Traditional Telephone Conference Call Services
As late as the early to mid-1990s, your only options for a multiparty conference call were either (1) using the capabilities that your PBX or switched telephone system provided or (2) making arrangements for a conference call provided by one of the major telephone companies or services. These were known as operator-assisted or reservation-based conference services. With the reservation-based service, the host of the call would make arrangements in advance by providing the date and time for the call, as well as the names and telephone numbers of the participants. At the designated date and time, the operator initiated the call to the host and the other parties. Although reservation-based conference calls worked, they required advance planning and were expensive, and all the parties needed to be at the telephone number that they originally provided to the host. Things improved by the end of the 1990s when conference calls that did not require operator assistance (also known as reservationless conference services) came into existence. This simplified the process of creating a conference call while significantly decreasing the expense of doing so as well.
For offices that regularly used conference calls, you could obtain a subscription that provided a dedicated 800 number for your use. You then sent this assigned call-in number and passcode to participants in advance, allowing them to dial into the call and join it using the passcode. There is a downside to this model, as the host pays by the minute for each user participant.
For those needing only an occasional conference call, subscriptionless services were introduced a number of years ago; they will provide a toll-free number if you are willing to pay for the cost of each call. More popular are free conference calling services that use a toll-based number. Under the free conference service plan, each participant on the call is charged for the cost of the phone call under his or her own telephone plan. Recognizing that there may be times that you want a toll-free option, several of the free service providers also offer toll-free options using an 800 number as well. For these toll-free services, you create an account with a credit card on file and are charged only when you use the service.
An Internet search will turn up a huge number of such providers. Some of the more popular services that lawyers have reported using include FreeConferenceCall.com (freeconferencecall.com), FreeConference (freeconference.com), Totally Free Conference Calls (totallyfreeconferencecalls.com), and Wholesale Conference Call (wholesaleconferencecall.com).
A free conference call provider that is a bit different is gUnify (bit.ly/1aqrCUj), which provides free conferencing service for your office if you use Google Apps for Business. Quickly schedule and invite up to 96 participants from within Gmail to a conference call. gUnify has created very deep integration with Clio cloud-based practice management service (goclio.com; for more on the integration between gUnify and Clio, see the video at tinyurl.com/n6b7u3w). All participants do not need to have Google Apps for Business, only the person who initiates the call.
Of these services, FreeConferenceCall.com, FreeConference, and Wholesale Conference Call offer toll-free options. FreeConferenceCall.com and Wholesale Conference Call both charge 3.9 cents per minute per conference participant under their toll-free conferencing plans, while FreeConference charges 10 cents per minute. For toll-based conference calls, the only cost to the participant is the cost to call the conference number. Under the free service model, none of these services listed above charge any type of additional fee—the providers are compensated by the telephone companies through revenue sharing. What does vary between the free services is the number of participants that can take part in a conference call. FreeConferenceCall.com limits its free conference calls to 96 participants, while Totally Free Conference Calls allows for up to 500 participants, so compare your realistic needs against the limitations of the provider.
Next-Generation Conference Call Services
Whether they are toll-free or toll-based, traditional conference call services present several problems. If any of the participants lack access to long-distance telephone service or the ability to call out (as would be the case in many courthouses and other governmental offices), reservationless conference services are not a good option. In such cases you could turn to operator-assisted services, but the cost increases significantly.
A better option is one of the next generation of conference call services that uses the Internet to notify participants of the call. When participants receive notice of the call via e-mail, they respond by entering the phone number they wish to be called at. The conference service then calls the number they provided, much as an operator-assisted call—except it’s all handled by the computer. For those without access to the Internet, these services also provide a traditional dial-in option as with the free conference call services.
Two of these new-generation services that have received positive reviews are Speek (speek.com) and UberConference (uberconference.com). Both of these services provide a basic free plan, although with UberConference you can’t have the service call you at a number you designate by e-mail under the free plan. Both services provide paid accounts starting at $10 per month, which provide additional capabilities. Both show who is participating in the call using icons around a virtual conference table with participants’ names and telephone numbers (if they responded by e-mail), as well as an indicator of who is speaking. They also offer the ability to share files, either natively (Speek) or using third-party services such as Evernote or Box (UberConference). The paid versions provide the ability to record calls, to increase the number of participants, and to have the service call each participant at a telephone number provided online or by e-mail. Both services offer some type of mobile app (not all mobile devices are supported) as well as differing levels of integration with Internet browsers and operating systems. Even at $10 a month, these subscription services may be a better value than the per-minute services. They also send you a permanent link that you can use to easily create the conference calls.
Many lawyers have found it beneficial not only to speak to their clients and other parties but also to share information from their desktop in real time. This market was dominated in the early years by services such as GoToMeeting (gotomeeting.com) and WebEx (webex.com), which provided useful services but at a significant cost that was out of reach for many solo and small firms. Times have changed, and lower-cost options are now available.
Several services now offer free web meeting capabilities with core features for small groups of three to five participants, or paid accounts that include the core services and add to them by allowing for more users and increased functionality for a more reasonable cost on a monthly or annual basis.
WebEx Meetings (webex.com) provides a free account with up to three simultaneous attendees, as well as a toll conference call number or Internet conference capability using voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). WebEx Meetings provides for sharing your desktop, a whiteboard, and documents with participants. Paid accounts start at $24 on a monthly basis.
join.me (join.me) is from LogMeIn, which has provided remote control and file sharing services for many years. The join.me free account allows for up to ten meeting participants along with screen sharing, Internet communications, online chat, and the ability to send files. The join.me pro version allows up to 250 participants, annotations, desktop applications, and more. The pro account starts at $19 per month and drops to $13 per month for an annual subscription.
Vyew (vyew.com/s) is a younger player in the webinar marketplace. The Vyew free account allows up to ten simultaneous participants with screen sharing, Internet calling, whiteboard, and more. You can upgrade to the Vyew Plus plan at any time for $9.95 a month with no contract and the ability to downgrade when no longer needed. The paid account removes any advertisements and allows you to expand the number of participants (for an additional fee per participant) and a custom web address (URL) for use that allows you to send out the same link for any meeting.
AnyMeeting (anymeeting.com) is another recent entry into the webinar marketplace. AnyMeeting provides free web meetings for up to 200 attendees. The free account is ad supported and provides Internet communication and toll-based conference calling, desktop sharing, sharing PDF files, and videos via YouTube. The Pro 25 plan starts at $18 per month and adds meeting recording with the option to have AnyMeeting host your recordings.
Many people prefer face-to-face meetings so they can see the other party. Videoconferencing services give you this ability without the need to be physically present. Hurdles to adoption of videoconferencing have been the need for expensive equipment and/or services as well as high-speed Internet connectivity. A number of products are now available that allow for one-to-one as well as one-to-many videoconference calls.
Skype (skype.com/en) is best known for its computer-to-computer and computer-to-telephone calling services; however, Skype also includes video calls. The consumer-level account includes one-to-one video calls, or, with a Premium Skype account ($4.99 per month), you can have up to ten simultaneous participants on a video conference. With the Premium account, while on a call (audio or video) you can also share files and even share your screen. The downside is that Skype video is not high definition and suffers from lower frame rates, resulting in choppy and sometimes less-than-optimal video. The upside to Skype is that many people already have it and are familiar with it.
Microsoft Lync (office.microsoft.com/en-us/lync) provides videoconferencing, instant messaging, and screen-sharing capabilities. It’s included in Office365 subscriptions or can be subscribed to on its own starting at $2 per user per month. Using apps for Windows and Mac, you can allow non-Lync subscribers to join a Lync meeting or connect using Skype.
Zoom (zoom.us) provides cloud-based videoconferencing with both free and paid accounts. With a team that draws on experience from both Cisco and WebEx, long-time companies in the area of online communications, the team at Zoom has created a low-cost, high-quality videoconferencing service that works from your computer, your smartphone, or your tablet (iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire). The free account allows for up to 25 simultaneous participants in high-definition video and Internet audio. You can also join by telephone and share your computer screen or iPad/iPhone screens. Free video conferences are limited to 40 minutes in length. The Business plan starts at $9.99 per month or $99 per year for 25 participants with no limit on the number of videoconferences or meeting length.
Google Hangouts (bit.ly/14jttWe) provides free video calls for up to ten participants. Participants can join using their computer, iOS, or Android device. The downside to Google Hangouts is that users must have a Google+ account.
Of the webinar services discussed above, Vyew and AnyMeeting also include videoconferencing capabilities of varying degrees for up to six simultaneous video feeds.
A Word about Recording
When recording a video, conference call, or webinar, you need to make sure that you comply with the laws of your jurisdiction. A best practice is to advise all participants in advance that the session will be recorded. You can find information on the various laws at websites such as bit.ly/19kXz2g and bit.ly/19kXMlP.
Today’s lawyers have more options than ever before for communicating with their clients and other parties. These tools range from the familiar telephone to Internet-based video and conference call services. With pricing that runs from free to $25 or less per month, there is a service to fit every need and budget.