Technology is changing the practice of law. From cloud computing to VoIP telecommunications to software as a service, everything is different now. With an Internet connection and a laptop, lawyers have access to the tools, client data, and virtually all of the information they need to service clients, from anywhere in the world, using technology that only a few years ago was out of reach to all but the biggest firms.
But what exactly are they doing? How are today’s solos and small firm lawyers using new (and old) technologies to become more efficient, to deliver better service, and to manage their time, client work, and marketing efforts? What’s working and what isn’t? And more important, what lessons can the rest of the pack learn from those who have embraced new technologies head on?
To get answers, we spoke with five solo/small firm lawyers about their technology: What they are using, how they are using it, and how technology is helping them overcome the challenges of their practice.
Cynthia Gilbert: Hyperion Law
Practice: High-technology patents
Firm size: Solo
Tech mantra: “Secure, trustworthy, cost-efficient”
With a degree in computer science and more than five years in network security solutions R&D at a global telecommunications provider before she became a lawyer, you’d expect Cynthia Gilbert to know her stuff when it comes to technology. And you’d be right. “I’m always looking out for new tools and solutions that can help me, and my clients, be more efficient. To find them, though, I don’t look at what other lawyers are doing. Instead, I look to entrepreneurs to see what I can learn from them.”
Gilbert’s practice is built around two key tools. For overall practice management, including billing, capturing and recording time, contacts, and calendaring, she uses Rocket Matter. “Whether I’m generating a customized invoice or importing calendar events and recording that meeting time, I access the Rocket Matter web service every day. And whether it’s a humorous video on yoga for lawyers with a reminder to de-stress or a friendly note from their south Florida employees with hurricane tips for their mid-Atlantic/New England customers, they go the extra mile to connect with customers, delivering not just a great product but outstanding service.” To manage the IP portfolios of her clients, she turns to Patrix. “It’s a great cloud-based package that handles some of the more esoteric work of a patent practice. It allows me to maintain electronic case files, generate new documents and client letters, and most importantly, it provides me and my clients with long-term, web-based access to their data.”
Also, Gilbert extensively uses Google Apps for Business. “My e-mail runs on Google Apps, which lets me use my own domain name without having to manage standalone technology. And because it’s cloud-based, I can access it wherever I am as long as I have an Internet connection.” Her Google Apps account is also tied into her Google Voice account, which further frees her from being tied to a single desk throughout the day: “Thanks to Google Voice, incoming calls ring on three different phones—all at the same time—so I never miss an important call from a client (or my mother).” To help her manage her Google Apps for Business data, she uses Backupify to back up her mail, contacts, and calendar entries, and Gist and Xobni to manage her contacts.
For her part, Gilbert is excited about technology and how it is changing the practice of law. “I was in a big firm for several years, and we used nothing that remotely resembled ‘cloud-based.’ Today, I’m on my own, but I have access to affordable and secure platforms that allow me to communicate and collaborate with clients in ways I couldn’t even imagine five years ago.”
Next tech purchase: Contact management system. “I used Etacts, which was acquired then shut down by Salesforce. Actively looking for a replacement.”
Practice management system: Rocket Matter for running her practice and Patrix for managing client portfolios
Billing and timekeeping: Rocket Matter
Hard copy or digital: Combination—electronic files on computer, backed up to the cloud and multiple external hard drives, with paper copies of essential Patent Office correspondence
David Harlow: The Harlow Group
Practice: Health care law
Firm size: Solo
Tech mantra: “Running a practice out of a laptop and a BlackBerry”
Although some see him as a techno-geek, David Harlow didn’t set out to gain that reputation. He simply adopted tools to enable his practice to run smoothly. “Six years ago, when I left my old downtown firm, many of my colleagues wondered how I would be able to maintain my practice as a solo. I was looking for something different, and I needed to be able to build and run a practice out of a laptop and a BlackBerry. Fortunately, it is now possible to replicate the technology my clients and I were accustomed to in a cost-effective manner; these tools are vital to making this work.”
Total Practice Management is one of the first tools Harlow implemented. “It functions both as a document management system and a time and billing system.” But Harlow’s technology goes far beyond those basics. He now handles all of his client invoicing via e-mail and PDFs (“I hardly ever go to the post office anymore”) and uses an automatic, cloud-based backup system that allows him to access documents no matter where he is, Skype for communications, Twitter for networking, an e-fax solution (GreenFax) for those people who still rely on faxes, and GoToMeeting and other similar platforms to conduct webinars that bring him into the homes and offices of his clients. And he’s a true power user: “The hardware that has helped me the most? Dual monitors, which allow me to keep many windows open at the same time.”
At the end of the day, though, Harlow is still focused on the same thing that he wanted in 2005: the ability to run a practice out of a laptop, no matter where he is in the world. He likes to tell the story of how he was able to manage a major, unmovable client deadline while on vacation for a romantic week at the beach alone with his wife. Obviously, his wife could tell a different story, one of a husband working several hours a day on the balcony of their room while she sat on the beach reading book after book, but for Harlow, what’s important is that he was able to provide seamless service and help his client meet a key deadline without having to cancel a long-planned vacation.
Next tech purchase: A better scanner
Practice management system: Total Practice Management
Billing and timekeeping: Total Practice Management
Hard copy or digital: Both
Cari Rincker: Rincker Law, PLLC
Practice: Food and agricultural law
Firm size: Solo
Tech mantra: “A New York City ag practice wouldn’t be possible without technology”
Cari Rincker’s résumé doesn’t read like that of a typical New York lawyer: agriculture and environmental law practice, coming from a family of Illinois cattle ranchers, with a graduate degree in ruminant nutrition. But Rincker is indeed building a food and agricultural practice in the Financial District of New York City, and technology is playing a key role in helping her get there. The technology she uses in her practice is as diverse as her background.
For billing, timekeeping, and accounting, Rincker uses PC Law, which she runs through Windows Parallels on her iMac. “I like having it all in one program. I also use PC Law to store client information and run conflict checks.” For everything else? She has a lot of different solutions. Her favorites include Outlook Exchange: “This has made the biggest difference for my practice”; WordPerfect: “I have grown to love WordPerfect and prefer it to Microsoft Word; however, I find that most of my clients and opposing counsel use Microsoft Word”; and Things: “I love this program and have not found anything better to manage tasks.”
Although Rincker has come to appreciate Mac products (“I have an iPhone 4, which has changed my life—and my practice”), that wasn’t always the case: “My transition to the Mac world hasn’t been without hurdles. I still use my PC laptop to print out large PDFs. I also use distribution lists frequently, but Outlook for Mac does not bring in my lists from the Outlook Exchange server. So I use my PC laptop for that as well.” In spite of these problems, she is in the midst of moving her entire practice to Macintosh. “Not only do I love Apple’s top-notch customer service, but I have been extremely pleased by how easily my data syncs among Apple devices.” To that end, she recently purchased a MacBook Pro to use on her frequent trips, and also because it opens up an important new channel for communicating with existing and future clients that she is eager to exploit: videoconferencing and webinars.
It’s clear that one of her favorite pieces of technology is her iPad (not the iPad 2, she is quick to point out with a sigh). She uses it as a research tool, a news reader, and an easy-to-use device for managing her time and tasks. But what she likes best is the fact that she won it via Twitter: “I was at a cattle conference, and Pfizer was offering an iPad to the person who tweeted the most about the conference. I spent a lot of time at the event tweeting everything I could about the beef industry, but in the end I won the iPad, so it was certainly worth it.”
Hardware: Macintosh, with a PC laptop to print large PDFs and manage e-mail distribution lists
Next tech purchase: Constant Contact/Email Campaign to manage a planned e-mail newsletter
Practice management system: PC Law (for storing client data and running conflicts checks)
Billing and timekeeping: PC Law (run through Windows Parallels)
Hard copy or digital: Hard copy on all documents; digital copy of court pleadings and important documents; emergency backup with Carbonite
Kevin Thompson: Davis McGrath LLC
Practice: Trademarks, copyrights, and Internet law
Firm size: Eight attorneys
Tech mantra: “Heavily tech dependent”
You might expect the author of a blog devoted to “the digital world, its impact, and legal framework” to be light-years ahead of the competition in terms of the technology his firm uses. But Kevin Thompson and his eight-lawyer firm struggle to manage an increasing amount of data, whether it’s documents and dockets, calendars and contacts, global trademark portfolios, or billing and expense information—just like everyone else. And, like the rest of us, Thompson has developed diverse solutions to solve these problems: “We’re a cross-platform firm: I use PCs in the office and Macs outside. I have an iPad 2 for my commute. My smartphone is currently a Windows mobile phone (at least until Apple’s next phone comes out). We use Windows Remote Desktop and a VPN to connect securely to the office, and we also take advantage of the cloud when we can.” Thanks to this technology, Thompson can do real work wherever he is in range of WiFi or a cell tower.
Thompson uses WorldMark, a trademark portfolio management system, to manage client data in his IP practice. “WorldMark is the core of my practice because it allows me to quickly run reports on clients’ trademark portfolios and lets me easily determine what deadlines are coming up.” For firm business, the technology committee (Thompson is on the committee) recently implemented PracticeMaster and its related Tabs3 billing software package. “Before, everyone managed their own data, e-mail, calendars, time entries, backups. PracticeMaster and Tabs3 allow us to organize all of that data in a coherent, case-based approach, and take a lot of the work out of running the practice.” He is proud of the work his firm has done to get as far as it has with technology, all while not losing sight of the fact that it’s in a service industry. “The latest shiny gadget may not be the best choice to get work done for clients without compromising security.”
It’s clear when you speak to Thompson that he sees technology as a tool to provide better service to clients. And a big part of that is using tech to become more knowledgeable, better organized, and more efficient. For example, Thompson’s iPad 2 turns his daily two-hour train commute into time well spent, even if he doesn’t use it at the office. Thompson reads articles and blogs in his practice area on the iPad, which also keeps his calendar, to-do list, and e-mail in sync. In a pinch, the iPad can even function as a Remote Desktop client. The iPad is great for short text editing, but for long-form writing, Thompson uses his MacBook Pro.
Hardware: Cross-platform: work machines are PCs running Windows XP; also uses iPad and MacBook Pro out of the office
Next tech purchase: Apple’s iPhone 4S
Practice management system: Practice-Master; WorldMark for trademark portfolio management
Billing and timekeeping: Tabs3
Hard copy or digital: “We try to be paper-less, but we still need to keep some hard-copy files”
Christopher Hill: The Law Office of Christopher G. Hill, PC
Practice: Construction law
Firm size: Solo
Tech mantra: “Free is good”
When Chris Hill struck out on his own after 13 years of law practice, he had a clear vision of what he needed. He’d been in a midsize firm for nearly four years, and a different firm for the four years before that. He knew that he needed technology that allowed him to run his practice in the way that he and his clients had become accustomed to. He knew that he needed a system with several layers of redundancy to protect against data loss. And he knew that he didn’t want to spend a lot of time or money making it all work. Hill needed tech solutions that he could install, learn, and forget about—the days when he could just pick up the phone and call someone in IT to help him out were now a thing of the past. “For many of my clients, the older owners of construction companies, my BlackBerry is about as cutting edge as they can imagine. Anything fancier would probably turn them off.”
To manage his practice, Hill found most of what he needed in Clio: “Everything is there. All of my files, all of my time and billing information, everything. They recently added a credit card processor, so my clients can now pay me through the site.” It’s his document management system, his filing system, and on occasion, his client portal. It’s secure, reliable, and most importantly, it’s easy to use. “They even have an option where you can send a blind copy of an e-mail to a particular address, and the message gets filed away in the appropriate client folder.”
Talking to Hill, you quickly understand that he prefers out-of-the-box solutions. He uses Google Apps as a bridge to sync his e-mail, calendar, and contacts between the Outlook he runs on his PC and his BlackBerry. He’s built his website and his blog on the WordPress platform because it’s easy to set up and manage. He uses MS Office products because that’s what he used at his previous firms, and there’s no need to change what works. He uses Backblaze—which, perhaps not surprisingly, bills itself as the “easiest online backup service”—to back up his files in real time (he also does a weekly backup onto a hard drive at home, just in case). On occasion he uses Dropbox, which allows easy access to non-privileged files, such as his holiday card list. And whenever he can, he uses the free versions of these software packages: “I’m happy to pay for services that I absolutely need, like Clio and Backblaze and MS Office. If it makes me more efficient or helps my clients in some way, then I’ll certainly consider it. But I don’t need technology for the sake of having it. I need it to service my clients, and so far, I can do that with some very basic tools.”
Next tech purchase: Dedicated scanner
Practice management system: Clio
Billing and timekeeping: Clio
Hard copy or digital: “A two-drawer filing cabinet is all I need”
So, what can these five lawyers tell us about the hardware and software it takes to run a solo practice or small firm? Is there a consensus?
E-mail: Not surprisingly, cloud-based e-mail solutions were the most popular for the lawyers we spoke with. Why mess with your own e-mail server when Google can do it for you?
Cloud computing: Although nearly everyone we spoke with uses Google Apps for Business in some form or another, none of them felt it is secure enough to handle privileged, confidential client information. Neither is Dropbox, for that matter: Everyone uses it a little, but no one trusts it enough for client work. For true cloud computing, these lawyers have all turned to providers that know the legal profession and can provide the security and reliability they need: Clio, Rocket Matter, Total Practice Management, PracticeMaster, PC Law.
Hardware: Although most of the people we talked to own and use one or more Apple devices, there seems to be a pretty even split between PC and Macintosh to get the job done. From a software perspective, however, several lawyers felt that some of the Mac software they need is not as good as the PC versions, so they either maintain a PC to run that piece of software, or they use software such as Parallels to run the PC version on their Mac machines.
Everything else: If there’s a common theme running through the tools that these lawyers use, it’s that there is no common theme. It is clear that the wealth of applications, for iPhones and BlackBerries, for MacBooks and PC laptops, for iPads and Droids and everything in between, means that there truly is something for everyone. And although that may not help you if you’re seeking advice on backup tools, calendaring applications, and word-processing software, it should reassure you that if you find a tool that works for you and makes you more efficient, it’s probably just what you need.