Time and money define much of what we do as attorneys, and they also define how you can transform your practice. Obviously, the more money you have to spend, the easier it will be to turbocharge your law office. For most attorneys that I work with, $1,000 remains a significant investment in the practice. This money could go toward many other things, such as their kids’ college savings, the mortgage payment, or retirement planning. Therefore, if I recommend that an attorney should spend money, he or she would rightfully ask whether there is a true return on the investment, or if I am simply suggesting the new gadget of the day. In this article I am asking attorneys to reinvest $1,000 in their practice and themselves in a way that I believe will lead to an excellent return on investment.
I want to emphasize that this article is not about starting an office on a $1,000 budget, although many of the recommendations are applicable to an office startup. (For some suggestions on starting from scratch, see the section “Starting from Scratch,” below.) Here, I assume that the reader has basic law office technology in place, consisting of a relatively new computer (desktop or laptop), printer, telephone, and Internet access. So where do you go from there?
I start here because of the multiple areas in which a law firm can improve its practice management by using a high-quality desktop scanner. Scanning and digitizing paperwork allows a firm to save time, save money on real estate, storage, and postage, work easily from almost anywhere, and improve its disaster planning and recovery. A scanner is also the biggest budget item recommended. High-quality desktop scanners are priced between $400 and $500, so this is a significant cut into your $1,000 budget. There are a number of quality manufacturers, including Kodak, Neat, HP, and Xerox. I highly suggest that you look at the reviews and pricing for each. However, my preferred scanner—the one that I believe provides the best bang for the buck—is the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 (Windows) or S1500M (Mac); I have seen these offered online for as low as $409.99. This recommendation is based on product reputation in the legal industry, value of the product based on the hardware and the packaged software, and real-life experience using the product. A search of legal industry technology sites shows the high number of positive reviews by attorneys. The scanner is extremely easy to use; you can scan and create a PDF with one touch. And because the product is packaged with Adobe Acrobat 9 Standard (approximate value, $250), the ScanSnap is a highly cost effective purchase. Adobe Acrobat is considered the gold standard PDF software package (see below).
Upgraded PDF Software
I would next spend an additional $199 to upgrade your ScanSnap’s copy of Adobe Acrobat 9 Standard to Adobe Acrobat X Professional. The upgraded version gives you the ability to do true text redaction (for discovery) and create PDF/A documents that are, or will be, needed for federal court filings. For those who don’t like Adobe, I might suggest that you save some money here by purchasing Nuance’s PDF Converter Enterprise 7 (single licenses start at $149.99, packages of five or more licenses are available at $130.49 each), but beware that Nuance does not have the same quantity or quality of free training available as Adobe.
A high-quality scanner, coupled with the correct imaging software, enables your firm to enact a truly effective disaster preparedness plan. Once a firm begins digitizing its files, it will capture and store more critical business documents in a backup system. Now if that tornado hits, the firm can be up and running in short order.
In a further quest for efficiency, I want you to buy a large monitor (24 inches or larger), which will cost you about $200 (shop and save). Attorneys always look at me like I’m crazy when I make this suggestion. They simply cannot understand why a bigger monitor will help. I then explain how it will increase efficiency by making it easier to move information from window to window (really ideal for research and drafting), and how it makes telephone calls more effective because all the information needed to have an effective conversation can be available without opening and closing windows. I show them studies that demonstrate a 40 percent to 50 percent increases in efficiency. Ultimately, however, it is not until another attorney says to them, “I did this, and it is the best thing I have ever done,” or, “I would never go back to a single, small screen,” that they get it. With Windows 7’s snap feature, large monitors become even easier to use for multiple windows. Buy it, try it, and you will love it.
On-the-road mobility is the best thing since sliced bread. For me, this means a smartphone (iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, etc.). A year ago I discovered the iPad, but my budget today tells me that my tablet fantasy will have to remain a dream for now. However, Apple now offers its old iPhone 3GS for free if you purchase a two-year data plan from AT&T. The cheapest plan is 200 MB of data for $15 per month. If you use the data plan judiciously, your total budget expenditure for the year is $180. (For purposes of this article, I am assuming that you already have a voice plan with text messaging, but, if not, you will have to add another $540 a year; AT&T’s cheapest voice plan is $39.99 per month, and its cheapest text plan is $5 per month.) However, you now have access to your calendar, documents, e-mail, and contacts anywhere and anytime.
And you’ve spent your $1,000.
All right, I am now taking some liberties—your $1,000 budget is tapped, right? I am making this suggestion under the guise of a budget-neutral expense because I believe that an attorney truly turbocharging the practice needs to outsource some functions that are time consuming but do not increase revenues. A classic example of this would be to outsource bookkeeping functions such as trust/IOLTA accounting, operating account reconciliations, bill payments, and first-draft invoices. Using scanning software and simple accounting programs, you can easily outsource these tasks to an old-fashioned bookkeeper, allowing you to spend more time on billable matters or marketing for a better client. It is budget neutral because you are going to easily increase your revenue to compensate for the expenditure.
Virtual legal assistants (used in this context to describe “paralegals or other administrative specialist who work off-site and online,” in the words of Edward Poll’s “Virtual Help” article for Law Practice Today, April 2006) can be considered a budget-neutral investment because the cost of the work done should be passed through to the client. You can easily find legal virtual assistants online, or look at my twitter followers (twitter.com/rodneydowell), including a number of virtual assistants located in Canada and the United States.
Dictation service is another old-fashioned idea rejuvenated by modern technology to save your firm time and money. Digital dictation services range from simple and free smartphone apps to high-quality transcription services employing real people. The latter are fairly expensive, and as we are on a tight budget, I will focus on the free and low-cost options. On the free side, we start with Nuance’s family of Dragon mobile products, which includes versions for iPhone (Dragon Dictation), Android (FlexT9), and BlackBerry (Dragon for E-Mail) smartphones. These apps provide free, short, simple dictation transcription appropriate for short notes and e-mails. Google Voice is a free, simple transcription service for voice mails. Mark Stout offers some excellent tips on getting the most from Google Voice on his blog. You also can outsource transcription work to real people through services such as oDesk. Of course, you will have to be cognizant of the need for an appropriate agreement related to confidentiality with any of these services.
Get More from What You Already Have
Take a moment to look at the software and hardware already existing on your desk. Have you taken any time to actually be trained to use these products to their full potential or with the greatest efficiency? Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook) and Adobe Acrobat are classic examples of software used by a very large percentage of attorneys . . . poorly. Most of these attorneys know how to use only a fraction of these programs’ powerful features that would improve productivity. Consultants exist who can come to the firm or provide training via the web, often providing some free advice. (See http://ihearttech.typepad.com, http://affinityconsulting.com, or ask for local referrals.) Another training and educational option is the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s TECHSHOW held every spring in Chicago. (Granted, it’s a budget buster, but it’s worth every penny.) The ABA also produces some wonderful books specifically on how to effectively use software in the legal office.
However, if you have already spent your $1,000, you will need to use some free sources. Microsoft itself provides an extensive array of “how to” white papers and videos to help you get the most from Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Although most of the comprehensive tools there are not legal specific, this learning center provides many helpful tips, including advice for organizing your e-mail or more quickly formatting your text files. There are also a few articles written just for the legal profession, including how to find and delete hidden text.
The use of PDF software in law offices is growing quickly. Many attorneys first use PDF conversion software that is built right into their word-processing software. But to truly turbocharge their practice, lawyers should have—and know how to use—a quality PDF software package that provides a wealth of features ideal for attorneys. To see what you’ve been missing, I recommend Rick Borstein’s “Acrobat for Legal Professionals” blog, which provides great posts on using Adobe Acrobat in the legal professional. It also has links to video training clips and training seminars. This self-help learning center probably makes Adobe Acrobat one of the best software values on the market. But, even if you use another product—and there are other very good products, including Nuance PDF Converter 7, Nitro PDF, and CutePDF—you can still apply much of Rick Borstein’s advice to these other programs.
I have sought to emphasize changes that I believe will most easily improve a law office, but attorneys should carefully consider what roadblocks prevent their own offices from running efficiently and seek to address those needs. In most cases, they will find that it’s possible to turbocharge without breaking the bank.
Starting from Scratch
This list is for those freshly minted attorneys forced to enter the legal field as sole practitioners, who have limited financial resources to invest in the new law firm and need to earn money before spending money on the fancy new MacBook Pro. Here, I will assume that each reader has the computer purchased at the start of law school (laptop or desktop) and the computer’s hardware is all operational. This computer is going to be the lifeblood of the new practice; therefore, you must optimize it for your new law office.
- Increase the computer’s efficiency by optimizing its operating system (OS). To do so, either reinstall the original OS, upgrade to the new Windows or Mac OS, or install a free or low-cost Linux OS such as Ubuntu.
- Maximize the amount of your computer’s short-term memory (RAM). This is the quickest, cheapest, and easiest way to increase computer performance.
- If you do not have Microsoft Office products Word, Outlook, and Excel, then download a free open-source productivity suite such as OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice to give you high-end word-processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and database programs.
- Pay $50 for the annual plan on Google Apps for Business to handle e-mail, calendaring, document storage, and your firm dashboard with Google Sites or iGoogle. For short money you also get 24/7 business support (remember you are a business). Improve your firm dashboard by integrating third-party Google Gadgets that provide to-do lists, project management (see Manymoon.com), and time and billing.
- Download a quality PDF writer program such as PDFCreator or CutePDF. After you start making money, spend some of it on the scanner referenced in the main article (ScanSnap S1500 or S1500M) and get Adobe Acrobat Standard with it. Otherwise, buy a leading PDF product such as Adobe Acrobat or Nuance PDF Converter.
- Purchase a simple, multifunction printer (less than $150) that gives you printing, faxing, and scanning to get you through the first years. You can plug your telephone line in on the rare occasions you must send a facsimile. For receiving faxes, see below.
- Get a free eFax number for receiving facsimile documents that will be directed to an e-mail account. If you cannot find a free account for incoming facsimiles, search harder—it is buried.
As my parting advice, I would suggest that you build relationships to guide you through the first years. Start with the ABA’s SoloSez listserve and your state’s practice management advisor (a list is available on the ABA website). Then join helpful networking groups such as StartingOutSolo.com and bar associations. Finally, build relationships with attorneys from all demographics and ask for help.