Starting your own legal practice? Smart IT decisions are critical to future success
Whether you are starting your own firm fresh out of law school or are leaving your old firm behind, there are crucial decisions you need to make at the outset to put your fledgling legal practice on the path to success. One of the biggest choices you’ll face is deciding on the technology tolls that will help you manage the business side of your practice to free you up to spend more time doing work for clients and building your client list.
The good news is that you have the opportunity to save yourself years of frustration by making some good choices at the start.
Understanding your own comfort level and abilities with respect to technology is critical to this process, whether you are starting up or starting over. The good news is that you have the opportunity to save yourself years of frustration by making some good choices at the start.
Below are four checklists from a recent edition of GPSolo eReport that can guide you in your selection of practice management tools and technology to get your new law firm started out on the right foot.
Client, case and matter management needs
If you are starting a brand new firm and don’t have any clients, your needs will be very different from a lawyer who might be starting over with a book of clients. Your ability to have accurate record keeping is critical for communicating with your clients on the status of pending matters and to protect yourself by recording all communications, including email, notes and phone conversations. There are a number of questions to ask when evaluating which practice management technology is right to help you keep track of client, case and matter information:
- Does the vendor offer a professional service to bring your data in to help minimize the time it takes to get your firm up and running? How much of this data is electronic versus hard copy?
- How much of the data that you track for a client and matter can be tracked electronically? If you have a client intake form, how much of that information can you store in the practice management system?
- Does the practice management system integrate or work with your email and calendaring client (e.g., Outlook)?
- Does the practice management system integrate or work with other third-party software important to your practice, e.g., Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat?
- Is there a robust search mechanism to help with conflicts of interest or retrieving information?
Billing and accounting requirements
Depending on your practice area, you may or may not have the luxury of determining how to bill your clients. You might also have clients who need to pay you with a credit card and others who have a trust account. Following are a list of variables you may need your billing and accounting system to manage:
- Does the system help you meet your clients’ billing requirements? Hourly, flat rate, contingency, retainer billing, electronic versus printed, etc.?
- Can the bills be personalized for the firm and easily formatted? Can they be emailed?
- Does the billing system include trust accounting with security to help you control who gets access to what data?
- Does the system offer controls to help you stay in compliance with accounting nuances and trust accounting rules?
- Can you get meaningful information from reports to help you make better business decisions about your law firm?
Technology tolerance and personality
Knowing how you or others that will be part of your law firm feel about technology is one of the most important pieces of information you can use to inform your selection of the IT tools and system that will serve as the backbone of your legal practice.
- How much of your working day is spent in an office, and how much is spent on the go with smartphones and other electronic devices?
- How often do you switch between devices?
- What is your approach to new software? Do you seek out training to learn as much as you can upfront or jump in and learn as you go? Or do you shy away from learning new types of software altogether?
- Do you generally look for the most sophisticated software package, or do you prefer simplicity?
- Are you willing to invest time upfront to learn legal-specific software such as practice management, if it can increase your productivity later?
- Do you prefer to use consultants to get everything up and running or doing it yourself?
Which one of these statements best describe why you are starting your law firm and what you expect from it?
- I am starting my own firm, and I have ambitious goals for expanding the business and growing revenue.
- I am starting my own law firm because I enjoy the law and want to be my own boss, but freedom and quality of life are more important to me than high revenue growth and expansion.
- I am starting my own law firm to pay the bills, but I am not certain I really want to run my own firm for years and years.
There are many reasons that you might be starting your own law firm, and spending a little bit of time upfront to help you assess your goals and technology needs can help minimize headaches further down the road. Take this opportunity to make good choices that will give you the best chance for success and that can help you avoid malpractice claims and other nightmares resulting from sloppy management of your legal practice.
GPSolo eReport is a publication of the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.
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