Technology has made it easier for lawyers to work on anything, with anyone, whenever and wherever they want. It is the integration of this technology with their practices, however, that leaves lawyers wondering if their technology choices were proper. Before making “back-office” or “front-office” decisions, attorneys should ask themselves what they want their offices to look like, what are their desired goals, and what steps they wish to take to ensure achieving their goals. To that end, attorneys should consider creating a map of how they want their office to function. Once that map is drawn, it is easier to plug in the tools to accomplish these functions.
Arita Sims Damroze has prepared a comprehensive article on “back-office” systems for lawyers (see page 52), which I encourage you to read in conjunction with this piece. In this article, I am going to discuss some popular and effective “front-office” products, all existing, yet some still emerging, that will assist attorneys in making their practices more efficient; this, in turn, will enhance productivity, performance, marketing, and revenue generation.
By the time this article is published, there will be new and improved products for front-office legal systems that are only tangentially mentioned in this article, if at all. This is just an example of how dramatic technology is changing the legal landscape. To that end, I will focus solely on four aspects of legal front-office systems: marketing, project management, calendaring, and productivity. My intent is not to have lawyers run out, purchase the newest and shiniest computer or tablet, and load it with everything I am discussing. I am only asking practitioners to imagine running a practice with some of the items I discuss and to consider how one, some, or all of these products could help make the running of their practices more seamless, efficient, and profitable.
Before we discuss front-office tools for your law practice, I would like to spend some time with my new friend Siri, to whom I was introduced by Apple when the company came out with its iPhone 4S. Even as this article goes to press, we will still be marveling at how Siri is transforming “traditional” search engine optimization techniques. Siri, the iPhone 4S’s new “personal voice assistant,” allows users to converse with their platform in voice context; in return, Siri will update the user’s calendar, set reminders, and write and send e-mails and texts, just to name a few uses. Sure, we all heard the stories about Siri giving practical advice when asked “where can I hide a dead body?” but, from the lawyer’s perspective, Siri will come in handy when we’re trying to find information on the Internet and have neither the time nor the ability to input information manually, or when we need to dictate a note or e-mail, or even when we need to set meetings or reminders. A few discussions with Siri on locating restaurants, banks, and other merchants revealed that Siri will take advantage of Yelp reviews to lead users to their intended destination, so my word of advice is to stay vigilant in managing your own reputation on Yelp—I am quite certain that consumers will be asking Siri for help finding attorneys the same way they are asking it for restaurants. Although certainly no Siri expert, I do find it odd that Siri, while having the capacity to search the Internet, does not yet have the capacity to search the data of the phone on which it is hosted. For example, if I make a note to myself of a new password I created for an encrypted file (let’s call it the “Klevan” file), Siri cannot search my phone if I ask it to search for “new password for the Klevan file.” Lastly, Siri relies on a network connection for everything, so if you’re on a plane and try to ask Siri to take notes for you, Siri will reply that she doesn’t have a network connection.
At the present time, Siri is limited to the iPhone 4S. Apple claims that Siri required the power of the A5 processor to run it. Although there appear to be no concrete plans to roll out Siri in older iPhone models, Macs, the iPad, or Apple TV, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Siri appearing on these devices sooner, rather than later.
Evernote is a tool that allows the user to take various types of information (Word documents, photographs, handwritten notes, and even web pages) and then organize them into a central, web-based location, such as a notebook. Lawyers can create a notebook in Evernote for each client. Evernote even has a “search” function, allowing the user to search for renderable text in the program. Evernote also allows users to sort documents by date created (either ascending or descending), date updated (ascending or descending), or title (either A-to-Z or Z-to-A). Further, Evernote is one of the few programs that will allow the user to take a screen shot of a web page and save it in its dynamic format, allowing you to see text, a photo, or a video even if the page has been removed from the Internet. iCyte is another program I know of that does this and is considered close competition to Evernote. Evernote distinguishes itself from iCyte in several ways, the most notable being that Evernote will allow the user to store audio notes. Evernote’s optical character recognition (OCR) search function also has the capability of searching handwritten text as long as it is legible. I have seen client notebooks in Evernote contain (aside from the ordinary documents contained in a typical client file) Facebook pages, videos, and voice memos, all clearly not attainable in traditional “paper-in-Pendaflex” practices.
For collaboration purposes, Evernote’s “share” function will allow the user to share documents or notebooks with particular individuals or the whole world. The user can specify which individuals to send the notebook to, or create a URL that is posted for everyone to see.
Evernote is compatible with most any platform, and the basic version is free; the Premium version costs $5 per month or $45 per year. (By way of comparison, iCyte costs $7.99 per month or $59 per year.) Aside from providing the user with an expanded upload capacity, Evernote Premium allows the user to collaborate more efficiently, provides the user faster OCR recognition, and allows the user to search PDF documents stored in Evernote, among other benefits.
Dropbox is perhaps the best-known of the cloud-based file storage system. In a nutshell, Dropbox allows a user to access a file or document across any device on which the user’s Dropbox account can be accessed. The user designates one computer (desktop, laptop, etc.) as the primary device. The computer creates a “My Dropbox” folder on the primary device. The user then populates the “My Dropbox” folder with whatever documents he or she wants, be it a single Word document, PDF document, or even an entire client file. On any other device, be it a netbook, iPad, iPhone, or the like, the user installs Dropbox, and he or she will immediately see these documents or files, synchronized. If the user works on files offline, Dropbox will automatically sync to the Dropbox folder when the user returns online.
Dropbox also makes collaboration simple, even with non-Dropbox users. In a few simple steps, users can send e-mail notifications to desired recipients, who will register a user name and password and then have access to the files for which users wish to collaborate. Once that user edits the file, the recipient will receive a notification that the specified file has been updated. Once the recipient edits the file, the user will receive a similar notice.
I use Dropbox exclusively to transfer my files from office to court. I recently mediated a case using Dropbox, my iPhone, a VGA adaptor, and a portable projector. I “dropped” my client’s entire file in Dropbox and projected police reports, photographs, and medical records and bills on the wall of the office where my mediation occurred, as the evidence dictated.
As of this writing, a free Dropbox account comes with 2 GB of file space; 50 GB of space is $9.99 per month, and 100 GB of space is $19.95 per month. If you refer a friend to use Dropbox, both you and your friend get an additional 250 MB of space, up to an additional 8 GB total. Dropbox’s competition includes Box (free for up to 50 GB of web storage and up to 1 GB of file space and stepped pricing for additional space) and SugarSync (free for up to 5 GB of file space with stepped pricing for added space).
Workflowy may be the best project management application that you never heard of. When discussing planning a “map” for how lawyers would like to see their office operate, make a map of how evidence should be introduced at a hearing, or even create a simple “to-do” list, Workflowy is it. Its tagline is “Organize your brain.” What makes Workflowy so efficient is that, while the concept is simple, the execution is fabulous. Once users create an account, they are asked to create “top-level” lists. For attorneys, those lists can be client names. Or they can be court appearance lists, the aforementioned to-do list, or even project lists. Once these “top-level” lists are created, users can create sublevels, which can be indented with bullets. Clicking on an individual bullet will zoom into what’s on the sublist and, as you go deeper into the list, a drop-down menu becomes available to see where you’ve been. Clicking the mouse will collapse and expand the list. At present, Workflowy does not provide the option of collaborating with others. However, if you are a mind-mapper and need to see your cases and projects presented visually, Workflowy may be your best answer.
As of the time of this writing, there is no Workflowy application for the iPhone or Android. However, a recent Workflowy blog post indicates that the company is working on same, as well as tools for collaboration.
Tungle.me is a meeting coordination application that allows users to propose multiple blocks of meeting times with people and lets the recipients select the times that work best for them. There are other programs that seem to generate more interest, such as TimeBridge or Doodle, but Tungle.me, unlike those others, allows users to “paint” a whole swath of their calendar as available and lets attendees pick the best times inside these blocks. For example, with Tungle.me one can make oneself available from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm, whereas TimeBridge cannot do that—it only allows you five proposed meeting times for each meeting. Tungle.me also has a free app for the iPhone and Android.
Batchbook is a comprehensive customer relationship management (CRM) program that has tremendous advantages for attorneys who wish to effectively stay in touch with their existing clients while keeping an eye on marketing. Rather than searching through sticky notes, Excel spreadsheets, and screens full of e-mail messages, Batchbook is a one-stop repository for maintaining all information on existing clients, potential clients, and prospective clients.
Once you import your contact information into Batchbook, the program allows you to do:
- Use tags to further sort your contacts
- Create “super-tags” or “sub-tags,” allowing you to narrow lists even further
- Integrate with Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for each contact
- Track your communications and to-dos with each contact
- Create lists and reports by tag
- Send e-mail newsletters via MailChimp
- Schedule meetings through Batchbook using Tungle.me.
Batchbook has several pricing structures. It offers a 30-day free trial, of which I strongly suggest anyone take advantage. The first user is $14.95 per month, up to five users is $29.95 per month, and larger plans go up to $149.95 per month. There is a free app for the iPhone and Android. Batchbook’s closest CRM competitor is Highrise, which offers a similar, but not exact, pricing plan.
Using a robust CRM program such as Batchbook isn’t for those who think they’ll be marketing gurus by simply installing the software. Batchbook is a comprehensive program, and users will only reap benefits if they make a commitment to understand and implement its features. I believe that marketing is an essential component of a legal practice today, and Batchbook clearly combines all the functions of nontraditional marketing, including social media integration, into a user-friendly program.
It is important to stay informed of the ever-changing landscape of front-office systems. A decade and a half ago, lawyers were pushing pen to paper and forms were being prepared on big typewriters with carbon paper providing the copies. A decade ago, lawyers were busy learning how to use large computers and finding room in their cars to install five-pound cradles for large cellular phones. On January 9, 2007, Steven Jobs introduced us to the iPhone. Today, we are talking to our Androids and iPhones, using their speech-to-text recognition features, asking them to power up the productivity and scheduling applications we’ve downloaded onto our smartphones. Innovation has provided attorneys with the tools to make their practices more efficient. Thoughtful planning and implementation of these systems will allow lawyers to run more enjoyable, economical, and, in turn, more profitable practices.