Volume 19, Number 8
Low-Tech AlternativesYou Already Own
By Sheryl Cramer
Technology, when properly used and implemented, can produce a law office that is well organized, efficiently run, and saves time for everyone. (Warning: You must learn and use, not just implement, the technology to see results.) If you don't have the big bucks that many major technology purchases require, you may be surprised at the items you already own that can be implemented without blowing the office technology budget. (You do budget for technology, right?)
Let's start with that old office computer that's currently serving as a paperweight. Although it can't run the latest software, you can use it for basic word processing (you must still have that copy of WP 5.1 for DOS around) and to generate labels for files and envelopes. If your computers are networked, use it for a file server. It can store all the firm's files for sharing-word processing documents, spreadsheets, nonconfidential files, and a central electronic calendar. Offices function more efficiently when all the firm's critical data and files are in one location, simplifying backups and accessing shared data. Actual programs should be installed on each individual machine, but everything else can go on the file server.
If you have more than one old machine and the machines are networked, use one solely for backing up firm data and important computer files. Using backup or file copy software, copy all important documents/files from each machine and the file server onto this machine's hard drive. This old, worn-out computer will become your favorite machine when your other computers' hard drives fail (notice the word when, not if). Just be sure to check the capacity of the backup computer's hard drive against the total size of the files. If the old hard drive can't handle it all, installing a new hard drive is pretty inexpensive-just check with the vendor to make sure the new drive will run on the old machine. You should be able to find a good deal on an older drive from an Internet outlet site such as ComputerGeeks (www.computergeeks.com), CSO (www.computersurplusoutlet.com), or an auction site such as eBay (www.ebay.com).
The Ubiquitous Legal Pad
If you don't have a case management or billing program, a yellow legal pad is still a lawyer's best friend. Order a bunch of colored legal pads with hard covers and give one to each staff member to keep by the phone. (You want the covered ones in order to preserve confidentiality, to differentiate this pad from the 20 others on the desk, and to label easily according to function, i.e., client postage, length of calls, etc.) Use the pad to log all phone calls, made and received; items mailed and received; time spent on client cases; and notes relating to a case.
This notation system is very easy to set up: In the front part of the pad create columns for date, client name, phone number, postage cost, call cost (if you want to track actual client telephone costs), and notes. When a call is received or made, the staff member immediately enters the date and time and client name or relevant case name. The notes section details who took the call, subject, duration, and other relevant information. If you track costs for long distance, enter either a predetermined charge or the actual cost from a later phone bill. Similarly, track mail sent and/or received, and note the recipient and a description of the mail. For outgoing mail, enter the amount of postage, especially if you include this in client costs; you can also keep a running total and check whether it equals the amount of money actually spent on postage. Flip the legal pad over to the back to start a section for client time and notes. Create columns for date, client name, duration, and notes. This will track work done for the client, such as prepared or reviewed interrogatories, and relevant notes. You can use these sheets to create client bills and also to monitor what's going on day to day in your clients' cases. This setup of course can be customized for your practice.
Other columns you can add: a check column if you need to follow up (you will see the checks at a glance and can then cross them off after you are finished), a done column, a bill column (check if you want the item billed), and a begin/end time column. You can keep a copy of the log in the client file, which will make the information readily available to anyone reviewing the file. This usefulness of hand tracking is limited only by your imagination-and the amount of paper available. Once your staff is used to entering the data as it occurs, you'll be surprised by how much more information is available and billable.
A computer-literate staffer easily can create a basic database or spreadsheet to use instead of legal pads for the above information. Office suite software usually includes a database or spreadsheet program (such as Access and Excel with Microsoft Office or Paradox and Quattro Pro with Corel WordPerfect Suite). Run a test sequence before actually entering your data to make sure it works properly. You can also track client contact information, office pur- chases, and accounts receivable and payable, to name just a few uses of a database or spreadsheet. Office suites also usually include basic calendars and contact managers that you may not already be using.
Even if you don't have a fancy telephone system, Caller ID can let you know who is calling before you pick up the phone, as well as those who called but didn't leave messages. Are you using "while you were out" telephone message pads? If so, when you return the call, note on the message the date and time of the return call, whom you talked or left a message with, duration, and what was discussed. File this in your client's folder to reference when he conveniently forgets what you told him. You can use this for billing as well-just enter the information in your billing center before filing the slip in the client file.
Most law firms have a copier-but have you ever used it to produce copies for your clients of all incoming/
outgoing documents related to their case? This is a great way to keep your clients updated-updated clients are happy clients and happy clients pay their bills-and to reduce some of their "what's going on with my case" calls. During the initial consultation, let the client know you'll be sending a copy of everything and no response is necessary unless they have a question. Just write "FYI" on the document-no cover page is necessary-and mail. To save on postage, make a duplicate file folder, file copies of everything, and hand it to the client during the next office visit.
If your computer has a built-in modem with fax capabilities and fax software, receive faxes on this instead of maintaining a separate machine. Most fax software can be set up to automatically print faxes upon receipt, so you'll have the fax stored in the computer and a hard copy for the client folder. If you receive a lot of junk faxes and want to save trees, unselect the automatic print. Built-ins can fax documents created in the computer, but form documents like a signed decree require a scanner.
If you have a stand-alone fax, look at the manual, just in case you missed the machine's built-in copying capabilities. This is great resource for copying one or two pages when the main copier breaks or a large project ties it up. It is not reliable or fast enough for large copy jobs. Some fax machines also scan and print and are a great backup in this area, too.
If you have a computer with a modem, you have no good reason for not being on the Internet. You can use free e-mail even without investing in software-imagine, no more phone tag. Check with your state or local bar association; you may be surprised at the free research they make available to you online. You can also take advantage of information posted by the American Bar Association in general-and specifically by the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division. On-line sites can locate phone numbers and do reverse lookups (www.anywho.com, www.switchboard.com) as well as basic online sleuthing. Craig Ball, an attorney located in Texas, operates a great site (www.craigball.com) full of more information and many links.
Like most of us, you probably have old software on the shelf collecting dust. Perhaps you have an office suite program available already but have installed only the word processor. Will any of the other programs make your work easier? For example, if you have both case management and word processing programs, you can create documents automatically for your word processor using information already in the case management program.
If you use a word processor simply to create letters, you're missing out on several other timesaving features. Have one of your computer-literate staff inventory everything and investigate everything the item can do and whether it can be integrated with other items. You may be amazed to find you already own materials that can save time and effort.
If you don't have a postage meter, order postage from the Postal Service. In addition to stamps, you can order shipping supplies such as labels preprinted with your mailing information, and boxes. At no extra cost your carrier will bring the order and collect payment the next day. What a deal! No more wasted time standing in lines at the post office! Place orders online at www.usps.gov or by calling your local post office.
With a little imagination you can save time and create order in your office by using what is already available to you. Every lawyer has pencils, pens, and paper. And, as far as I know, handwritten bills mailed to a client are still legal.