Collaborative Technologies for Solos and Small Firms

By Dennis Kennedy, Tom Mighell, and Grace Kennedy

Lawyers often focus so much on the battles of the day that cooperation and collaboration are the furthest things from their minds. They may not realize how much collaboration is involved in the successful practice of law until they step back and look at the many ways they must work together with others. Even the solo lawyer who sees himself or herself as a lone knight fighting for justice will work with many people on a daily basis—staff, other lawyers, judges, court personnel, witnesses, and, of course, clients.

Recent developments have turned the Internet into an unparalleled platform for communications and collaboration. It’s now easier than ever before to use technology and the Internet to work effectively and cheaply with others. A door has opened, especially for solos and small firm lawyers, to use collaboration technologies in surprisingly sophisticated ways to work with clients and others to deliver high-quality services when not physically present.

As a result, we are seeing fundamental changes in the ways lawyers use technology to create teams, prepare cases, manage projects, share information, and present deliverables. More importantly, we are seeing changes in the ways clients expect lawyers to do these things. The biggest surprise of all? Many collaboration tools are inexpensive or even free and really do allow solos and small firms to provide levels of service that once were possible only for the largest firms.

By “collaboration” technology we mean much more than just storing data in places where others can access it, although that certainly can be part of a cooperative approach. These kinds of tools actually allow you to share information and work together to prepare documents, organize work and projects, and present information to those with whom you collaborate. From drafting simple documents to analyzing complex arguments or even managing e-discovery projects, today’s collaboration tools bring the power of teamwork to even the most isolated solos.

Collaboration technologies are unique in that they always involve interactions with other people. As a result, lawyers often find that they must use collaboration tools whether or not they are ready for them. A lawyer might not plan to use “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word, but if the opposing counsel or client sends an agreement with Track Changes activated, the lawyer suddenly must develop a working knowledge of that collaboration tool.

In this article, we will introduce you to some of the new tools lawyers can use in their practices to collaborate with others and suggest some ways you can prepare for and make better use of these tools.

Popular Collaboration Tools
How might you use collaboration tools? In this section, we take a look at some of the most common, inexpensive, and helpful collaboration tools lawyers are already using and suggest some ways they might make sense for you. These tools make sense especially for solos and small firms. Our emphasis will be on simple, task-oriented tools rather than full-blown collaboration platforms.

Editing and finalizing documents. There’s no question that the collaboration tools lawyers most use are e-mail and word processing. However, lawyers do not often think of the collaboration possibilities built into these common tools. It’s also worth noting that new versions of the standard office suites, such as Microsoft Office 2007 and, even more, the upcoming Office 2010, have built-in collaboration tools, making it easier than ever to share documents, keep track of versions, and work together on documents. Word’s Track Changes is perhaps the best example of a “redlining” tool that allows multiple authors to edit documents and show those changes for discussion and later acceptance into a final document. Sending e-mails with drafts of documents attached and using “CC” and “BCC” to send to multiple recipients can help you quickly circulate drafts, get comments, and save money and time in moving documents around.

Working on documents online. E-mail is a great, multipurpose collaboration tool that can be useful in a wide variety of settings, but it does have some limitations—primarily the need to send attachments to multiple people and wait for all of them to send back edits before proceeding. Online document collaboration tools address some of the drawbacks of e-mail. With these tools, your group can log on to an Internet site and work on and edit the same document simultaneously.

For example, Google Docs ( http://docs.google.com) allows you to create simple documents, spreadsheets, and even presentations and share them so that others can view or edit them online. When you’re finished with the document, you can save it as a Word or PDF file. These tools work well both for creating first drafts and finishing documents. We suggest that they work especially well when everyone is on the “same side”—where you are comfortable with multiple people editing the document—but they can work well in other settings. Google Docs, for example, keeps a record of all edits. The edit record can be a big help in determining who made changes and when, showing the evolution of the document and keeping a record of the cast of characters involved in a document. The “audit trail” created can assist in quickly resolving interpretation issues or determining who might know the answer to a question.

Think about the way these tools might work to knock out final versions of jury instructions, settlement agreements, and simple negotiated legal documents that can be prepared quickly while you talk to opposing counsel on the phone.

Screen sharing and webconferencing. Sometimes you might need to work on a document or share a file with another person, but in real time. For example, you might be on the phone with someone and need to show a spreadsheet, a slide show, or a set of calculations. Screen-sharing programs such as the free CrossLoop ( www.crossloop.com) might do the trick. Both users must install the program on their computers; then one person requests access to the other’s screen. After access is granted, the user can see everything that happens on the other’s computer—documents, drawings, images, and the like. An example of an advanced screen-sharing program is Adobe’s Acrobat.com ( www.acrobat.com), which allows larger groups to participate in online meetings. CrossLoop also has paid versions that allow collaboration among more than two participants.

Webconferencing tools such as GoToMeeting ( www.gotomeeting.com) provide even more advanced tools (audio and video) at a low cost, allowing you to avoid spending money—and time—on travel. Using these tools, you can work together not only to edit documents but actually to analyze these documents, gather information, discuss strategies, and do higher-level legal work.

Project management. A number of project-management sites have appeared on the Internet that make it simple to manage teams on cases, transactions, or other projects. One such tool is Basecamp ( www.basecamphq.com), which provides different levels of service and online storage in plans ranging from $24 to $149 per month. Basecamp’s features include file storage, message boards, to-do lists, and other collaboration tools. Solos and small firm lawyers can use Basecamp as a client “extranet”—clients have their own dedicated Basecamp page where they can view case files, ask questions, or keep track of deadlines. This is a great way to work with your clients online and manage projects and project communications at a relatively low cost. Hosted Microsoft SharePoint services ( http://microsoft.com/sharepointonline) are another great example in this category. Online calendars also offer an easy way to set up meetings and find times when everyone is available.

Teleconferencing and videoconferencing. Today, you can find a wide variety of free and low-cost teleconferencing tools that will allow you to host conference calls with many useful features, including recording of calls. The commonly used free tool Skype ( www.skype.com) lets you do conference calls, and, with the addition of an inexpensive webcam (roughly $50), you can routinely do videoconferencing. For those in remote areas or working with clients in other geographic areas, including outside the United States, videoconferencing is making a big difference in what you can do and how you can work with clients and others. Video adds an extra dimension to discussions. These tools offer sophisticated but inexpensive ways to work together for a variety of analytical purposes.

File sharing. Have you noticed that the electronic files we use in our daily work keep getting bigger and bigger? The size of today’s PDFs, slides, and documents is often more than our mail servers can handle. A number of sites now make it much easier to send large files to others. One of the oldest, best-known sites is YouSendIt ( www.yousendit.com), which allows you to send a document up to 100 MB for free. You upload the file to the YouSendIt site, and YouSendIt automatically sends the recipient an e-mail with a download link to the file. YouSendIt also offers subscription plans if you want to send larger files. We also like drop.io ( http://drop.io), where you can create an online “exchange” site to share large files. These tools offer you a great way to present documents to others and share large amounts of information in a convenient way.

Getting Started
Your choice of collaboration tools usually takes place in collaboration with other people. Sometimes, your collaboration tools will be chosen by others, especially your clients or the courts. To make sure you’re not playing follow the leader, it’s important even for the sole practitioner to prepare a collaboration strategy. The following checklist will help you get off to a great start with these technologies.

  • Do a “collaboration audit.” Collaboration tools work best when they reflect and enhance existing ways that people work together. If you identify and understand the ways you work with others, you can make great choices about the right tools to use.

  • Determine what collaboration tools you already use and own. One excellent way to improve collaboration tools is to make better use of the technologies you already have. Another is to build on people’s comfort with familiar tools and interfaces. For example, explore what’s in Microsoft Office. Microsoft has been building more collaboration features into the most recent versions, and it’s the home of the ubiquitous Track Changes.

  • Ask your collaborators what they use. More specifically, ask your clients how they prefer to work with you and what tools they use. A simple one-page questionnaire can provide you with useful information and indicate to your clients that you are concerned with making it easier for them to work with you.

  • Keep it simple. The theme of this article is that there are inexpensive, task-oriented tools that can help you address practical problems you actually face. Focus on small wins that make it easier for you to get work done.

  • Learn about the wide variety of tools now available. Do some research. Ask existing vendors. Find out what others are using. The book The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies: Smart Ways to Work Together (ABA Law Practice Management Section, 2008) by two of this article’s authors, Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell, is exactly what the title says and is a great starting point; the book also has a companion blog ( www.lawyersguidetocollaboration.com). The Collaboration Tools Wiki ( http://collaborationtools.pbwiki.com) is a directory of collaboration tools for lawyers organized by category.

  • Experiment. A huge number of collaboration tools are either available for free or at a very low cost. Jump in and try a few of the ones mentioned in this article. Some might work well and some might not be right for you, but standing still in today’s world probably means you are actually moving backward.

Security and Confidentiality
Many collaboration tools are perfect examples of what has become known as “cloud computing.” The programs and your data and files reside on a vendor’s servers; you and your collaborators access them over the Internet via a browser or even a smart phone. This approach raises some general concerns about security, confidentiality, and access to your information. We recommend that you do your homework on the issues, watch for ethical and other guidance for lawyers, read vendor agreements carefully, and use good judgment about what you use the tools for. You do need to approach these tools with your eyes wide open and consider both the risks and benefits carefully, but we predict that the utility of some of these tools will win you over. (For more on the ethical implications of cloud computing, see the “Techno Ethics” column.)

Never Work Alone Again
Since its beginnings, the practice of law has been, by its very nature, a collaborative profession. Today’s collaboration technologies have evolved logically out of the existing ways lawyers work with others and in many cases are free or very inexpensive. They offer great, practical ways to work together with others, enhance client service, and make your practice a little easier. If there is a category of technology you might want to focus on this year, collaboration tools should be the one. Just because you are a solo doesn’t mean you have to work alone.

  • Dennis Kennedy is a legal technology writer and information technology lawyer based in St. Louis, Missouri; he blogs at www.denniskennedy.com/blog and may be reached at dmk@denniskennedy.com. Tom Mighell is a legal technology author and speaker and is a senior consultant with Contoural, Inc., where he works with companies on litigation readiness and records management issues; he may be reached at tmighell@gmail.com. Grace Kennedy is a freelance writer in St. Louis, Missouri.

Copyright 2010

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