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If you’re ready to punch the next person who tells you there’s got to be a silver lining to the clouds of the current economy, we hope you’ll hold your fire, at least until you’ve read what we have to offer here. While the recession is painful, it truly offers opportunities to revamp your practice, including in the technology area.
Since we began our series of columns on recession-survival tips, the economic situation has gotten worse, and many lawyers have seen one or more of their best clients, or even entire niche practice areas, disappear. Some lawyers we meet seem paralyzed, unable to figure out how to make adjustments to jump-start their stalled practices. As they say in the South, it’s hard to remember that your objective was to drain the swamp when you’re up to your rump in alligators.
To provide some incentive to get the lead out, in this installment we offer a few technology tips to help you start making some changes to your practice—for the better, of course.
But before we get to specific technology suggestions, let’s start with this: Many consultants and IT vendors are hungry for new business right now, so it could be a great time to work out a barter arrangement with one of your local IT consultants. Small IT companies often need legal services, whether it’s help with business formation, human resources law, tax matters, collections or representation in any number of other matters. So don’t assume that just because your cash flow may be tight right now, it’s not a good time for technology upgrades. A barter-of- services arrangement might be just what your preferred vendor is looking for, but you won’t know until you ask.
With that out of the way, here are some additional technology tips, with an eye (as always) on profitability.
Cut Paper Costs
If you’ve been thinking of eliminating as much paper as possible from your practice, now is a great time to take on that project. Going paperless can save you money, which will fall straight to the bottom line in several ways.
First, it can make you more efficient by helping to improve your work flows, while also aligning internal practices with electronic filing needs. Second, you’ll save money not just on your paper costs, but also on storage costs. Every paper file you keep in the office takes up space, typically at the same rate that a billing employee does. So digitizing your paper can reduce the money spent on storage and maybe even free up space for another productive employee, or other use. Third, you’ll save time (and money) by cutting out the need to look for misplaced paper files. Just scan the original, give the client the paper file you normally would have kept, document that fact, and when the case is closed you never have to touch that file again. And this doesn’t even begin to mention the environmental benefits of going paperless.
Another way to reduce expenditures on paper (and postage) is to bill electronically. This provides important additional benefits: First, your bills will get to clients faster, thereby (theoretically) increasing the velocity of cash into your office; and second, you can direct the invoice straight into the inbox of the right person, thereby avoiding potential delays caused by your invoice being shuffled around in the client organization. The result is an improvement in your total cash flow cycle time (days to bill + days to collection). Tightening this up will definitely be a benefit—especially if you’re starting to encounter cash flow issues.
Try Free Applications
Most law offices believe that to work efficiently they must pay for a full office productivity suite such as Microsoft Office or WordPerfect X4. Not true. Open Office ( www.openoffice.org), which for Mac OS goes by the name of NeoOffice (www.neooffice.org/neojava/en/index.php), is a full-featured office suite, including word processing, spreadsheet, database and presentation applications—and it’s available for free download under the open source license. You can open and save documents in Word format and in Open- Document format (which is a universal file format used by Word, WordPerfect and others) as well as many other formats. Lest you think that this is a lesser product just because it’s free, we assure you that is not the case. In fact, one of the authors has been using NeoOffice on a MacBook for a while now and feels that its word processor is even better than MS Word. This product offers a huge bang for the buck.
Recycle What You Can
No, we’re not talking about taking an afternoon off to pick up aluminum cans along the side of the road—although that might be a soul-calming way to while away a few hours, not to mention good for your community. We’re talking about using any free time you have now to look back at work you’ve already completed and determine if there are ways you can repurpose that research or drafting. There’s a lot of value to be mined from much of the work you’ve already done, once you recycle it into a form in which it can be easily found and used to provide value to the next similarly situated client.
Your efforts could be as complex as taking a recent deal and automating all the documents from it using a document-generation product such as HotDocs. Or they could be something middle of the road, like having your secretary go to http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/training/default.aspx and perfecting templates for uncontested divorces or other standard documents you use repeatedly. Or it might be as simple as taking two hours to devise a new file-naming scheme and clean up your folder structure, letting you easily find old work product for reuse.
With that last thought in mind, now would also be a fine time to install and configure a desktop search engine, if you’re not already using one. These simple and inexpensive products can save you a bundle of time—and money. Popular products are Copernic (www.copernic.com) and X1 ( www.x1.com). Better yet, if you’re already using the Windows Server 2003 operating system, download Windows SharePoint Services 2003 for free (http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/sharepointtechnology). This application offers a big gain in terms of collaboration, intranets, searching, document management, electronic forms (think online intake) and more.
Next, how about recycling old equipment sitting around your office? If you’re not using it, consider getting rid of it (after wiping any confidential data, of course). Check out your local craigslist or bargain bulletin for potential buyers, and you may find you’ll even be able to net enough for a night on the town, or at least a nice lunch. Or, if your unneeded equipment is too old or well used to sell, consider putting it on Freecycle (www.freecycle.org) or donating it to the National Cristina Foundation (www.cristina.org), which refurbishes used computer equipment and then donates it for use in training programs for the disabled and unemployed. One man’s trash is another’s tax deduction.
Get Training With Your Tools
For some reason, law firms have a built-in resistance to paying for training on the software that they purchase, with the result that only a fraction of the program’s capabilities get used. But why, when a small investment in training offers long-term benefits in terms of the potential ROI on your software investment? It’s equivalent to accepting a 5 percent return on an investment when a little bit more effort would yield 15 percent or more.
Accordingly, do a catalog of your existing software and research the full capabilities of what you already own. Then match your needs with these capabilities and look for training in the areas that would extend your effectiveness and ROI. Most legal software vendors offer online seminars, so you can cut out travel costs, minimize time away from the office and maximize your training dollars.
So those are our technology-focused suggestions for taking those storm clouds, seeing the silver lining and adding a few bucks to your bottom line in the process. In the next installment, we’ll turn to finance-specific tips.