You may recall the parable of the ant and the grasshopper. The ant worked hard all summer long, building his house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper mocked the ant, while laughing and playing the summer away. When winter arrived, the ant was warm and well fed. The grasshopper, however, had no food or shelter, and so he died out in the cold.
What you may not have known is that both the ant and the grasshopper practiced law. Several years into their legal careers, they decided they wanted the opportunities and freedom that comes with hanging out their own shingles. Both had been exposed to and used various technologies to support their legal activities while employed by their former firms. The ant recognized that if she were going to succeed as a solo practitioner, she needed to use technology to enable her to work more efficiently than she did before. The grasshopper, however, felt that he didn’t have the time to get up to speed on all the latest legal technologies. We all know, of course, how their stories ended.
It would be easy to take the grasshopper’s approach, feel overwhelmed by available technology, and decide to simply ignore it. Perhaps there are those among us who have felt at one time (or more often) that if we can just work harder, we can compensate for our older or less-efficient technology. Allowing these feelings to go on too long, however, can result in our finding ourselves “out in the cold” when the winter comes.
How can we ensure that we don’t find ourselves in this position? Ultimately, it boils down to one key principle:
Choose technology wisely and use the technology you employ in your practice daily, so that it becomes integral to your operation.
Like the ant, we must take the time to wisely acquire technology and then use it on a daily basis in order to be prepared for whatever might come our way in the future. Whether we focus our practices on litigation or transactional law, civil or criminal, technology can help us succeed if we use it appropriately and efficiently.
As a relatively new solo practitioner myself, I’ve had to confront the myriad technology issues and choices recently. I hope that by sharing my experience with you I can help you make wise decisions as you integrate technology into your practice.
Starting Out: The Candy Store Conundrum
Before I left my prior position, I began my evaluation of the technologies and tools I should consider purchasing to assist me in launching my practice. I knew I had to purchase prudently because I wouldn’t have that regular paycheck coming in anymore, and I am not independently wealthy. Walking into a nearby Staples, however, I felt like an eight-year-old kid walking into a candy store—so many things looked appealing! And, of course, every computer and software package explained why it was critical to my future success. So, which to choose?
As I lacked a sufficient background to easily make the determination myself, I looked for help. In a larger law firm, you may find an IT (Information Technology) person or even a whole IT department. In a small firm or solo practice, you are the IT person. If you do not have a background in technology, you can find help and guidance on technology from consultants, some of whom specialize in the legal industry, or from other and more technologically savvy practitioners. Solo practitioners sometimes form communities to share information about such things as the identity of a reliable consultant or ultimate technology decisions. The ABA’s Solosez listerve is such a community.
For a variety of reasons, I recommend that you look into signing up for Solosez if you do not already belong. Contacts I made through Solosez generously helped me work through some of my technology decisions and problems. That assistance made me a much more intelligent technology consumer and user. The bottom line: if you don’t know what you are doing, get some help. Figure out what you really need and can use before you invest your money and time. To sign up, please visit www.abanet.org/solo/solosez.html.
If you want to learn more about legal technology yourself, I can make some suggestions to you as well. First, you will also be well served by spending some time reading. For example, the December 2003 issue of GPSolo/Technology & Practice Guide (published by the General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division of the ABA) contains numerous articles and suggestions providing excellent advice in making basic technology decisions. The issue is available online at www.abanet.org/genpractice/magazine/dec2003/toc.html. Other magazines that may be of interest to you are Law Office Computing and Law Practice Management (published by the Law Practice Management Section of the ABA). Second, attend legal technology shows or CLE programs addressing technology subjects. The ABA annually presents TechShow in Chicago. That is one of the best places to go to obtain exposure to the technology itself as well as to attend classes presented by knowledgeable practitioners and consultants who explain how the technology can serve you best. You can locate other programs of a similar nature on a regional, state or sometimes even local basis.
Technology Building Blocks
After sorting through all the information, I was able to divide my technology requirements into three categories:
a . Should-Haves
c . Wait-to-Have’s
Unless you have unlimited resources, learning to categorize and prioritize your technology needs and wants among these three classifications is critical to your successful acquisition, deployment, and utilization of technology. Though the items that fall into these categories will differ somewhat for everyone, below are some starting points.
This list includes technology you really have to have in order to function with reasonable efficiency.
|A computer (desktop vs. laptop depends on your office situation and work habits)|
|Reliable printer (a laser if you will be printing a lot of documents in your practice)|
|Word processing software|
|Domain name host|
|Data back-up technology (hardware and software)|
|Fax capabilities (physical machine or virtual, e.g., e-Fax)|
|Time and billing software|
|Access to legal research online|
|Personal digital assistant (PDA, such as an iPAQ or Palm)|
|Contact management software|
This list includes technologies that might be on some lawyers’ Should-Have lists. For some areas of law such as litigation and real estate transactions, where paper volumes can be overwhelming, a self-feeding scanner should be on the Should-Have list. Similarly, without regard to the nature of your practice, if you seek to cut down on paper consumption and move towards a paperless office, a scanner moves up to your Should-Have list.
|Wireless local area network (Wireless LAN)|
|Legal database software (e.g., CaseMap)|
|Chronology-mapping software (e.g., TimeMap)|
|Scanner (preferably with automatic document feed)|
|Voice recognition-based typing package|
Recent improvements in technology make it easier to solve some of the problems by acquiring a reasonably good quality multifunction device that incorporates the features of a printer, copier, fax machine, and scanner in a single piece of equipment.
Wireless LANs either can be set up simply, or bury a lawyer in technical complications, especially if he or she has never set up a network before. Nevertheless, they can prove well worth the implementation pains in some situations. For example, if you are in an office where it is not possible or prohibitively expensive to hardwire a network, or when you are preparing a case for trial or meeting with a client, a wireless LAN can enable you to use a laptop and meet in various locations throughout your office as circumstances dictate while still accessing the Internet, legal research sites, and your network.
This list consists of things that would be nice to have but are not essential for your practice. My practice is not heavily oriented toward litigation. For lawyers heavily involved with litigation, however, some of these items might make their Should-Have list, since technology can substantially enhance trial presentations.
|Wireless wide-area data/Internet service|
Now What? Organizing for the Effective Use of Technology
Once you have acquired the technology you will use in your practice, you will want to integrate it into your practice to maximize the benefits. Integration of technology into your practice requires some planning to achieve maximum effectiveness. No matter what decisions you make regarding the technology you employ, it does you no good until you get it out of the box and put it to work for you. To use it effectively, you must first learn how it works.
Take a little time to read the manual to learn the features of the software or hardware you purchased. It will save you time and frustration in the long run. You will find that the technology works much better for you when you know its features and how to operate it. Manufacturers spend a fair amount of money preparing user manuals. They do so for a reason. Simply put, very few pieces of hardware operate so intuitively that you can just turn them on and operate all the features efficiently. Fax machines require programming; copiers have special features to learn. All computers are similar, but each has its own peculiarities.
When it comes to software, don’t just install it one day and expect it to be fully functional in your practice the next. Take the time to learn it and to make sure that your staff learns it before you try to run your practice on it. You can actually get training on many major programs. At least go through the tutorials that usually accompany significant software pieces to ensure that you understand the basics of how to use the software. Allow staff paid time to learn the programs. The efficiency you gain as a result of this will pay for itself many times over. Once you and your staff have learned the software operation, integrate it into your practice and use it regularly.
Keeping an Ear to the Ground: What’s Beyond the Horizon?
Finally, where do we go from here? Now that you have set up your office and employ the technologies that work for you, you might feel the temptation to quit worrying about new and emerging technologies. Well, don’t!
Just as you can tell a train is coming before you can see it by “listening” to the vibrations of the rails (this practice is not recommended if the train is actually visible), lawyers need to listen to technological vibrations. This is accomplished by being aware of the technology applications and uses around you. If the court system in which you practice often has implemented or is about to implement electronic filing as an option, understand that the technology that allows it will not go away. More likely it will become mandatory down the line. The sooner you learn and employ the technology, the sooner you will benefit from its efficiencies. As technology develops and new technology becomes available, consider whether you can gain a competitive advantage in your area of practice by adopting the new technology platform before other lawyers; then let your clients and prospective clients know you have this capability. Often you can turn the technology into a marketing asset.
A word of warning, however: being an “early adopter” has some potential risks. We sometimes refer to early adopters as being at the “bleeding edge” of technology. By that we mean that they go through the hassle and trouble of sorting out the problems so that later adopters don’t have to do it. For most lawyers, being an early adopter with respect to technology will not help your productivity or your bottom line. On the other hand, you don’t want to be the only firm in town not using a particular technology. Most lawyers will find that getting into useful and beneficial technological advances will work best if they wait until the technology has proven itself before adopting it in their practices.
David Berndt practices law in Norton, Massachussetts. Note: The author does not have any financial interest in any of the named brands or products. Nor does he intend by his reference to promote or recommend them.