Volume 19, Number 3
April/May 2002


Sweet Spot Desktops


The $5,000 Law Office: Ferrari Performance on a Chevy Budget

By Ross L. Kodner and Sheryn Bruehl

Enough to spend, but not too much; a substantial sum, but not an extravagant one...There may not be a technology speaker or writer alive who hasn't been asked, "What kind of technology can I buy for, oh, say...$5,000?" How that got to be the magic number, the stuff of myriad publications, countless CLEs, and endless hypothetical queries, we may never know. But somehow, throughout the evolution of technology, the $5,000 Law Office seems to remain near technology's sweet spot-not on the bleeding edge but not hopelessly behind the techno-curve.
As time goes by and law office technology evolves, what that princely sum will buy is more astounding every day-it is only the tip of an enormous iceberg of technology possibilities. Here are some guidelines on how to build a $5,000 law office that will suit pretty near your every need.

"If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up somewhere else."
- Yogi Berra

The first step in creating the $5,000 law office is to draft a technology road map, a plan. Too many lawyers put the cart before the proverbial horse at this critical stage of the process and start by scanning the ads in the Sunday paper for bargain computer systems. They debate questions about buying a CD-ROM drive or a DVD or about extended warranties. Occasionally they accidentally hit the nail on the head, but more often than not, they purchase the wrong equipment for their needs and spend far more (or even worse, less) than they should. The end result is that they accumulate a costly pile of hardware and software that actually causes more chaos than the obsolete system it replaces.

Only after you know your objectives can you intelligently discuss your technology options. Starting by asking what technology you should buy for a law office is like walking into a sporting goods store and announcing, "I'm going on vacation...what equipment do I need?" When trying to determine what automation updates and upgrades a law practice needs, be sure to consider specifics like the following questions: What procedures do we have for repeated tasks like file opening and closing? Are they efficient, or are we constantly duplicating our work? What features of our current systems drive everyone crazy? Which do we barely use? How much should we spend? Do we need professional guidance for our plan? How big a project will this be? What's our vision of the final product?
Your answers will uniquely apply to your law firm and the way you operate. This information will directly affect which hardware and software you buy, the training processes they will require, and how the project should be managed and timed.

Start by making a list of the things you'd like your technology to do for you. Don't worry about what is possible-brainstorm about how your dream office would run. Involve as many of the people who actually do the work in the office as you can, and be creative! You might, for example, want to be able to enter a client's address and personal information in the computer only once but have it available for every process: time and billing, document creation, telephone calls, etc. You might want to make address/information changes without having to open six programs, or have everything accessible on a Palm. Mary might want to be able to get a first draft at the push of a button, or to use voice recognition. Without a doubt, you would probably love to be able to receive Word documents that don't require hours of cleanup!

Next, candidly assess what you are up against with your "liveware"-your staff. Is everyone relatively techno-savvy, or do some partners use their computers for mood lighting because they can't figure out how to turn them off? People's previous experiences will color how well your technology initiatives will be received. How much time and tolerance will the practice allow for the learning curve associated with implementing new equipment and procedures? Who will manage the process-and how capable are they? Be sure to consider not only skill but also personality, communication skills, and available time. Assess whether it makes realistic sense to represent yourself pro se in the technology process or whether you should seek an outside consultant familiar with law firm technology who can help you avoid reinventing very expensive wheels.

"If you think hiring an expert is expensive, try hiring an amateur."
- Red Adair, oil firefighter, immortalized by John Wayne in Hellfighters

Before making your plan, make sure you have solicited feedback and carefully evaluated the suggestions of people in every aspect of your practice, from managing partner to file clerk. This will give you a comprehensive and realistic appraisal of your needs and refine your understanding of what is needed. Just as importantly, involving everyone will help invest them in the plotting of the new technology plan, which will smooth the acceptance process and heighten everyone's enthusiasm for mastery of it.

"When you don't know that you don't know, it's a lot different than when you do know that you don't know. He knows now that he doesn't know. Last year, he didn't know that."
- New England Patriots head coach Bill Parcels, on then second-year quarterback Drew Bledsoe

Now you are ready to find out what products and services are available that suit your needs and how realistically they can be implemented in your office. You can do this through an awful lot of research and trial and error, or you can consult a professional with specialized knowledge of not just technology but technology in the context of a law practice. This is a unique subset that covers a specific set of concerns about security and confidentiality, record retention, reliability, etc., as well as a substantial body of highly specialized software applications with varying utility, quality, and reliability.
This is the step that can be the most intuitive for lawyers, who spend a significant portion of their professional lives explaining the importance of their own specialized expertise and experience. Paying a premium rate for experience and professional skill with technology is, in the long run, far less expensive than creating a do-it-yourself fiasco or delegating the project to a less-experienced attorney with a slightly lower hourly rate. After all, if you were charged with capital murder, would you hire your state's top criminal defense lawyer or the rookie a month out of law school who never has seen the inside of a courthouse?
Few practicing attorneys are qualified to assess a firm's technology needs. Even fewer have the time to become familiar enough with a widerange of law office technologies to be able to research and fully evaluate appropriate products, make informed recommendations, and then oversee the implementation and training process to a satisfactory conclusion.
It makes far more sense-and can be far less expensive, no matter what the cost-to get professional help early in the process and save yourself from potentially endless frustration and time-consuming mistakes. (And did we mention "expensive"?)

"A lawyer's time and advice are his stock in trade."
- attributed to Abraham Lincoln

This admonition concerning the value of a lawyer's time is, if anything, even truer today. In a profession often driven by the billable hour or the volume and efficiency of contingency work, you cannot evaluate the costs or benefits of any technology proposal without factoring in the value of the time saved or spent by using it.
Never underestimate just how quickly that time adds up. At a billable rate of $200 per hour, just 20 minutes a day equals nearly $17,000 per year. So before you decide to bypass a document management program that costs $400 per user to "save" money, figure out just how much time you actually spend each day looking for documents or waiting for a secretary to find and bring them to you. If it's taking you just five minutes more than it would take electronically, that $400 "saving" will cost you more than $4,000.
The same is true for training. Often the hardest thing to convince even the most techno-savvy office to budget for is training. Yet it is the one line item that will most benefit the firm. Buying software and hardware and then refusing to invest in training is like planting a field and refusing to water it or building a new house but forgetting to put electrical outlets in all the rooms. It just makes no sense-none. Your staff will likely eke out enough functionality to survive, but most of the program's features will go to waste. Many will give up in frustration before learning even the basics…and then leave. Any experienced lawyer knows there is nothing more costly and disruptive than staff turnover. Even just a few hours of customized training by a qualified person can yield the tips and tricks that will save time and money. The guideline cited most frequently is to plan to spend at least as much on training as you spend on the software itself.

If you absolutely cannot afford to bring in a trainer, at the very least give your staff whatever resources are available to you (product manuals, online training courses, third-party books) and make time for them to spend learning the features of the program. Try to find a potential teacher in your office willing to follow user groups and listservs, read magazines and product newsletters, and generally stay current on tips, tricks, and advice for using your most critical applications. Some experts caution, however, that if you can't afford the proper guidance and training, you can't afford the project.

Technology investment is an ongoing process. You cannot purchase law office technology the way you purchase a desk and expect to have it covered for years to come. Like any other tool in your office, software and hardware function most efficiently when they are current and in good repair. In fact, technology requires more care and feeding than other equipment. It's just the nature of the beast to require updates, upgrades, and bug fixes, more disk storage space, and larger backup units-plus faster computers every few years. As you and your staff become more comfortable with the undeniable benefits of technology, you will want to automate additional areas and incorporate new features and gadgets.

Be as forward thinking as you can about your practice needs: How many staff will you have in two years? How many new files will you open next year? In two years? Then find the most powerful and affordable products you can. That balance of price and function is the sweet spot between paying a premium to have the newest/coolest/ fastest/biggest whatever and having it but replacing whatever you bought in short order because nothing will run on it and you have a severe case of buyer's remorse.
The only problem with the sweet spot is that it is a very fast-moving target. What cost $3,000 today may be down to $1,200 by the end of next year. But by then, it may not be worth even that to you-newer products undoubtedly will better fit your situation.

Once you have some specific products in mind, you may want to consider how best to pay for them and how to budget for ongoing costs. It really doesn't matter whether a new system will save you one dollar or one million if you can't afford it in the first place. On the other hand, getting and implementing the proper technology for your office could well be the thing to turn your busy but struggling law practice from a weekly battle to make payroll into a profitable entity.

If you know what you need, have run the numbers, and know that it will help make you money, consider "smart leasing" as an option. (See "The Thrill of Acquisition, The Agony of Paying for It: How Law Firms Should Use 'Smart Leasing' to Buy New Technology," Ross L. Kodner, www.microlaw.com/cle, for additional information.)
But this does not mean those high-interest leases from major PC vendors (what those of us in the know call "sucker" leases). The magazine deal that touts the laptop of your dreams for "only" $79 a month is probably far from what it appears. Do the math; in all likelihood, you would pay more in interest than by using a high-rate credit card. We are talking about experienced equipment lessors who can offer high buyouts and good terms because they have a market for reselling your two- and three-year-old equipment. This works best when you get the highest-possible buyout and, therefore, the lowest possible payment for the expected useful life of your technology. At the end of the term, let it go and replace it with new equipment that requires nearly the same payment. The high buyout ensures you aren't tempted to hang onto obsolete technology; the ongoing lease payment remains just another part of your regular operating expense, avoiding the trauma of making five- and six-figure technology purchases every three or four years. Although you may not be able to spend $5,000 today (even to realize that $17,000 cost savings we mentioned earlier), most firms can easily come up with $175 to $200 per month to accomplish the same thing.
If leasing isn't an option for you, look at other creative financing options, from bank loans to low-interest credit card offers, that give you the option to divide the payments into manageable chunks. The potential of the technology available to you in this price range today is truly nothing short of magic. If you budget thoughtfully, choose wisely, and implement fully, the $5,000 law office investment can radically change the way you practice law and, even better, the way you feel about practicing law.

Things to Consider
Case management systems. Case management systems are central information repositories and can be the single most effective investment to save time and money in your practice. If all your other software connects with and shares information with your case manager, you can achieve law practice nirvana: a single entry point for client and case information. Therefore, it's especially important to research thoroughly the available products. The good news is that most are well under $500 per person, and even the most expensive are seldom more than $1,500 even with training and planning time.

Word processing. The word processing wars are more or less over, and Microsoft Word and WordPerfect are the victors. Because law firms use both, you should have at least one license for each product in your firm (See Kodner, "Becoming WPA: Word Processing Ambidextrous-Down With the WP Wars! Up With Format Compatibility!" at www.microlaw.com/cle.) Software products for the $5,000 law office include Amicus Attorney from Gavel & Gown Software; TimeMatters from Data.TXT, Inc.; CaseMaster from Software Technology, Inc.; and AbacusLaw from Abacus Data Systems.

Document management systems. In a profession where the product is expertise bolstered by lots and lots of words, being able to find and leverage prior work product efficiently is the key to profitability. It is also the key to producing consistent, high-quality work but still having a reasonable quality of life. Document management systems organize your documents in an electronic file cabinet that lets even technophobes locate work product. On the back end, they index your documents so that you can search by keywords to find exactly what you need. These systems can be purchased for as little as $410 per seat, but in the small firm office, Worldox from World Software best fits the bill. (See Kodner, "Document Management Systems: Why Your Small Firm Can't Afford NOT to DMS," at www.microlaw.com/cle.)

Billing and accounting systems. There is no room for risk taking or excitement in time and billing software: If you don't bill, you don't get paid. Be specific about your needs, choose only from products by established and reputable companies, and be sure that the product has local, experienced support available as a backup.
Protection. Do not overlook data backup-and don't be penny wise and pound foolish in making your choice. Invest in enough high-quality backup capability to make an uncompressed, unattended, automated backup of all the information on your computer system on a daily basis. This means all your data and all your programs-everything, without fail. Also, regularly test the system's ability to restore the information. (See Kodner, "Protecting Your Firm from Disaster: Data Backup and Electrical Protection" at www.microlaw.com/cle.)
Power surges can destroy your system, so every component should be plugged into some sort of electrical protection device. Quality is key-don't rely on the $5 power strip from your local grocery. Generally, a surge protector that costs less than $15 is not worth buying. Consider an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for your primary PC or a network server-and one for your phone system's controller also.

Viruses are everywhere. More and more criminals are flooding our computers with malicious programs that can cause all sorts of damage and wasted time. Be sure you have capable antivirus software on every computer in the office, or subscribe to online antivirus services like McAfee's Clinic (www.mcafee.com). Then, with religious zeal, update your antivirus software every single day so you will be protected against the latest nasty strains. Much or all of this update process can be automated; if you don't know how to implement this, ask someone who does. Eventually, there may be a new tort-negligent infliction of virus distress-but for now, thinking you are not vulnerable to something so foreseeable and potentially damaging is foolish.

Specialty software. An enormous range of practice area-specific software is available, covering everything from personal injury and bankruptcy to tax and estate planning, real estate, and family law, to name just a few. There are even programs for judges and corporate or government law departments that don't operate the same as traditional firms. Specialty programs are the power tools of our trade and usually are designed and maintained by people who are intimately familiar with the specialized needs of that practice area. If you spend any substantial amount of your time in a particular practice area, be sure to check out the available specific tools.

Printers. Although a high-speed laser printer with multiple paper bins is the best choice, it may not fit into the $5,000 budget. A reasonable substitute might be a multifunction device that provides laser printing as well as scanning, copying (perhaps as a backup to a primary copier), and faxing. As a general rule, multifunction devices below $500 aren't worth the money. Two standout devices are Brother's MFC-9700, which offers very capable 15 ppm laser printing and color scanning, copying (black and white), and heavy-duty faxing for about $575; and Hewlett-Packard's Laserjet 3200.

Personal digital asssistants (PDAs). Once you're addicted to having information at your fingertips in the office, you'll want it when you're out. Think you need a notebook computer? A PDA with remote access to your calendar and Rolodex may be all you need. Review the functions you typically crave when you're out of the office; if they're limited to calendaring and addresses, a $300 Palm-type device makes more sense than a $3,000 laptop. (Consider getting a unit that uses the Palm operating system-it is the most popular and has the most applications available.)

Important resource. Be sure to acquire a copy of the ABA Law Practice Management Section's latest book, Flying Solo, Third Edition, edited by Joel Bennett, for some excellent technology coverage. Visit www.abanet.org/ lpm for ordering information.


Ross L. Kodner is a "recovering lawyer" and president of MicroLaw, Inc., a legal technology consultancy with national scope, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is a member of the editorial board of GPSolo's Technology and Practice Guide. Ross can be reached at rkodner@microlaw.com, www.microlaw.com, or 414/476-8433. Sheryn Bruehl practiced law as a partner at Bruehl & Chapman, PC, in Norman, Oklahoma, and now speaks extensively about legal technology trade publications.

 

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