Do your eyes glaze over when colleagues rave about their latest gadgets and claim that they couldn’t imagine practicing law without them? Do you long for the days of your IBM Selectric? Do you wish the cutting edge didn’t seem so much like the bleeding edge?
If you answered yes to these questions, you might be a technology dinosaur.
But that’s okay. We know you’re not going to transform yourself into the next Bill Gates, but there are a few basic technological advances that can immediately improve the efficiency of your law practice—and your bottom line.
For suggestions, we turned not to the usual collection of “übergeeks” but to your fellow practitioners throughout the United States. Each was asked to choose three pieces of technology that every attorney absolutely needs to be using. The answers vary, and it’s enlightening to see the importance that each of our respondents places on different aspects of technology.
The Law Offices of Josh Friedman
Dinosaurs were very mobile creatures (until they were wiped out—let’s hope lawyers don’t suffer the same fate), so to emulate the mobility of the dinosaurs, the following three technologies are essential:
- Laptop (not tablet)
- Smartphone (that can also serve as a wi-fi hot spot)
- Some form of cloud-based file syncing/document management software, such as Dropbox, Box, NetDocuments, or Worldox
With these three technologies, you can practice law anywhere in the world.
[Short, sweet, and to the point; Friedman is clearly focused on the ability to be mobile while maintaining access to his necessary work product. I would sum up Friedman’s recommendations as technology that will allow you to be mobile, agile, and connected.]
Mitchell P. Goldstein
Goldstein Law Group, Inc.
A scanner limits the amount of paper around the office. Documents that are scanned can be sorted, converted to a word-processing program, or even turned into a fillable form. With a scanner, attorneys can abandon the traditional fax machine and move to an online fax program. These services cost less than the equipment and extra phone line for a fax machine, and they convert incoming faxes to attachments in e-mails. The third piece of technology that is important is a tablet/smartphone. These devices are portable, yet they enable connections to files, e-mail, and clients wherever the attorney happens to be. They rid you of your permanent connection to the office.
[Goldstein seems to echo Friedman’s concept of mobility: turning paper into digital files and having a smart device for access. The addition of the electronic fax service—I know, faxing is so 1990s, but some folks still use it—provides for greater mobility as you can receive faxes wherever you have access to your e-mail in-box.]
Andrew M. Ayers
Andrew M. Ayers, P.C.
Brooklyn, New York
Smartphone: I think that all attorneys need a smartphone to be able to manage a portion of their practice when they are not physically seated at their desk. In a firm, a smartphone allows the attorney to be connected to the various firm resources when out of the office. In the case of a solo practitioner, the attorney has access to a variety of firm resources, including calendar, e-mail, and even phone system from wherever they are.
Scanner: A good scanner allows attorneys to reduce their reliance on paper and can be used to avoid paying exorbitant sums on a photocopier if they are on a budget. With the increase in e-filing in different courts around the country, the scanner becomes even more important to litigation so that parties can gain access to the courts. In the transactional world, being able to have various copies of a document scanned in allows for a fast electronic review of the document and its changes in lieu of hiring contract attorneys to review the versions. Finally, a good scanner will allow attorneys to see the top of their desk again after all the paper has been scanned and removed.
Practice management software: There are a variety of vendors for practice management software; the principal reason is that each attorney demands different features. A strong program that allows for contact management, document management, billing, calendar management, and other functions of a law firm saves the firm and the attorney time and allows for many processes to be automated or handled by support staff, freeing up the attorney to focus on legal work.
[Ayers adds a new item to the needed technology: practice management software. I’ve been a fan and advocate of such programs for years—if there is one thing that can result in huge efficiency payoffs, it’s the proper deployment and use of practice management software. Even traditional desktop-based products are adding mobile access to some or all of their features. Cloud-based practice management provides this as a matter of course and frees users by providing access from a web browser, making the service independent from any one operating system.]
Caroline Achey Edwards
The Law Offices of Caroline Achey Edwards
[We seem to be developing some commonality so far with recommendations for scanning and managing electronic files. Let’s see what Edwards has to say about our tech dinosaur:]
First, I’m assuming a technology dinosaur but not a complete ostrich (head in the sand). So, the office has a computer, with backup, and basic software for e-mail and word processing. But the lawyer hasn’t moved on from basic use. And because the lawyer hasn’t moved on from basic use, I think it’s fair to say that the lawyer isn’t prepared to jump in feet-first to the most cutting-edge technology but is ready to dip toes in the water.
With that, I suggest that the lawyer start by using technology that will immediately provide a productivity boost, while not straying so far from what the lawyer is used to that it feels like a completely new planet. I think a great first step is to move to technology that allows documents to be maintained and referred to on the computer, so paper files don’t have to be pulled when a client calls. My recommendations:
- Document management software such as Worldox. Worldox keeps files in a file structure similar to Windows but is customizable, easily searchable, and sortable. A key feature is that, like a paper file, different document formats can be kept in the same folder: e-mails, PDFs, .docx files, etc. When you need to work on a matter, it is an easy task to open Worldox and see all the work done to date or all the correspondence, regardless of the format.
- A scanner is essential to get paper documents into the computer, so that the system on the computer is as dependable and complete as the paper file.
- ActiveWords software makes day-to-day life on the computer much easier. It allows you to set a trigger word to open programs, navigate to Internet sites, insert language, and more. ActiveWords makes the use of the computer more efficient and eliminates some of the tedium.
David P. Leibowitz
Illinois and Wisconsin
[Leibowitz takes a less specific device perspective but focuses more on using technology:]
- Understand how to use Outlook. In order for it to work for you, it’s vital that you use Rules to automate your mailbox in Outlook. Adopt the “4D” rule for all e-mail: either (1) do what needs to be done right now, (2) delegate what’s requested to someone else, (3) defer the task to a certain date, or (4) delete the e-mail. It’s very important to delete as much as possible as soon as possible. Don’t be a slave to your in-box. Look at it periodically, but don’t keep it open all day long. Schedule time to actually do the work that you need to do. Do your work on your own time and not on somebody else’s schedule.
- Understand how to use your smartphone or tablet. It is a necessary tool of the trade. A smartphone at a minimum must have your calendar, contacts, and e-mail synchronized with your office system. My smartphone also carries with it all statutes and rules that I use every day. Actual linkage to your desktop computer can now be done through a smartphone or tablet. I use an application called Dropbox that lets me take documents from my office desktop and access them on my iPad or iPhone. So be portable, mobile, and nimble.
- Have dedicated practice management software. Your software must be able to manage all your files, data, e-mails, dates, deadlines, and documents. It can be as simple or as robust as you want. Outlook can do the job for the small practitioner. Clio or Rocket Matter are more advanced. Time Matters and similar software work for most intermediate-sized firms. You need to use these effectively as a matter of professional responsibility and to avoid malpractice.
Cameron Law PLLC
Mazeppa and Rochester, Minnesota
[Finally, we arrive at the suggestions of a lawyer who signed his contribution “A Friendly Curmudgeon.” Cameron takes a philosophical approach: ]
Dear Tech Dinosaur,
First, let us dismiss the notion that there is any piece of technology that you must absolutely use; sure, technology can improve efficiency, allow you to focus more of your time and effort on developing better outcomes for your clients, and reduce your operating overhead, but none of it is absolutely necessary. To be useful, technology has to have a mission (that shiny new iPad is just an expensive heap of sand unless you know that you have a specific job for it). You have to be able to answer the question “what difference will it make?” for each and every piece of technology you bring into your office. If you don’t have an answer, then “it”—technology, staff, or procedure—is an unnecessary expense.
Before you start on your search for that technological golden bullet, consider the return on investment the technology will generate. Ask yourself, will this allow me to provide faster, more accurate, less expensive, or more comprehensive service to my clients? Will this allow me to do something I couldn’t do before, thus pulling work back into my firm that once was referred to others? Am I prepared to get training on how to use the technology, and will I commit to the new technology, forsaking my old ways completely?
Finally, remember at its core, technology for the law office is simple: You really only need a laptop, external monitor, a quality printer, a scanner, a router, and an external disk to hold your backups. In terms of software, things are even simpler: A word processor, a contact/calendar/e-mail management system, accounting software, a practice management package, and a backup system are the essentials. Beyond that, everything else is just a shiny add-on that needs to justify its existence in your law office.
So there you have the viewpoints of your fellow practitioners. What do you think? Do you agree with them, or would you select different technology as your top three “must haves”?
I know that for myself, today it’s all about being able to deliver great client service as efficiently and as effectively as possible. Being able to differentiate yourself from your competitors means delivering service that meets the needs of the client. Being mobile, agile, and connected is a great way to do this. Getting as much paper as possible into digital files is one of the first things to do, along with having a way to manage this information in a logical fashion, whether by using practice management tools with built-in document management tools or using a stand-alone product or service such as Worldox, NetDocuments, or Box. Accessing that information on the go while keeping all of the office information such as clients, calendars, to-do items, and matter information is also a necessary requirement. So practice management tools are a must. Both smartphones and tablets also play a role, and depending on your level of need, you may be able to get by with just one such device or you may need both. Ultimately, the final decision is yours to make.
One thing that we do know is that technology is here to stay and that those lawyers who make the most intelligent and the best use of that technology to deliver services to their clients will continue to exist and thrive. Those lawyers who don’t adapt? We’ll eventually see them in a museum.