General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

 
Volume 17, Number 4
June 2000

TECHNOLOGY FOR TIGHTWADS LAW OFFICE ESSENTIALS ON A BUDGET

Ross' Top Networking Tips

Picture these scenarios:

"Billy" is 26 years old, the ink barely dry on his degree, and planning to open his own practice. But with only a handful of potential clients, and a few bucks left over from the proceeds of his last student loan, he's not sure how he's going to do it and especially unsure of how to pay for the new computer equipment he knows he'll need.

"Jane" has been in practice as an associate with a larger firm for awhile, and is ready to make a break. She's planning to go solo and work out of her home, with some part-time administrative support. She has some core clients that she has cultivated, but most of the rest are likely to stay with the silk-stocking firm she's leaving. She has never had to buy any computer equipment or systems for her practice-or even really think about what software she would use-the systems were always provided for her by her big firm.

"Bob," "Frank," and "Jan" were buddies in law school and have all been practicing solo or in office-sharing arrangements for several years, earning a decent but not stellar living. They have decided to pool their resources and form a small firm, hoping to cut their combined overhead and to profit from economies of scale. They have full caseloads, but not a lot of working capital. The computers they each own now are more than just a bit long in the tooth and they see this as the ideal time to start over, technology-wise.

What do all of these lawyers have in common? They need an efficient and effective law practice management system to help them lower overhead, streamline workloads, and reduce the stress and "human" cost of practicing law-but they have very little money to spend. The classic Vonnegut-ian Catch 22? Not necessarily.

We have gathered together a group of respected and experienced small firm-oriented legal technologists, consultants, and practicing lawyers with a single mission: address the critical needs of a computerized law practice with a total budget of less than $5,000 (for most purposes, we will assume an average practice size of two or three people). Here's what they recommended and why.

ROSS KODNER ON NETWORKING

If your office has more than one computer, you need a network that connects the systems together-it's that simple. But what is a network and what kind should you implement as part of your $5000 law office system?

Simply put, a network consists of two or more computers connected together by cables to share information, programs, tools like printers and CD-ROM drives, and even modems-without the information or the devices being physically located in, or attached directly to your own computer.

Your office's most important resources-your people (thought we were going to say computers, didn't you?)-can better serve your clients because:

  • They have access to more information than they would if they were working at their single nonconnected computer.
  • They can share costly components like printers and CD-ROM drives. Also, your staff can share access to the Internet, with its endlessly rich range of legal resources and its communication (e-mail) capabilities.
  • Networks leverage all the tools that make a law practice hum: your people can easily access your "inventory" of prior work product-all those accumulated client documents and invaluable forms that can serve as the basis for creating cost-effective new client documents; and can communicate with each other, enabling a true team approach.

Okay, so you understand what a network is and why you need one. The next question is "what kind of network should I install?" There are peer-to-peer networks and client-server or fileserver-based networks. Let's explore the differences and then discuss how you would decide which is right for your small firm.

Peer-to-peer networks consist of two or more PCs that are connected together. Neither machine is considered the main machine, necessarily (although you can consider one of the PCs the "main" machine and store all your information on it instead of spreading it among your various computers). Rather, they are technically on equal footing. Each person does his or her own thing, but the people whose PCs are connected to the others can access the information on the hard drives of the other PCs-documents, most often, but also conceivably calendaring, billing information, an electronic rolodex, even the information on one person's PC's legal research CD-ROM.

You should consider installing a peer-to-peer network if:
  • You plan on connecting five or fewer computers together.
  • You want to occasionally share documents, but more often share one or more printers and perhaps occasionally share access to one or more CD-ROM drives.
  • Your lawyers keep individual electronic calendars and really don't need to access each others' very often.
  • It is rare that anyone but your firm's bookkeeper needs to have access to your billing and accounting software.
  • You don't have a centralized case management system that everyone needs to regularly access.
  • You really don't have a staff member with the time, inclination, or technical ability to regularly "tweak" the computer system to keep it running-you want a simple, "set it and forget it" system.

Establishing your peer-to-peer network. There are five primary ways law firms can establish a peer-to-peer network. The software that actually creates the network and allows your computers to communicate might include:

  • Microsoft Windows 95 or 98
  • Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 or the new Windows 2000
  • Macintosh systems

All of these relatively inexpensive software systems are "operating systems" that act as the internal traffic cops, directing how all your "real" programs like your word processor or your calendar system work and do all the things they do. These programs, with a Network Adapter Card and cables connecting your PCs via an inexpensive interconnecting device called a hub, allow your PCs to "talk" to each other.

Whaddaya mean "talk" to each other? Well, what we mean is that if the hard drive in your PC is called drive "C," then the hard drive in your secretary's PC might be "visible" to your PC as drive "E"-accessible to you as if it were another hard drive in your computer. You can access all the documents on your secretary's "E" drive. Peer-to-peer networks also let you access printers and CD-ROM drives that are connected to the other PCs in the network.

How much does it cost? Per PC you need:

  • A Network Card: About $25-$100 (sometimes more for laptops).
  • A copy of the network software: About $50-$250 (if you have suitable Windows versions already, there is no extra cost).
  • A cable to connect your PC to the hub (which probably will run through your wall): About $100 per outlet if you have to have the cables run through your walls.
  • Someone to install it for you: About $50-$100.
  • A network hub to connect it all together: About $50 to $250 for a smaller firm (buy a hub that can handle both 10 and 100 mbps speed!).

And voila! You have a peer-to-peer network! An absolutely excellent step-by-step guide to building a Windows 95 (and for the most part, 98) network system can be found at: http://support.intel.com/support/inbusiness/24057.htm.

Is client-server right for you? A client-server or fileserver-based network differs from the peer-to-peer network in that one or more powerful PCs are designated to be "main" machines. The idea is to store on these main machines all documents, the information contained in your billing and case management systems, etc. All key information is in one shared location on one or more of these "fileservers" (the name suggests that these computers serve us our files, so to speak). The workstations in such a system are typically referred to as "clients" of the "server" or "host" PC-the fileservers on the system.

You should consider installing a fileserver-based network if:

  • You plan on connecting five or more computers together.
  • You have CD-ROMs you want to make available to your lawyers and staff.
  • You need to share the information in centralized databases (like calendars, case management systems, litigation support software, substantive legal practice software like estate planners, financial calculation products, etc.)
  • You have multiple lawyers and staff who need to use their home or laptop systems to dial into the office's system and access e-mail, calendars, and other information.
  • You have multiple people who need to send and receive e-mail and access on-line research services or the Internet.
  • You have serious concerns about the security of your system and limiting access to certain information.
  • You have at least one employee who can spend at least an hour a week serving as liaison with your computer support; or has the technical wherewithal to troubleshoot basic system problems.

Establishing your fileserver-based network. There are several viable ways law firms can establish a fileserver-based network. The software that actually creates the network and allows your computers to communicate might include:

  • Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 (or the newer Windows 2000 once it is "proven" and "safe"), including the incredibly priced Microsoft Small Business BackOffice Server Suite 4.5 for firms with 50 or fewer workstations (www.microsoft.com/smallbusinessserver/default2.htm). It includes NT Server, the Outlook calendaring/e-mail system, Exchange server to share Outlook information, shared Internet access and network faxing. A solid small firm value.
  • Novell Netware (the traditional standard), also available in a really inexpensive Netware for Small Business Suite 5.0, which is also for networks with 50 or fewer workstations (www.novell.com/products/smallbiz/). It includes the latest Novell Netware 5.0 operating system, the widely used GroupWise 5.5 calendar/e-mail/ scheduling system, shared Internet access, remote dial-in, networking faxing via a product called ToBIT, and the respected McAfee VirusScan and Netshield antivirus products-a lot for the money!
  • Systems using the LINUX operating system-a low-cost or free variation of the venerable UNIX networking system. LINUX is gaining momentum as it emerges from the "hobbyist" category into a serious network operating system with more and more available support.
  • Macintosh systems.
  • All of these software systems are industrial strength network "operating systems." These run on a powerful PC-the fileserver-that is dedicated to "serving" the network. This means no one would normally sit and work at this PC.
  • How much does it cost? A "client/server" network is more expensive than a peer-to-peer network. You need all of the same equipment and installation as the peer-to-peer network above (network adapters, cabling, and a hub). Plus, you need one or more fileserver PCs (depending on your firm size and whether some of your network software needs "dedicated application servers" in order to operate).
  • Fileserver: $1,500 to $10,000 (much depends on the number of workstations it supports, software, storage and speed requirements for each program, communications needs, how many CD-ROM products you need to access, etc.).
  • Network data backup system: $600 to $4,000.
  • Network electrical protection for each fileserver: $300 to $1,500.

DALE TINCHER ON USING THE INTERNET

E-mail. E-mail is today's preferred means of business communication. It is fast, inexpensive, can be rerouted, is editable, allows documents to be attached, and can be pasted into case management and conflict of interest systems. E-mail's best feature is that it can be sent at the sender's convenience and opened at the recipient's convenience.

E-mail software is packaged, at no charge, with Netscape and Microsoft's browsers.

E-mail is not secure. Determined hackers and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can monitor e- mail. If information must be secure, perhaps it should not be sent by e-mail. At a minimum, encryption such as PGP (www.pgp.com) should be employed or the e-mail should be sent through a web host's "secure server."

Should the small firm have a web page? The short answer is "yes." With a properly designed web page, a small firm can level the playing field against larger firms. It can improve client service, reduce administrative costs, and obtain clients. The cost? If done creatively and in an organized fashion, the cost is minimal.

Recent estimates of web users worldwide puts the number at 40 million and growing fast. By 2002, Jupiter Communications (www.jup.com) projects that 55 percent of U.S. households and 32 percent of European households will be online.

A website can provide many benefits to a firm. It can provide an in-depth profile of the firm. New clients can be attracted locally, regionally, and globally. The firm can communicate with information seekers. Relationships can be strengthened. Additional services can be marketed to existing clients. Web information is available 24 hours per day with minimal cost and resources. Interactive client communications can be conducted. Recruiting is strengthened.

Preparation. The firm should determine its strengths, goals, and message. A flowchart should be prepared. Websites should be visited and the firm should develop a draft approach.

Options. Numerous web options are available. Free sites may be obtained from FindLaw (www.findlaw.com), Microsoft (www.microsoft.com), and others. If the goal is a static brochure site, a free site is adequate. However, a partially customized website may be preferable. Many companies display and provide template websites at prices ranging from $395 to $695. These can also be customized for a minimal investment.

Potential web designers may be found by inquiring of other firms or clients, and by searching the Internet. Ask potential designers for five references and check them. Review the designers' sites for functionality, appearance, and substance. Test the sites for search engine effectiveness by typing test phrases in search engines. Website content and hidden meta key words help determine a site's rankings.

Other web costs. The site must be hosted. Web hosting companies include Mindspring, Adgrafix, and local telephone companies. Web hosting prices typically range from $20 to $60 per month, depending on options. A dial-up connection may be required. If so, the price for dial-up ISP service will range from $20 to $30 per month. Some companies, such as Mindspring, offer both web page hosting and ISP dial-up service. The prices are typically $60 per month for a combination web hosting service and dial-up connection. Most web host providers include e-mail boxes, but check your provider to insure that mailboxes are included in the price.

Connecting your network or PC to the Internet. Your PC must have the ability to talk to the outside world, either directly or through a network. Peer-to-peer or client server networks can be connected to the Internet in a variety of ways. An economical method of connecting a small network to a telephone or ISDN line is via a $350 3COM (www.3com.com) 56K LAN Modem. The 56K LAN Modem integrates a four-port Ethernet hub, IP router, and 56K modem in one compact package.

Windows 95 or 98 TCP/IP software (included) is configured to communicate with the outside world. The $350 LAN Modem allows one modem (another can be added) to manage the Internet and e-mail traffic of a small office. In other words, multiple people can be online at the same time, sharing a LAN Modem and telephone line. The installation time for a small router is typically one to two hours. Many technically proficient lawyers install the LAN Modem without assistance.

Highly desirable Internet connection technologies such as DSL (or ADSL) and cable modem are becoming available at affordable prices. However, due to their sporadic availability, we are not including them in our estimate of costs. Sample prices-five-person law firm:

  • Starter website $395 (to $695 if they prepare the content)
  • Router $350
  • Router Installation $150
  • E-mail Installation $150
  • Total $1,045 (ongoing cost around $60 per month for web hosting and ISP dial-up. Assumes that the web host provides multiple e-mail).

TIM MELLITZ ON TIME & BILLING

You'll need to answer many questions before choosing a time & billing package.

  • Does the practice require or insist on an "integrated" accounting package that includes a time & billing component?
  • Does the firm issue a "substantial number" of checks for client-related expenses and advances?
  • Does the firm use a single, fixed-billing format where the content and appearance of the bills do not vary to any great extent?
  • Does the firm have a wide variety of different types of bills, either at the insistence of clients or senior attorneys?
  • Are the firm's bills subject to audit by a third-party legal bill auditing service, such as Examen or LegalGuard?
  • Is the firm's staff receptive to, and capable of learning, a given time & billing system?

No single time & billing system can meet the needs of a firm. The best that can be expected is enough "give" or understanding on the parts of both lawyers and clients to arrive at a consensus as to which system comes closest to meeting the demands of the practice.

Costs. What are your gross annual billings? If your billing system either picks up or drops just 1 percent of those gross billings it will have proven itself (for better or for worse).

Training. If the software itself can have a 1 percent positive effect on your gross income, then good, ample training (in almost any sophisticated program) can result in additional revenues that may well dwarf any savings or losses generated by the software without training.

The products. The three most popular products that are best suited to solo and small firm practices are Timeslips, TABS III, and PCLaw Jr. For comparison's sake, I have included the cost of some sort of general ledger (bookkeeping) system. I have considered only the entry-level products. Please note: a solo is likely to network with a secretary or paralegal. Adding network capabilities may place the cost of some of the products out of the sub-$5,000 range.

Here are the prices and most important pros and cons for each of these time and billing products:

Timeslips, Ver. 8 (16-bit) and Ver. 10 (32-bit) (with Timeslips Accounting Link and MYOB) ($459.85)
  • Pros: Polished user interface; exceptional flexibility; can be configured for minimum number of keystrokes for data entry; extensive peer support (other users); more trained or experienced operators available; excellent Certified Consultant network; Integration (one-way) with QuickBooks, MYOB, and more than 30 other entry-level general ledger (bookkeeping) systems; training classes available (in some areas); optional interfaces for almost all legal bill auditing companies; scalable (can be expanded easily as firm grows); links with more third-party software and devices than any other time & billing system (Time Matters, Amicus, Palm devices, expense capture devices, etc.).
  • Cons: No two-way integration with general ledger systems, with one expensive exception (double entry to charge client-related expenses and advances through to client); poor manufacturer support; expensive maintenance agreements; must learn two separate user interfaces when integrated with a general ledger system.
  • TABS III, Ver. 9 (with General Ledger System) ($545)
  • Pros: Easy-to-use interface; extraordinary flexibility; excellent man-ufacturer support; superior stability and dependability (relative freedom from data corruption); two-way inte- gration with general ledger system (single user interface, general ledger system manufactured by same company); modular (can be expanded according to users' needs); scalable; deal with really nice, courteous people.
  • Cons: Awkward in certain areas; confusing manuals; counter-intuitive in some areas (tapping extraordinary flexibility is extremely challenging); relative paucity of other users (shoulders to cry on); steep learning curve; no certified consultant network; scarce training opportunities or facilities; most expensive.
  • PCLaw Jr. ($295)
  • Pros: Least expensive, integrated basic accounting, case management, and calendar features at no extra cost; easy to learn and use; smooth integration with some third-party software and devices (Time Matters, Amicus, Compulaw Vision Docket, Palm devices, etc.).
  • Cons: Least flexible of the three systems (frequently unable to accommodate individual preferences); support has had mixed reviews; no certified consultant network; relative paucity of other users; scarce training opportunities.
  • SHERYN BRUEHL ON CASE MANAGEMENT

An efficient and effective case management system is the single best investment you can make in your practice. If you choose and implement it properly, it will increase your productivity, reduce your staff costs, reduce stress for you and your staff, and pay for itself time and again.

Consider this: capture just five minutes of billable time five days per week (and do you really only work five days a week?) at $150 per hour, and you make $1,000 in less than four months. If every lawyer and every staff member in your firm saved five minutes per day... each...on two or three different tasks... the software would pay for itself in no time at all!

So what is a "case management system"? It is almost as important to know what it is not. Many products are commonly mistaken for case management systems (often because of advertising that talks about "managing" your cases or trials), but actually serve other purposes. The most common examples include:

  • Litigation management or "litigation support" products, such as Summation, which involve more specialized functions like deposition transcript review and annotation, building trial notebooks, time-lining, discovery management, and collaboration tools.
  • Document management products, such as Worldox or iManage, which are designed to index and organize word-processing documents and scanned images for easy search and retrieval.
  • Knowledge management products, such as CaseMap, which attempt to organize facts, thoughts, ideas, research, and other sources of knowledge to make sure that information is not lost or overlooked in the process of preparing for trial or negotiation.

You might find some of those types of programs useful in your practice. Each serves specific, specialized functions (often in conjunction with your case management system), but they are not case management systems because they aren't designed to manage all of the information associated with your cases.

At a minimum, your case management software should have:
  • A calendar/docket for important dates or events, with reminders and ability to link those events to specific files. It should have useful calendar printouts, and the ability to link to a handheld computing device such as the Palm Pilot.
  • Customizable file information areas where you can enter specific details of your cases, like the names and addresses of the parties, matter type, billing information, notes, etc., and use that information to search files and generate documents.
  • A contact management system to track addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and other information about the people you contact in the course of your practice, with the ability to associate those contacts and specific files with each other.
  • A document generation feature to create customized letters and forms using the information entered into the case management system.
  • Some method of tracking time spent working on files, and exporting that information in a useable format.
  • Other features that are particularly useful, and may be critical for some practices, include:
  • E-mail integration, which includes launching e-mail from the case manager as well as the ability to associate incoming and outgoing e-mail with the relevant files.
  • Networking capability, so that information can be shared among all the members and staff of the firm.
  • Document tracking, so that you can quickly locate all documents relevant to a particular file.
  • Links to other software, including billing, litigation management, and document assembly programs, as well as to PDAs such as the Palm Pilot.

Two of the most popular case management programs (and my personal favorites) in the under $500 per seat range are Time Matters Professional Edition from Data.Txt ($350 for the first user and $150 for each subsequent user); and Amicus Attorney Advanced Edition from Gavel & Gown Software, Inc. ($299 per user). Each is a very comprehensive case management system with all or most of the features above, and links to a variety of other programs. They are very different in look and feel (Time Matters uses a very efficient, utilitarian interface, while Amicus Attorney favors a more intuitive but often somewhat slower graphical interface) and the system requirements and training needs for each program are different.

Solo practitioners and very small offices generally find Amicus Attorney a very comfortable environment, while larger firms and busier offices often favor the efficiency of Time Matters. However, both programs are designed for offices of virtually any size, and are suitable for one lawyer or hundreds, depending on the version of the program you buy. A comprehensive review of either of these products is impossible within the scope of this article, but you can get more information about each of them at their websites: www.timematters. com and www.amicusattorney.com.

JIM CALLOWAY ON LEGAL TECHNOLOGY TRAINING

Real estate agents often say that there are only three important things about property-location, location, and location. Well, it's also true that there are only three important things about a law office technology installation-training, training, and more training.

A law office is a business that measures production in billable hours. After the time is invested in selecting and purchasing a computer system and getting the software installed, the natural inclination is to get back to the "real work" and earn some money. But there is no quicker way to create problems than to install new software in the morning and demand that a brief be finished in the afternoon.

Even if law office personnel become "self taught" software users, it does not mean that money has been saved by avoiding formal training. There are usually several ways to use software. If a self-trained user learns the hard way to do something, it will soon become "The Way" to do that thing as others learn the original user's mistakes. Just think of the cumulative effect of several employees doing in 45 seconds what could be done in 10 seconds-several times a day, every day.

But formal training classes are very expensive, sometimes too simplistic, and often spend much time on operations not usually done in law firms. Here are some alternative ways to get a basic training program for around $150:

  • Learn to use Help files. Software used to come with big thick manuals. We referred to them constantly. Now the same material (if not more) is contained in handy Help files, which many people just ignore. Make sure everyone learns how to use help files. Cost: $0.
  • Free tech support. This used to be a given, but is becoming a thing of the past. Still, most software has a free support period right after purchase. Docket the date free tech support ends just like a statute of limitations date. Cut back on staff assignments during that time to allow them to experiment. Encourage them to call tech support early and often. Schedule a meeting a week before the time ends to make sure you've covered everything. This is vitally important for lawyer-specific software where there are not as many resources available. Cost: $0.
  • Books. For your word processing software and other general applications, a trip to the bookstore is in order. Buying books online is a great deal, but there is no substitute for spending a few hours thumbing through the various software help publications. Do you like the way the material is organized? Is it easy to follow? Do the explanations make sense to you? For your word processor, we would suggest two books; one of the easy-to-read slim volumes (like the much acclaimed "_____ for Dummies" series at less than $20) and one comprehensive one that will sit on the shelf in reserve for the times you get into real trouble. Cost: $75- $125.
  • Hi-tech training packages. Pick up any computer magazine and you will see several ads for training videos on CD-ROM or the Internet. People learn in different ways. Some do better when they can see a visual image. Purchasing training CD-ROMs keeps the resources in your office in case an employee leaves and new training is needed. Online training can be very inexpensive, but ties up a phone line if you are still using dial-up access. For example, www. learn2.com allows you a set period of time where you are enrolled to take a tutorial. You can repeat it as many times as you want during that time period. A single tutorial (e.g., Word 97- Advanced) costs $9.95 for a month while a package deal (e.g., five WordPerfect 8 tutorials) costs $39.95 for six months.

Now here's the key to actually using the above tools instead of letting them gather dust. Set assignments with completion dates for lawyers and staff. Have someone learn something and then share. Read the first three chapters of a book and then show what was learned at an office luncheon. Spend an hour teaching everyone how to organize their folders and Windows Desktop. Let a secretary spend one hour after lunch on Wednesdays for several weeks working through document formatting help files. If you do not set clear goals and dedicate time for training, you might as well not bother purchasing training aids, because that future date when you will "have time" to train will never occur.

BRUCE DORNER ON MOBILE LAWYERING

It used to be that carrying a laptop or portable computer was a sign of great importance and wealth. Today, laptop computers and personal digital assistants are almost a requirement in the legal profession, and can be fully equipped and placed on the road for about $3,000. In fact, many lawyers spend a little more and use a portable as their primary computer, avoiding a desktop computer completely.

First, buy from a reputable manufacturer. Portable computers are extremely proprietary and are unlikely to be easily repaired by Bob's Computer Emporium in the garage around the corner from your office. Although their ranking will vary from time to time and model to model, names that regularly rise to the top are Toshiba, IBM, Gateway, Dell, and WinBook. (Yes, WinBook is moving upward and is one of my favorites. They only make portables and are only available on the web.)

If your main objectives are word processing, Internet access, e-mail, and an occasional slide show, you don't need a screaming P-III 650MHz machine. It's gross overkill. Today's word processors run quite nicely on a P-II 300 MHz chip, though you may have to look for used equipment to get one. The AMD chips aren't bad either, to save some money. I suggest that you install 128MB RAM, more if you'll be using voice recognition tools. (To effectively run voice recognition you really should go for the fastest, meanest chip and most RAM you can buy-so you may end up spending a little more than the budget for this article.)

When it comes to keyboard and screen, size does matter, especially if you are getting older-which I hope is your plan! Whether you are comfortable with the keyboard and screen is often more important than any of the technical specifications, so take your portable for a test run before you buy. If the keys aren't comfortable and located well, the pointing device isn't to your liking, or the 10 inch monitor wears your eyes out, you won't enjoy the machine, you won't be productive, and you'll regret spending all that money. I find a 14-inch screen quite comfortable, with a viewing area roughly equivalent to a 15-inch desktop monitor. I love the 15-inch screens, but they are too heavy for my tastes.

You'll also need a fast modem and probably a network card. Don't scrimp. Buy them from reputable manufacturers so they'll work when the chips are down. Then load your word processing suite (subject to proper licensing) and accessory applications, and you're ready to go. If you want to produce documents on the road, look at portable printers. HP and Canon have great models, and some also serve as scanners, which can be a life-saver when you have to get a confidential document to a client from a hotel.

So far, with the less expensive computer, we've probably spent about $2,000 for the machine, $299 for the printer, and around $100 for the network card (if you shopped carefully, the computer came with a modem), so we haven't quite spent $3,000.

If you spend a lot of time away from your office and need to have your schedule handy and your address book updated and accessible, then you need to look at Personal Digital Assistants. My favorite is the PalmPilot family. It has been the most useful tool I have acquired in many years. I no longer worry about the accuracy of my schedule. I have my client data in my pocket so I can return calls when I'm out of the office and the client leaves no phone number. I synchronize with my office network with a single button push and my staff and I know what changes have been made in the office and on the road. I no longer have to remember to enter the data or tell someone to make a change for me. These devices range in price from about $200-$450. Feature sets, memory, and accessories vary, so check your needs and budget. However, for our project, I'm budgeting $450 for a Palm Vx model, which is the top end.

There are three more accessories you need to acquire. One is a line tester, about $25, to verify that a phone line isn't a digital line that will fry your modem. Another is a surge suppressor. You can buy a very nice unit from APC that plugs into your power cord, rather than into the wall and then into your power brick (transformer) to provide surge suppression for the power line and the modem, for about $30. Finally, you need a bag to carry it all. (It's truly amazing that a 7-pound portable computer requires 15 pounds of supporting tools!) Computer bags run from $20 to $500 depending on feature sets, quality, and material. Many lawyers like the backpack style bags that look like they are carrying books, rather than a computer bag that screams "steal me." I prefer a bag that holds all the junk in accessible partitions, so I keep my computer bag within arm's length when I travel, and fell in love with the Kensington Sky Runner in nylon (only $40, with rebate).

Finally, here's a tip on one of the great free tools for the busy lawyer. How do you receive confidential faxes on the road? Sure, you can use the hotel business office, but I don't want some clerk reading my recommendations to my client, Mr. Gates, about his acquisition of the U.S. Department of Justice (just kidding). Take a look at www.efax.com. They offer a free fax service. You are assigned a phone number, where anyone can send a fax, and it is delivered to your e-mail. A small utility program opens the message and you read it as an image. For a few dollars a month, you can get a toll free number. For outbound fax transmission, good old reliable WinFax Pro from Symantec does the trick nicely. Add a scanner head for a Canon Bubble Jet 50 or 80 printer and you've got all the comforts of a regular office, from e-mail to scanned documents to facsimile. You might also want OCR software to convert faxes or scanned documents into a word processing document, which you can get for around $100.

Now that you're equipped for battle, go forth and serve your clients. Take the computer to court. Take it to your client's place of business. Draft documents at their convenience. Make changes as needed and print out the revisions. Stay in touch with the office and remain productive while you are on the road.

DENNIS KENNEDY ON SECURITY, VIRUSES, AND BACKUP

Unfortunately, your computer system lives in an increasingly dangerous world. You are increasingly vulnerable to intruders, viruses, computer crashes, data corruption, and other problems from outside your office, inside your office, and even at your own hands. Implementing an "iron triangle" of security precautions, virus protection, and backup procedures is essential in even the smallest law office.

Security. For many years, the general feeling was that most small operations had no security risks because they did not have valuable information and, therefore, were "off the radar" of malicious hackers. That is no longer the case, for two reasons. First, a wide variety of "intrusion tools" are readily available on the Internet and can even provide automated ways for novice ne'er-do-wells to break into a variety of systems. Second, simple access to your system alone can be reason enough for someone to break into your system regardless of the "value" of your data. Once someone has access to your system, they can use it to launch other attacks, store illegal information, and otherwise use or abuse your system.

Your risk level rises substantially when you have full-time Internet access or set up methods of remote access to your office systems. Once your computer connects to the outside world you must take precautions.

Here's the good news: a wise choice of "strong" passwords can be your best and cheapest weapon in your fight for security. Too many people use their spouse's name, their own name or initials, or even the highly popular "password" as a password. A shocking number of people use no password on a least one user account. There are also tools available to crack passwords.

A strong password is a combination of letters, numbers and symbols (e.g., 8s#b5%tc), at least 7 characters long, that is changed on a regular basis. Using this type of password will deter most intruders. Remember: don't reveal your passwords to anyone or tape them to your computer's monitor.

If you connect to the Internet on a full-time basis (e.g., by DSL), you will also want to implement some kind of "firewall"-a software or hardware method of closing down outside access to your system. For the small budget, a software solution makes the most sense, but watch for lower cost hardware firewall solutions for small offices coming onto the market this year.

Don't forget about physical security. Notebook computers are highly vulnerable to theft. Someone who steals a computer from your office can break its security at leisure.

Viruses.

Viruses get a lot of press these days and well they should. There are thousands of viruses in the wild and they are becoming increasingly more dangerous and damaging. The rule on viruses is easy: it is the height of irresponsibility to be running any business computer system today without using virus protection.

The standard virus protection programs (e.g., Norton or McAfee) are good solutions. Just choose one, install it, and use it. Remember that you also must update virus protection programs on a regular basis. A new development to watch: virus scanning as a service over the Internet.

Other useful tips: Never run any executable program (typically one that ends in ".exe") that arrives as an e-mail attachment and be very wary of opening Microsoft Word e-mail attachments. Use common sense, especially with disks that have been used in other computers.

Backup. It's not a case of "if" but "when." Computers crash and data can get corrupted or lost, whether from outside dangers or your own misuse or accidents. You must institute backup procedures. Backup is a policy and procedural matter more than a technology matter.

You can back up data in a variety of ways. Best approach: simply pick a removable media that is easy for you to use. Examples include tape, ZIP or JAZ drives, removable hard drives, and writable CD-ROMs. Each has plusses and minuses, but, in the small firm setting, any one or combination of them will work well for you.

Then, decide on a policy. Generally, people institute a plan of an automated daily backup of incremental changes, a full weekly backup and some form of off-site storage. Some consulting firms will even monitor and store your backup for you. You will also want to verify the integrity of your backup on a regular basis. You don't want to have a backup tape, but then find that it is unusable when you need it, or find that your automated backup hasn't been running for months.

Conclusion

Whether you are a tightwad by nature, or by need, you can build an affordable technology system for your small firm practice-one that will ultimately save you both time and money. Depending on your resources, you might decide to spend far more (or less) than our hypothetical $5,000 budget. You can implement some (or all) of the recommendations of our authors; you can choose the high (or low) end of the products they recommend, and you can do it in phases or all at once. But one thing is clear: if you choose, "tightwad technology" will pay for itself...and for the "bells and whistles" that can come later when all that extra profit rolls in!

Sheryn Bruehl (sbruehl@compuserve.com) is a managing partner in the Norman, Oklahoma, firm of Bruehl & Chapman, P.C. where she practices worker's compensation law. She administers an eight-computer network for four attorneys and two support staff. As a small firm owner, her primary focus is "budget" computing-from the best values in computers, to do-it-yourself system and software upgrades. She is an active member of the ABA Law Practice Management Section as well as the ABA General Practice/Solo & Small Firm Division.

Jim Calloway is the Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. In that role he makes frequent presentations on law office management and technology, operates a free advice "hot-line" for Oklahoma lawyers, and manages the OBA's online service, the OBA-NET. Many of the articles he has written for lawyers are available online at www.okbar.org/map/articles.

Bruce Dorner (callmylawyer@ibm.net) is a New Hampshire solo practicing in Londonderry. He is a member of the editorial board of Technology & Practice Guide. He has long been active in the ABA Law Practice Management Section, the ABA Solo & Small Firm Standing Committee and ABA TECHSHOW.

Dennis Kennedy (dkennedy@thompson coburn.com) is an attorney who writes and speaks frequently on Internet and legal technology topics. He practices in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department at Thompson Coburn LLP in St. Louis. Nearly 100 of his articles on legal technology are available at www.denniskennedy.com/ltprimer.htm."

Ross Kodner (rkodner@microlaw.com) is president and founder of MicroLaw, Inc., a 14+ year old Milwaukee-based legal technology consultancy and turnkey legal automation system provider. He chairs the ABA Law Practice Management Section's Computer & Technology Division and serves on the ABA TECHSHOW executive planning board. He is a member of the editorial board of Technology & Practice Guide. He developed and has written and presented extensively on "The Paper LESS Office™," a revolutionary common-sense approach toward managing paper in a law practice

John L. ("Tim") Mellitz is an attorney who practiced law for 16 years, and for the last 14 years has practiced legal technology consulting as Mellitz & Associates, which specializes in the automation of law firms. He assists small- to medium-sized law firms in the design and implementation of microcomputer systems.

Dale Tincher is owner and Manager of Internet Services for Consultwebs.com of Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a prominent North Carolina-based Web design specialist, computer consultant, trainer, writer and speaker. He has assisted more than 100 North Carolina law firms in various aspects of technology planning and implementation.

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