One major achievement of technology is making the world a much smaller place. What does this mean for tech-savvy lawyers? It means that the practice of law is a much bigger place. Technology allows you to practice in a wider geographical area—once possible only for the largest of firms.
You can now file a motion for a federal case while sitting in a coffee shop miles from the courthouse. For that matter, you can be halfway across the country. All you need is an Internet connection, a computer, and a program that allows you to convert your document to a PDF. (Obviously, you also have to be admitted to the federal bar in your jurisdiction and register for a user name and password with PACER, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system.) You can file documents 24/7. You can also check the status of cases from anywhere. Technology levels the playing field because you don’t need staff running to the courthouse with documents.
In the past, only 1,000-lawyer firms could practice across the country where a physical presence was required. Today, technology has given solo attorneys the ability to easily practice anywhere they can take their laptop and have access to a high-speed Internet connection. If you have the legal ability, the gumption, and the desire, you can expand your practice past the local town or city where you currently reside.
Technology also lets you practice law with a better work/life balance. I never understood why people would get an advanced degree only to have a miserable life because they are working 80 hours a week. That logic never made sense to me. As a solo utilizing technology, you can work normal hours, “time shift,” and still be successful. I lecture for four cruise lines and often practice law while floating in the middle of the Caribbean, fully connected with my clients and with other attorneys. See how many large firms will give you time off to lecture and practice in a unique environment.
A Paradigm Shift
Without revealing my age, I will date myself with the following description of the state of the art when I was a child: The phone was rotary dial, there were three channels to choose from on television, and they were just inventing a typewriter that could backspace and correct a letter. The legal and business community relied heavily on the grunts: secretaries, filing clerks, mail room clerks, research assistants. The big thinkers—lawyers—could not survive without them.
Now the phones fit in your shirt pocket, are operated on cellular frequencies, and have greater capability than the computers used to put the first man on the moon. Laptops are so lightweight and powerful that you can write a motion while listening to your favorite song and watching some live video feeds. And the research tasks that once required a small army can now be accomplished by one lawyer in a bathrobe at the kitchen table.
The paradigm has shifted.
What I mean by this is that you no longer need a large wallet to purchase top-of-the-line technology (and the labor-saving computing power that comes with it). You don’t need your own e-mail server or a server for storage. You can utilize e-mail accounts such as Gmail and can back up your documents with companies such as Iron Mountain. Cost is no longer a driving force.
Remember how expensive cell phones were when they first came out? They cost $1,500 to buy and $1 a minute to use. Only big-time attorneys could afford that type of mobility. Now, everyone has a cell phone. Technology drove the price down on cell phones and leveled the playing field. Solos can stay in touch with their clients just like the big boys and girls. Those who held onto all the power under the old model have lost their grip.
Four Tips to Leverage Technology
So how can you take advantage of the current situation and really stick it to the big firms? Here are four tips to start you on your way.
1. Cut out the middleman. Put yourself in the shoes of your client. Would you like to sit at home and dial your office only to get the secretary who will check if you are in, then say you aren’t and take a message? What signal does that send to your client? The secretary doesn’t know if you are in the office or not? What did you do—slide down the Bat Pole into the Bat Cave, thus avoiding walking past the secretary’s desk? Of course you are in, you just don’t want to talk to that particular client. You know it, and guess what? That client knows it, too.
For most types of practices, I find that a secretary can do more harm than good. You hired the secretary to do things like answer the phone and file and send things through the mail and make copies. How many of those things are better suited for you to do yourself? I can’t tell you how many times I am in court with an attorney from a big firm who has no idea what is going on with the case. Big firm attorneys don’t talk to the clients—their paralegal or secretary does. They don’t see what documents come into the office—their paralegal or secretary does. What they do is get a copy of the file the day of court and they give it a quick once-over (I am being polite here). Think about the advantage you have by doing all these tasks yourself. You talk directly with your clients. You open your own mail and file your own documents. Nothing escapes you, and therefore you will know the case inside and out. You are able to give incredible service to your client—service your big firm competitors can’t match.
2. Answer your own phone, and make it a cell phone. The solo lawyer today is mobile and must be adept at multitasking. How many times do you stand outside the courtroom waiting? That is lost time if your clients are calling your office and getting your secretary or the answering machine. You could be fielding a million-dollar case while you wait, but because you’re not answering the call, your competition will be. So lose the landline and operate with cell phone only. (But check with your local bar first to verify there are no rules prohibiting this in your jurisdiction.) Ditching the landline makes you more mobile, more accessible, and sets you apart from the big firms. Sure, their lawyers have cell phones, but how many of their clients get those numbers? And new cases are still going to come into their secretary on the landline.
For those of you who are worried you will be on call 24/7, remember: Your cell phone does have an off button.
3. Go paperless. The big firms are so ingrained in paper, I don’t think they can ever go paperless. As a solo you have the ability not only to help the environment but also stay more organized and productive. Say you closed a client file three years ago and now find your latest case involves many of the same legal issues. You remember you wrote a great brief in the three-year-old case and want to use many portions of it. Problem is, the file is in a warehouse across town, and once you get there you’ll have to dig through the file, take the document with you, copy it back at the office, and then return the original to the warehouse again. Sounds to me like a full day of doing nothing productive. Now add in that you are traveling for three days and need the document for a case in federal court that you can file electronically from 500 miles away. Wish your documents were all stored electronically already? Of course you do, and as a solo there is no reason not to make the leap.
I open my own mail and scan the mail as soon as I get it. I then shred it, and that’s that. Of course this doesn’t apply to originals that need to be kept or returned to the client. But those types of document are not the norm of what I receive.
By going totally paperless, you are much more organized and mobile than the competition. And once you get into a routine, it takes little time. Be able to access documents from any computer and at any time. You accomplish this by backing up your documents to the cloud.
4. Join bar association groups and stay active. Many times big firms don’t allow associates to join organizations, or if the associates do join, the firms don’t give them time off to participate. By joining various organizations, you are able to make great contacts and to further your legal training. You will be able to write articles and teach at various CLEs. All of this sets you apart from associates at big firms. Your potential clients will see how involved you are in your field and will be impressed that you are published and teach other lawyers.
I know what you’re thinking: How do potential clients know about all of this? Easy—you tell them about it on your website. By cross-linking to the publication or CLE notice itself, you will show up in Internet searches. And potential clients aren’t the only ones you might impress. Other attorneys who see these search results (or receive an e-mail highlighting your work if they are fellow members of your bar group) may refer clients your way if the case is outside their practice area. Once again, technology levels the playing field, putting your name out there in a way that the Yellow Pages never could.
Stay Nimble, Stay Ahead
Remember, it takes a big ship much longer to correct its course than a smaller ship. The advantage to being small is your flexibility and your ability to adapt quickly to ever-changing situations. In the current legal market, this is going to happen often. Just look at how social media has changed in the last few years. Remember when Myspace was the big craze? Now it’s Twitter and Facebook. I am sure something is right around the corner that will knock both down a notch. In my opinion, being tech savvy is as important to practicing law as having a strong legal mind. There won’t be many cases in litigation that don’t involve technology on some level. Keep staying on top of technology, and let technology help propel you past the big firms.