Volume 19, Number 8
Going Digital, Solo Style
By David Leffler
The events of September 11 here in New York City have left me feeling particularly vulnerable. In addition to worrying about the physical safety of my family, I am concerned about the possible destruction of my office, located one block away from the Empire State Building. Could I rebuild my law practice? What about client records and all of those agreement forms I've developed over the years for my practice?
This concern has made me focus even more overtly on the paper-to-digital migration that's been occurring slowly in my practice during the past five to ten years. The more my practice becomes digital, the more I can back up and keep in a secure offsite location. Disasters big and small can occur anywhere, so here are techniques I've developed that will be useful for any solo law firm practice. Most do not require any more equipment or software than a typical personal computer with Internet access, and no more instruction or training than reading this article.
A lot of solo attorneys tell me they print out e-mails they want to preserve and file them with the rest of their paper files. Considering the volume of e-mails we all get, those files can get pretty full in a short period of time.
All e-mail software allows users to save individual e-mails in subdirectories in an easy to read format-typically e-mail format (.eml), html format (.html), or text format (.txt). Open the mail you want to save, click File, then Save. Because the text format can be easily read by any word processor or even the Windows Notepad or Wordpad, I recommend saving it in text format.
Start each file name with the date, year/month/day format, so that the e-mails are sorted chronologically whenever you click the Open File box in your word processor. This nomenclature will automatically indicate the document is an e-mail, unless you already use the format for another document type, in which case consider inserting "eml" in the beginning of the file name. An e-mail received or sent on May 22, 2002, concerning revisions to a document might have the name 2002.05.22DocRev.txt. Then save the file in the client subdirectory.
Storing your e-mails this way enhances your ability to retrieve information quickly-no more having to physically flip through dozens of paper e-mail copies. Just click Open File, scroll down to the client subdirectory, open, and select the date of the specific e-mail. If you're not sure of the date, use the Preview feature included on most word processors, which allows you to see the first page of a document highlighted in the Open File box.
An archived e-mail can also be found by doing a word search with the Find utility. I was able to short-circuit a potential dispute with a client who claimed he'd never authorized me to speak about business matters with another individual. I knew this wasn't true, did a quick search on my PC, and resolved the issue by finding the relevant e-mail that authorized me to do so. I was able to quickly copy the contents of the old e-mail onto the Clipboard and then insert it into a new e-mail to my client.
How about an easy way to save all faxes received in digital format? You can do this by using Efax, located at www.efax.com, which is free if you don't mind using an out-of-area fax number, or $9.95 per month if you want a local number. Documents faxed to the number are automatically forwarded as e-mail attachments by Efax. I recommend paying the $9.95 per month because the local number looks more professional and doesn't force people to incur long-distance charges. You save more than the fee by not paying for a dedicated fax telephone line.
Do you cut out copies of relevant newspaper and magazine articles to file or send to clients? These days most major newspapers and magazines have some or all of their content available online that you can easily save to your hard drive, as either .html or .txt files. Save them as .txt files as long as the html formatting isn't too complex. One way to simplify html formatting is to click on the Printer-Friendly link provided by many sites. A quick way to send the article to a client is to use the similar e-mail link provided by many sites or the Send This Page feature available in Outlook. Just remember to observe any copyright restrictions imposed by publishers.
Get in the habit of asking for an electronic version of faxed, mailed, or messengered documents. Request this even for faxes sent by Efax, because Efax sends you image files, not searchable and editable text files.
Instead of taking client notes on yellow pads, start using your PC or laptop. Also consider transcribing or having your secretary enter notes taken offsite. Set up a "notes" document for each client. If you have contact management software, use the note-taking feature when you're on the phone.
Finally, start slowly with this migration to digital, or you might become overwhelmed and give up. Begin by saving e-mails, and take one step at a time from there. After some successes, consider purchasing hardware and software products that will make going digital even easier. Hiring a good consultant at this stage can be enormously helpful.
My paper files are looking thinner and thinner. Most documents are on my computer-accessible in seconds and now backed up regularly