GPSOLO December 2009
Software That Automates Routine Office Tasks
Technology has changed greatly during my years as a law firm technology consultant. We have gone from a clunky “desktop” computer that could do word processing on dual eight-inch disks with a capacity of up to 320 KB to PDA devices that can tell us our location to within several feet. Today’s gadgets and software tools are designed to target three major areas of automation: number crunching, cataloging and organizing information, and access to information.
Number crunching, by today’s standard, is the ability to manage large volumes of numbers and calculations enhanced by charts, graphs, and reports. It isn’t just about spreadsheets, either. Think of all the financial tasks that law firms must handle today: billing, accounting, ledgers, accounts receivable, accounts payable, financial statements, bank reconciliations. Law firms might need to do anything from generating a closing statement on a real estate transaction to sending a bill to a client or a statement with details at the end of a contingency case.
Billing and accounting solutions designed especially for small firms are readily available today—and are just as powerful as those systems used in large firms. A lawyer or staff person can enter time and costs and instantly produce a bill that can be e-mailed to the client; can run reports to show average billing rate or to see how much the firm has received in payments in a given period of time; can run reports that calculate a timekeeper’s productivity and realization; and most importantly, can track those accounts receivable and past-due amounts.
Billing and accounting systems such as Tabs3 ( www.tabs3.com) and PCLaw ( www.lexisnexis.com/pclaw) have been around for many years. With each new release the developers add more and more rich features for better and faster processing and managing of financial information. These systems can facilitate the electronic billing requirements imposed by insurance companies and other large corporate clients. Client billing statements can be printed or sent via e-mail for faster processing. Payments can be received via checks, cash, wire transfer, or credit card.
Payroll systems compute the tax and other deductions quickly and easily to produce payroll checks or handle direct deposit. IRS and State Reporting requirements can be printed on their proper forms simply by using a payroll system and plain paper.
These systems, which are generally regarded as mainstays for solos and small firms, are purchased with licensing and use restrictions. Many of the software developers also offer annual maintenance plans providing users with technical support and, in many cases, automatic updates and upgrades.
In addition to the traditional purchasing of licenses for billing and accounting systems, there are subscription-based choices—also called “software as a service” (SaaS). These “cloud” computing solutions, such as Rocket Matter ( www.rocketmatter.com) and Clio ( www.goclio.com), are maintained off-site, so they can be accessed anywhere the user has an Internet connection. Solos and small firms can subscribe to these systems without having to invest in technology infrastructure such as a file server, backup system, or networking solutions. Technical support and updates are included in the subscription and are managed completely by the vendor, reducing the need for fee-based technical support for solos and small firms.
In the long run, cloud computing may not be less expensive, but it can be attractive to start-up firms not ready to purchase and install servers and network with backup capability.
Cataloging and Organizing Information
Technology has made the cataloging and organizing of information efficient, easy, and portable. Database products have enhanced our ability to track all types of data.
Litigation support solutions such as Summation ( www.summation.com), CaseMap ( www.casesoft.com/casemap), and Concordance ( http://law.lexisnexis.com/concordance) make the managing of trial discovery and depositions accessible. These database products make case review a snap. Digests and summaries can be indexed and managed for use before and during mediation or trial. Documents and discovery can be cataloged and annotated for mediation and trial preparation.
The addition of a scanner makes such systems even more useful. Software tools for taking a scanned PDF image and transforming it into a searchable and indexed document include Adobe Acrobat ( www.adobe.com), PDFDocs ( www.docscorp.com), and OmniPage ( www.nuance.com).
Practice management solutions such as Time Matters ( http://pm.lexisnexis.com), Practice-Master ( www.tabs3.com), Amicus Attorney ( www.amicusattorney.com), AbacusLaw ( www.abacuslaw.com), and others are designed to manage and catalog all types of data. Practice management software is designed to track events, tasks, lists of contacts, and cases. The software tracks information relevant to cases and contacts, including phone messages, notes, e-mail, documents, and other pertinent information.
Many firms are trying to use Outlook as a practice management tool, but it lacks the robust capabilities of tracking relationships. Events and tasks can be viewed on a calendar but cannot be viewed in the context of a specific case or matter. Unlike practice management systems, Outlook does not have audit tracking, which records the history of specific changes and who made them.
In a practice management system, e-mails are moved from a personal in-box into the centralized database so they become a part of the case as well as related to the contact. Once in the database, the information is shared by all users working in the system.
Another valuable solution that should be considered by all firms is document management. Documents that need to be tracked and cataloged include not only those a firm creates—such as correspondence, pleadings, memos, spreadsheets, presentations, and other word-processing and spreadsheet outputs—but also those a firm receives, such as scanned letters and e-mails and their attachments.
Document management systems such as Worldox GX ( www.worldox.com) and Inter-woven ( www.interwoven.com) make the indexing, searching, and organizing of documents manageable. No searching for the missing paper file because it did not get put back into the file drawer. No flipping through pages and pages to find something. No running to the copy machine to make copies. Most importantly, no dragging around heavy reams of paper.
Other document management systems such as Net-Documents ( www.netdocuments.net) offer the same ability to categorize and save all types of documents, but as a cloud solution.
Document assembly products such as Hot-Docs ( www.hotdocs.com) make generating form documents a snap. Hot-Docs integrates well into Practice-Master and Time Matters by utilizing the data in those database products to complete the forms.
Access to Information
The third benefit of our technology today is rapid access to information. We are no longer dependent on books that are out of date as soon as they ship. The Internet is a vast resource center. Tools such as Google ( www.google.com), Ask ( www.ask.com), Yahoo! ( www.yahoo.com), MSN ( www.msn.com), and Bing ( www.bing.com) enable us to find facts, opinions, news, definitions, people, places, and things.
E-mail travels over the Internet to reach recipients in mere seconds, even if it is across the world. This rapid exchange of information has become the major communication device on the globe.
Today, law firms or businesses that do not have a website are not taken seriously. It is expected—a Must Have. Every law firm, no matter how small, needs to have a web presence.
Faster than a speeding bullet, social networks have turned professional. No longer just social, networking sites such as Twitter ( www.twitter.com), Linked-In ( www.linkedin.com), Plaxo ( www.plaxo.com), and even Facebook ( www.facebook.com ) are becoming just as important as having a website or writing and responding to e-mail.
Protecting It All
Using technology is something we often take for granted. But there is always the unexpected. Systems do fail, and the only protection you have against a system failure is the ability to restore from a backup. Backup systems and business continuation strategies can be complicated and expensive. Backup systems are generally tape systems. These tape systems can fail, and in my years of consulting experience, firms generally don’t verify that their tape systems are working properly. I have seen firms lose a year or more of data. This can be disastrous.
Other systems can back up from hard drive to hard drive. Of course, this is only as good as the ability to get to that hard drive if needed.
Co-locations are used by firms to store mirror images of their systems in off-site bunker locations.
Small firms can have a less costly off-site storage solution by subscribing to some of the off-site backup cloud systems, such as those offered by EVault ( www.i365.com), IDrive ( www.idrive.com), eSilo ( www.esilo.com), and Carbonite ( www.carbonite.com).
There are plenty of other tools that a lawyer might want in a technology toolbox. Such things as digital dictation, speech recognition solutions, and practice-area-specific databases. When I create a Must-Have list for a solo or small firm, it looks something like this:
• Microsoft Office
• Backup system
• Billing and accounting
• Practice management
• Document management
• Web presence
Once these essential tools are incorporated into the firm, then other, optional software and gadgets can be added. Having the right tools can manage data faster and more efficiently. Entering time and sending out bills promptly result in better collections. Certainly entering a payment received from a client in one place—one time—is far more efficient than entering it in several places.
These are the tools that make a lawyer competitive in a highly competitive marketplace. Having them will automate routine office tasks and help with organization and client management. Cutting corners to “get by” without them will result in hours of frustration and stress. Remember: The more of your time that you spend actually practicing law—rather than searching for information or documents—the more hours you can bill. There are more solo and small firm start-ups than ever before, and investing in the proper tools is vital to success.
Sandra H. Adams is president of Onsiteam Advisors. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.