General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

A service of the ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology eReport

American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

JUNE 2010

Vol. 9, No. 2

Features

 

Converged Telephone Systems Allow Small Firms to Act Big

How advanced phone system features can enhance reachability, add office efficiencies, and help smaller firms measure up against larger competitors

In a business environment where portable multimedia communications devices are now commonplace and terms like wireless and bandwidth have become second nature, the office telecommunications system for many small firms remains antiquated and extremely inefficient. And with the unsteady economy causing most solo attorneys and small firms to closely watch every dollar spent, many are reluctant to upgrade or replace their current phone systems because they simply don’t have a compelling business reason to make a change. In reality, an investment in a modern, converged phone system not only won’t break the bank, but it can also enhance a firm’s reachability, add operational efficiencies, and help provide a business edge.

Firms that have adopted advanced communications systems are finding that these systems can help them better compete against larger, higher-profile organizations and that they can be a difference maker in servicing and retaining clients.

Don’t Get Stuck With an Old Horse and Buggy
Because many start-up solo practitioners share office space, for both economic and business reasons, it is not uncommon for these attorneys to also share a single phone system. This type of arrangement initially can be both convenient and functional for the practice. However, as caseloads and demands increase, these shared systems can start to become inhibiting and even costly. Unfortunately, most firms don’t truly realize their systems are inefficient until they have a reason to look for a new one.

Pat Hoover, a Rockville, Maryland-based attorney who recently turned his sole proprietorship into a limited liability corporation, found out just how outdated his shared system was when he moved into a new space. Hoover, whose firm HooverLaw, LLC specializes in youth/juvenile cases, says his new advanced system “opened up a whole new world for my practice, taking it from horse and buggy times to the modern age. Plus, it was surprisingly affordable,” adds Hoover.

The shared system Hoover was previously using offered little flexibility, and it had an antiquated voice messaging system—a separate, cumbersome box provided through his phone carrier that could only hold up to 30 messages. Additionally, he had to pay a monthly fee for the voice messaging service.

Enhanced voice mail features are now available through most modern office communications servers or private branch exchange (PBX) systems. Yet for firms like Hoover’s, having a system that is flexible enough to adapt to the busy schedules of its users is key.

Being Mobile Has Its Benefits
In a small firm, where each attorney handles a large caseload and can spend as much as half the day on the phone, reachability and convenience should be essential functions of any office telecommunications system. This need is accentuated when you consider that in today’s 24/7 society, most clients have come to expect instant responses and immediate access at all times.

A mobile extension is a popular mobility application that can help on-the-go associates remain reachable while offsite. This advanced feature allows incoming calls to office extensions to ring simultaneously on cellular or other remote phones. It also allows attorneys to use their mobile phones as full-featured desk handsets. For instance, when a call is placed from a mobile phone, the call can appear as though it is coming directly from the attorney’s office.

Connectivity and responsiveness can be further enhanced with the integration of an email gateway. For example, a firm can set its system to automatically record and forward incoming voicemails into the office email server and out to individual cell phones. This allows attorneys and office employees with web-enabled cell phones to immediately replay messages and promptly respond to their clients.

For small firms that have remote workers or affiliated professionals in satellite offices, IP (Internet Protocol) phones are ideal. In the past, communications servers or PBX systems for the most part connected to the outside world using only traditional phone lines. The growing popularity of voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, which transmits phone calls over the Internet, has made IP phones a viable option. Adding IP phones to a new or existing LAN is a cost-effective way to leverage a single communications platform.

To reduce monthly telecom costs and recurring phone carrier charges, SIP trunking can be added. A SIP trunk is a service offered by an ITSP (Internet Telephony Service Provider). SIP trunking uses Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) to establish voice communication between the ITSP and a company’s communications server. With SIP trunks, expenses are reduced because calls essentially avoid the costly public switched telephone network. Further cost savings can be realized if both the originating and receiving parties use SIP to establish voice communication. These calls can travel on the Internet for virtually no charge—the only costs in these instances typically being from the ITSP provider.

Creating a More Efficient Office
Although network options such as VoIP and SIP trunks can lead to cost savings, converged office solutions can bring added operational efficiencies. For instance, PC-based call management applications allow professionals to prioritize calls, manage messages, expedite internal appointment scheduling, track contacts, and access call histories. This means more billable time is spent on handling client work instead of administrative functions.

With regard to client billing and activity tracking, inbound call reporting is another attractive feature of many advanced solutions. Additionally, time billing software programs such as Time Matters® can be integrated with most modern phone systems.
 
Call recording features give lawyers the flexibility to record client conversations and save them in client-specific folders for retrieval at any time. This not only enhances client recordkeeping, but also simplifies the collaborative process among associates.

In general, many of today’s communications systems can be strategically configured to improve collaboration. For instance, the same email gateway that allows the forwarding of incoming voicemails into the office email server can conveniently deliver confidential faxes in need of review or approval to an associate’s desktop via email.

The deployment of auto attendant features is a perfect solution for firms looking to keep staffing costs to a minimum. It gives them the flexibility to eliminate the dedicated reception position and minimizes the need for after-hours call coverage. Because the auto attendant can provide prerecorded information on company location, hours, and directions, it reduces routine calls and allows revenue-generating and service-affecting calls to get through faster.

Finding the Right Communications Partner
These systems may be easy to use, but finding the right communications partner might not be as simple. A good partner will listen to your business goals and needs, and identify the best available solution to address these requirements. To help you fully leverage today’s feature-rich systems, it also is important for your prospective communications partner to have a general understanding of your industry and how a law firm typically operates. Familiarity with billing software as well as other operational systems will allow your partner to devise systems that fit comfortably within the context of your practice setting and even offer room to grow.

Another important communications partner offering is ongoing support. Some communications dealers will sell and install a system, and then you never see them again. Find a partner that is committed to being there when you need them and is willing to stand by its work. Don’t be afraid to ask for a five-year warranty. Finally, make sure the partner you choose is backed by a reputable brand and that it is certified by the manufacturer. The more versed your dealer is on the intricacies of your system, the more benefits you can reap from it in the long term.

Mike Rosen is the director of product marketing at Samsung BCS, an innovator in convergence technology that offers small-to-midsized businesses advanced, affordable OfficeServ™ communications solutions that combine traditional voice and data capabilities with wireline and wireless technologies.

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