a combination that works well for me. My current setup is the result of some very structured decisionmaking supplemented by a fair amount of trial and error.

I started practicing law in 1980, and I have always practiced law in computerized offices. I have learned that good technology decisions start with clear objectives. You can translate clear objectives into an effective plan, even if you do not make perfect technology choices. My experiences in technology decisionmaking in a small firm and in solo practice illustrate this essential point.

Small Firm Decisionmaking

By 1984 I had joined a small New York City firm where I remained as associate, partner and counsel until 1996. I soon had my first experience with technology decisionmaking.

My firm was content with its technology when I arrived. The dedicated word processing system was a widely used system. PCs were just coming into use at some larger corporations, and the word processing packages available were pretty primitive. I was faced with a pile of tax return preparation work and a couple of overdue accountings. I immediately saw an opportunity to use my new home computer, a luggable IBM PC clone, to save me time. I bought Lotus 1.0 and, in one frantic week, set up accounting worksheets and worksheets to prepare and print 1041s. I thought that once I demonstrated how much more efficient my computerized system was, I could persuade my employers to buy me a PC to perform these chores at the office. They were not immediately persuaded, so I brought my own machine in and put it on my desk until they gave in.

This was my first lesson in acquiring technology. I had a clear objective and selected the appropriate technology. Then I persuaded my bosses that my proposed solution was cost effective.

I received my second lesson in 1988. By this time, our word processing technology was obsolete. We were satisfied with our methods of document production, and we wanted to transfer them to a more technologically advanced platform. We also wanted to make all documents more readily accessible to all the secretaries, because we often transferred work from one secretary to another. A secondary objective was making all of our estate planning and administration software available at more than one location so that attorneys and paralegals could work on more than one estate at the same time. As the only computer literate partner, I was given the task of recommending a new system and finding a vendor.

I deputized our senior secretary, and we began investigating. We decided that we needed a networked system to meet our objective of sharing documents. We then decided that a PC-based network would give us more flexibility for future upgrades. We looked at word processing packages and chose WordPerfect because of its features and because it was rapidly becoming the industry standard.

We chose a vendor who could provide us with a complete system, training and support. We did all the right things, checked references, etc.

Our design was good. It met our objectives well. I attribute a lot of that success to our secretary, who knew exactly how we used technology and the changes we needed to make. Without her input, I would have picked the wrong word processing program and our server would have run out of disk space in six months. We chose a Novell network that worked well. The server never crashed.

The vendor, on the other hand, was terrible. They delivered late. Their training was poor and their tech support worthless. Within a year they were bankrupt. The fancy network printers we insisted on were not reliable, and we came to know all of the technicians on a first-name basis. Fortunately, all of the hardware and software was industry standard and we were able to get technical support from the manufacturers.

If I were to do this again, I would insist on working with a consultant who had been in business for a long time and who had worked successfully with other law firms.

We were very fortunate that our system was so stable, because we did not back it up on a daily basis for the first three years. At that point we realized that monthly backups were a potential disaster and bought a tape drive to make a nightly backup. Of course, I did not plan far enough ahead, and we needed to buy a larger capacity tape drive when we upgraded the hard drive on our server.

By the time we paid for all of our technology, it was obsolete. We had added a few small laser printers for local printing of tax returns and accountings, but had no plan for upgrading the system as a whole. We embarked on an ongoing internal debate over whether and when to upgrade.

We lacked a clear set of objectives when it came to making decisions about upgrading the system, and it resulted in a lot of ad hoc decision making. I thought we should upgrade the software and hardware on a regular basis. Some of my partners were of the "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" school. Our perspectives were shaped by how we used the computer system. For word processing, which affected all of us, the system worked well as it was. For other purposes, it needed an upgrade. In the absence of a plan, changes in the system were driven by the computer literate attorneys who actively sought out new software. This, in turn, required new hardware. The first 486 Windows-based machines were purchased to run a scanner and return preparation software that required more power than the existing machines.

By 1994 we had not formulated a plan for change. At that point I had my second child, became of counsel, and handed my technology hat to one of my former partners.

Solo Practice Decisionmaking

When I started planning my move to solo practice in late 1996, my technology decisions had only to please me. I broke my plan down into several steps.

Step 1. Set objectives.

I wanted to continue practicing law and have more time and energy for my family. I decided to work 20 hours a week and meet certain profit goals in each of my first 5 years in practice.

I had to meet my clients’ needs in a way that was consistent with my personal goals. I also needed to minimize my costs, so that I could make a profit on a reduced volume of cases.

Step 2. Meet clients’ needs.

I have a trusts and estates practice, and my clients and the financial advisors who refer business to me are scattered throughout the New York metropolitan area. I clearly needed a centrally located office where I could meet with clients. Both clients and referrers have told me they like the fact that I am readily available by telephone and that I answer their questions quickly. I needed to be available by telephone and to have access to essential client information and documents and legal research material Monday through Friday. My clients complain when it takes more than two weeks to receive their estate planning documents, so I needed a quick and reliable turnaround time for estate planning and estate administration documents.

I decided that I would meet with clients two days a week in midtown Manhattan and work from a home office on other days. I needed a telephone system that would let my clients reach me Monday through Friday. I also needed a computer system that would let me transfer information easily from one location to another and produce documents in either location.

I sublet a small office from another sole practitioner in a well-maintained, midtown Manhattan office building. This office is readily accessible by commuter train, subway and express bus from all parts of the metropolitan area. (Very few people want to drive in Manhattan.) The office is comfortable but not luxurious and suitable for meetings with three or four people. It appeals to my clients, who do not want to pay high legal fees for ambiance. I have no conference room, so I must occasionally meet with clients in their financial advisor’s offices.

At this point I had a business plan and office space, and I was ready to make technology decisions in four areas: computers, peripherals, communications and library materials. I consciously tried to make certain that each decision related to my overall plan. This required that I fight two contradictory personal preferences, cheapness and a love of gadgets.

Step 3. Choose computers.

I have one computer, a Compaq Presario 1020 notebook, which I bought in late 1996. I could have bought two desktop computers for only a little bit more and transferred files using remote access software. Instead, I chose to use one computer for the sake of simplicity, to save money and to save space. I never have to transfer files between computers, and I only have to be familiar with one computer keyboard. I am a late-blooming touch typist and do not adapt well to new keyboards. I have port replicators in both offices so that I can easily plug my notebook into all of my peripherals in a few seconds. I can easily fold down my computer and slide it to the side of my desk during meetings, which makes my small office seem bigger. I can also fit a lot more equipment on my desk in my tiny home office. Another benefit of having one computer is that I can easily transport my client files to meetings on the computer.

I keep my client files portable by keeping as many client documents on my computer as possible. I use a personal information manager and keep my calendar, records of my phone calls and essential client information on it. I take notes of client meetings on a legal pad because I cannot type and talk at the same time. I later summarize the notes of my meetings on the computer. This often takes the form of a letter to the client summarizing the documents and explaining the tax and other considerations we discussed. I also summarize or scan in documents not drafted by me, such as pre-existing trusts and business agreements.

There are disadvantages to having just one computer. If it breaks or is stolen, I am temporarily out of business. I back up my hard drive religiously and accept the risk that I may have to buy a new computer on very short notice. I carry it on the subway in an inexpensive, lightweight, anonymous-looking briefcase. No one in the family is allowed to use my computer. My husband has his own notebook for his business and personal use, and my children have a desktop computer in their room for schoolwork and recreational use.

My computer is heavy. The computer and its AC adapter weigh over eight pounds. When I add my CD ROM library, my notary stamp, postage and a few files, my briefcase weighs at least 12 pounds. I plan to lighten my load by buying a lightweight notebook soon. I am debating between a three-pound subnotebook and several models that weigh between four and five pounds. The heavier models offer a full-sized keyboard and a larger screen.

I recently traveled by subway to a New York State Bar Association meeting in Manhattan wearing one-and-a-half inch-heels with four-and-a-half pounds of coins and stainless flatware in my briefcase in place of my computer, to see if I could comfortably carry this weight for an hour. It turned into a real test when my train sat in a tunnel for 30 minutes, waiting for a sick passenger to be removed from the train ahead of us. My briefcase was quite comfortable. Now I have to decide which model to buy. Until then? Well, I will exercise religiously and wear sensible shoes.

My choice of a notebook computer as my only computer is efficient for my practice and involves a set of tradeoffs I find acceptable. If I had one office, or I spent hours typing, I might be better off with a desktop computer with a big screen and a regular keyboard. Even if I worked primarily from my office, I would probably have a home office for those days when I had to work late, or I just could not make it into the office. I would probably equip that home office with a notebook, to save space and give me added flexibility. If I traveled frequently or I made presentations away from my office, I would have a notebook either as my primary or second computer.

Step 4. Choose peripherals.

I wanted to be able to print, scan and fax in both offices. Peripherals allow me to do this. I can meet my deadlines even when I have to stay home for an extended period of time with a sick child. I have less space in my home office, so I have a combination inkjet printer, scanner and fax machine at home, as well as a Jaz drive for backing up my hard disk. I have a separate laser printer, scanner and fax machine in my Manhattan office.

I wish I had researched the purchase of my printers more carefully, as I found out too late that each one prints best with a different weight of paper. If I want to use the same weight paper, I have to choose between manually feeding the inkjet printer 24-pound paper or putting my foot over the output tray on the laser printer to keep documents printed on 20-pound paper from spilling all over the floor. I have "solved" the problem by using different weights of paper and making sure that signature copies of each client’s documents are all printed in the same location. I usually save large print jobs for the laser printer, which is faster and has better print quality. Today I would still pick a combination machine for my home office, but I would choose one with a laser printer for higher speed and better print quality. I suppose I could just buy new and more compatible printers, but I think I will wait until I have paid for the new computer.

I do not have the time, money or energy to maintain a copier. If I need multiple copies of a document, I print them. I use my fax machines for occasional light copying and the copy shop in my office building for everything else. This is occasionally inconvenient, but less so than waiting for service calls.

I use a Jaz drive to back up my hard disk weekly. This is overkill. A cheaper tape drive would work just fine. Still, I share it with my husband, and we appreciate the fact that it works quickly.

Step 5. Choose communications technology.

I want my clients to be able to reach me Monday through Friday. I started with one business line that had call forwarding and call answering. I forwarded this line to my home phone and fax machine when I was in my home office. I had an answering machine on my home phone. I thought I would receive faxes directly on my computer when I was in my Manhattan office. I also thought I would use the telephone-answering software and speakerphone that came with my computer.

I quickly abandoned the thought of making and receiving phone calls from my computer. The sound quality was not good, even when I hunched over to speak into the microphone. I finally disabled the telephone software, which drove me crazy by opening up every time the phone rang. I opted for call answering from the phone company, so my clients could leave me messages even if I was on the phone.

Using one phone line was one of my penny wise, pound foolish solutions. My PC fax software never worked well. Even when I did receive the faxes, I often could not read them. I also had to manually set the PC to receive faxes, so my clients started telling me I needed a dedicated fax line. My home office fax setup worked, but my single home phone line was a bottleneck. I had to use an answering machine with the fax machine instead of call answering. This meant that no one could leave me a message if I was on the phone. I also took to carrying the portable phone around during business hours so I could keep the line free of personal calls (mostly my older daughter’s).

I finally bit the bullet last summer and added some phone lines. It helped that Bell Atlantic had a promotion on new lines. I cannot resist a sale. I now have a business phone line and fax line in my Manhattan office and use call forwarding to send calls to a second set of phone and fax lines in my home office. I use the telephone company’s call answering service on both of my voice lines, using identical messages.

I occasionally debate whether or not to buy a cellular phone. This would make me more accessible, particularly during the summer when I spend a lot of time outside. On the other hand, I am not sure I really need to be that accessible.

Step 6. Computerize the law library.

The fact that my Manhattan office building maintains a law library for its tenants saves me a considerable amount of money. I still need to have access to essential research information at home. I spend about $650 per year on my library. I subscribe to CD ROM services for tax research and tax form preparation and keep a few paperback reference volumes of essential New York statutes in both offices. So far, I have been able to meet all of my research needs in a timely fashion. I might add a New York state law CD ROM service in the future, as lower cost providers enter the field.

I use the Internet, particularly the ABA List Serveers, as a way of keeping up with current issues and hearing other points of view. I also use the Internet for research, usually when I need to refer to the statutes of another state or retrieve recent tax law changes.

Conclusion

You need to start with basic business-planning decisions before you even think about buying technology. Set objectives and decide how you will meet your clients’ needs. This may seem obvious, but it is easier said than done, especially in a firm where different lawyers have different goals and different types of clients.

You need to choose computers, peripherals, communications technology and computerized library materials. All of your decisions should relate to one of your goals. If a choice does not help you meet one of your objectives, you should reconsider the choice. n

Cynthia Alicea Dade is a lawyer in New York. Her article, "Confessions of a Software Junkie," ran in the December 1998 issue of GPSSFL/ Technology and Practice Guide .

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