GPSolo Magazine - December 2003
When Esq. = Jack-of-All-Trades: How to Set Up a Solo Law Office
Ever read technology advice columns and feel like they haven’t got a clue that you exist? All the talk about networks, administrators, and IT staff completely misses the mark when it comes to solo attorneys. Helloooo! It’s just me—nobody else here.
A solo law practice often means just one person, you, uses the technology (unless you have one assistant). All the talk about networking is meaningless. You are the one who turns on the computer early in the morning and shuts it down late at night. When something goes wrong, you have to deal with it. Whatever your hourly rate, the meter comes to a screeching halt when the computer suddenly crashes or you have to run out to get a new toner cartridge for the printer.
Should this affect the technology decisions you make for your law office? You bet—when making these decisions, your primary focus should be simplicity, dependability, and saving time. Even if you spend a little more money now, you’ll save money in the long run by spending fewer hours supporting the technology and more hours doing billable work for your clients.
Simple Rules to Follow
Use mainstream hardware. You could build your own computer and spend a couple hundred dollars less than if you purchased one from a leading PC vendor, but then what would you do when something went wrong? Call that fool friend of yours who convinced you to do it? He’s probably out convincing another poor innocent to build her own PC. When you buy a PC from a leading vendor, you have a warranty and service contract, typically with 24/7 support.
Use mainstream software. This doesn’t mean the only company you can buy from is Microsoft, but try to be reasonably sure that the vendor will still be around five years from now, for service and upgrades. Don’t decide to use Linux because you heard it’s more stable, unless you have the technology background to deal with the issues that will come up because you’re using a non-standard operating system. This is your business, not a hobby, and while it’s okay to tinker with a hobby, you want your business to work.
Consolidate hardware. A multifunctional printer can be a great investment for a solo attorney. It prints, copies, scans, and faxes but is no larger than a single printer. Prices have come down tremendously, and the models work a lot better and are far more reliable than they were when they first came out. The copy function might not be sufficient if you have heavy copy demands, but if you send all the heavy work to an outside shop, it’s probably fine. Even if only three of the four functions serve your purposes, it’s still worth it.
Another consolidation item to think about seriously is a cell phone/PDA. You may resist this idea because of the cost, about $500 or more, but having a date book; all contacts’ names, addresses, and phone numbers; a keyboard; and a phone in one compact tool is an amazing convenience. It also can send and receive e-mail. Still not convinced? Several have built-in MP3 players—I knew something would get your attention.
Of course, some of your hardware needs will depend on the particular demands of your practice. If you have a high-volume consumer practice, you might want to consider having an additional, low-cost computer available to clients, with a custom form they fill out on their first visit. You can tailor the type of information you want—and later can download it into a database.
Consolidate software. Practice management programs that combine several software functions in one well-integrated piece of software can be a real boon to efficiency. Imagine entering a new client’s contact information only once. Plus many specialty functions for a law practice simply are not available on stand-alone software made for the general public.
Don’t Skimp on These
Backup system. Have this in place and working from day one. A thorough review of backup systems appears on page 66 of this issue, but be sure that whatever you use is very, very easy to operate. If it takes the least bit of thinking to run it, you’ll skip it or run it so infrequently as to make it almost useless.
Broadband Internet access. Yes, this is a must. Why? Because more and more tools attorneys use are migrating to the Internet: e-mail, of course, and online research. Office support services also are migrating to the web—I use Stamps.com for postage and Efax.com for faxes. For all this you need a speedy and continuous connection to the Internet, something that is not possible or practical with a dialup connection. Also, PDF format is becoming common for electronic files and can easily top a megabyte in size; they download in a flash with a broadband connection. Finally, a broadband connection frees up a phone line, which will offset some of its cost.
Antivirus and firewall software; operating system patches. I sailed through several recent major virus attacks that laid low thousands of companies worldwide, without a scratch. Was it because I am some kind of techno- wizard? Nope. I simply had antivirus and firewall software running, along with up-to-date patches to my operating system.
You can subscribe to antivirus and firewall software that conduct automatic updates from the Internet and notify you when it’s time to renew your subscriptions. Symantec’s Norton AntiVirus software ($49, www.norton.com) and ZoneAlarm firewall protection ($39, www.zonelabs.com) generally get high ratings, and their auto-update features work fairly painlessly. Make sure your operating system is up to date on the latest patches (provided free from your vendor). The patches often are updates that prevent viruses from taking advantage of your operating system’s vulnerabilities. If you use Windows XP, Microsoft can notify you automatically of updates, and you can elect to have them installed.
Remember to keep the three criteria—simplicity, dependability, and saving time—in mind when setting up your office features. If it gets too daunting, feel better by thinking about all the networking issues that you don’t have to deal with.
Websites For The Solo Setting Up Shop
• ABA’s Solo and Small Firm Lawyer Technology Center: www.abanet.org/tech/ltrc/gpsstechcenter.html
• Software & Technology section, Findlaw’s Market Center: http://marketcenter.findlaw.com/software_technology.html
• Law Commerce: www.lawcommerce.com
• Carolyn Elefant’s website for solos and small law firms is full of all kinds of useful information: http://myshingle.com
David Leffler maintains a solo law practice in New York City, where he assists his clients in the formation, growth, and sale of their businesses.He can be reached at email@example.com.