General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

 

The Business of Law ®/Edward Poll

Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a certified management consultant in Los Angeles who advises lawyers and law firms on how to deliver their services more effectively while increasing profits. He is the author of

Secrets of the Business of Law: Successful Practices for Increasing Your Profits and The Profitable Law Office Handbook: Attorney’s Guide to Successful Business Planning . To comment on this column, call 800/837-5880 or send e-mail to edpoll@lawbiz.com .

Staying in Business, Even on Vacation

My wife and I have a second home in the mountains of Mammoth, California. We drive there from Los Angeles periodically throughout the year to hike, bike, ski, and basically unwind. Because it was impractical to do so in the past, I never thought of it as an office. It was a place to escape to, a place to leave the business behind.

Of course, work for a consultant doesn’t really ever stop, so whenever we left for the mountains, my assistant held down the fort back at the office, answering phones and handling the various needs of my clients. If there were a challenge or question, I was always reachable by phone.

Then, when my wife became my assistant, I was suddenly faced with a problem. Since my assistant would now be traveling with me, this would leave my regular office unattended. I realized that for me to continue to take vacations—with my wife—I needed to come up with a way to bring the work—and the world—with me to the mountains. For the first time, I truly needed to be a “wired, virtual consultant.” Someone who wouldn’t be chained to the office, but who was still present and available to clients at all times. This is how I did it, and the lessons can apply to most solo or small firm practitioners.

Simple Solutions

I looked into various options to keep the office functioning and be able to access our communications by remote control. A simple solution is the answering machine. Make sure you have one with sufficient capacity to accept as many calls as you might expect. When limited-capacity machines are “full,” they cannot receive new calls and messages. That means, also, that you will not be able to remotely retrieve your existing messages. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives recently found this limited capacity an advantage when they shut themselves off from their constituents during the impeachment vote. However, my business—and the business of most lawyers—is client-driven. Without service or access to prompt responses, clients will consult others.

As an alternative, most local phone companies now have their own voice-mail systems that allow you to check your messages. The advantage of such a system is that there is no hardware to buy up front or to fail. A disadvantage is that you pay a never-ending monthly fee for the service.

Other tools that can substitute for an answering machine or service are the call-forwarding or “off-premise line” features available from many phone companies. This feature takes the original call and transfers it to a different number—a remote office, for example—without the calling party being aware that a transfer took place.

More Equipment

Your personal computer can be reached from laptops in the field by using software to dial into your modem. Be sure the PC remains “on,” and that the computer is equipped with a high-speed modem that permits access from a remote location. Remote access allows you to inspect your hard drive and eliminates the need to carry heavy research, books, or forms with you.

I was concerned about receiving faxes in my office while away. I did not want people to expect a response if I didn’t know they had sent the fax in the first place. To solve this problem, I purchased a fax machine that can be programmed to forward the fax message to the second location. Of course, this required a fax in our vacation home. I also added an answering machine to handle the calls while I am skiing. I then bought a device that can distinguish between a regular call and a fax transmission. This made it possible to use both machines on one phone line.

While I used to travel with my laptop but without a printer, I gradually realized that I like to feel and touch the product of my creative energy. A piece of paper allows me to see the work the way the client will see it and make the appropriate changes. I felt that it was time to have a printer at the vacation home. It so happened that my “assistant” had a small Hewlett-Packard inkjet printer, which has turned out to be fully sufficient to meet the requirements of limited use during a vacation. And what a difference it has made! I can now output a hard copy that I can edit or fax. Of course, I can also fax directly from the laptop.

Providers Offer Better Services

Another change that has helped me is that AOL and other e-mail providers are continuously expanding their coverage and setting up local access dial-in numbers. This significantly reduces the cost of “logging on” to receive or send e-mails in remote locations. And don’t forget that AOL allows you to download your e-mail off-line, which further reduces telephone costs.

And let’s not forget the basic telephone. Did I say “basic”? There is nothing basic about the phone any longer. Cellular phones provide easy access from almost anywhere. New, small phones are beginning to combine PCS, digital, and analog technology, allowing calls from many more locations then before. AT&T now offers connections at ten cents per minute anywhere in the United States without roaming charges. This makes the television commercial about the woman conducting business on the beach with her children at her side a real possibility. Except I prefer the image of skiing on the mountain while completing the finishing touches on a major transaction.

Even more devices and gadgets are available for the technologically advanced, but they are not a requirement in order to be effective. Even with very basic tools—answering machine, laptop computer, printer, fax machine, and, of course, a telephone (land line and cellular)—I can now vacation and still be in business. I can be mobile, balance my life with other interests, and still serve my clients, who really don’t care where I am as long as I’m available and can respond to any request within two to four hours. I’ve expanded my base to two offices, and all of this is seamless to the client. I am skiing and still keeping up with my clients without ever missing a beat. Now that’s progress! CL
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