Essential Technology in a Solo or Small Office

Volume 38 Number 2

By

About the Author

 Marc W. Matheny is an attorney in practice for over 30 years in general civil litigation, concentrating in the areas of family law and probate law. He has served the on the planning Board for the ’s Solo Small Firm conference, and is also on the ABA TECHSHOW Board.

Special thanks to:
Steve Terrell for his editing, suggestions and anecdotes used in this article; and to Tom Landwerlen for the use of his 80- inch monitor to check this article for errors.

WHAT IS "ESSENTIAL TECHNOLOGY?” As with good art or music, the answer often depends upon who is answering. For a colleague in my building, “essential” means two 80-inch monitors. On the other hand, one lawyer responded to a recent state bar technology survey by saying he did not own a computer and left all that “email stuff” to his secretary.

For most of us, essential technology—the intersection of practice and technology—lies somewhere between these extremes. For my solo practice, essential technology means technology that is useful in my practice, and which I can reasonably afford on a modest budget; or perhaps more importantly, it’s technology that I cannot reasonably afford to do without.

This article is centered on the Windows-based PC. For Mac users, most of these technology tools are still essential, but they may come in a different form or from different vendors. So here’s my list: 

Security: Anti-virus/Anti-spam/Anti-Spy/Anti-theft

Essential technology starts with protection from threats outside the office. Anti-virus and anti-spamware are a must.

Do not trust your system to freeware. You do get what you pay for.

The better and more up-to-date your software is, the better you are protected from the latest viruses, spam and spyware. As long as the programs are compatible, you can run both anti-spam and anti-virus software. However, because glitches may occur, a combination anti-spyware, anti-virus, anti-spam program is a worthwhile investment.

A good one-user anti-virus program is AVG (www.avg.com). A combination anti-virus, anti-spyware and anti-spam program costs as little as approximately $50, with yearly renewal. Important to note: You must renew or you won’t be protected. Given the importance of protecting your data, your clients, and your carefully built reputation, it’s a small investment.

As social media sites grow, so does the risk of Internet-based attacks to your computer. Spammers, hackers, phishers and pirates are everywhere. Reliance on free versions of Internet protection products is not worth the risk.

Copier/Scanner/Fax

Although many combination fax/scanner/copiers are available, the bottom line is, what is most convenient and practical for your situation? As desktop scanners go, the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 (www.fujitsu.com/scansnap) is far and away one of the great bargains in technology. It comes with a full version of Adobe Acrobat, as well as Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. Effectively, you pay for the software and get the scanner for free. The one-touch simplicity and envelope-sized footprint make the ScanSnap a great desktop scanner. Most copiers are digital, using the same hardware technology as printers. While inkjet printers may be appropriate for low-volume home use, ink is far too costly over the long run for office use. Laser printers and copiers provide great savings by using high-volume toner cartridges. When selecting a printer or copier, ensure it has the ability to use high-volume print cartridges, and check on the cost per copy.

Speed will also play a role in the copier/printer/scanner you choose. Lower price usually means lower speed, and speed is sometimes the trade-off for a more reasonably priced product. Although we would like to think that going paperless means less paper, for most of us, that is simply not reality. Whether it’s dealing with clients, opposing counsel, courts or other agencies, a quick reliable copier is still a necessity.

Digital dictation and Voice Recognition

Digital dictation has been around for some time, but is underutilized in most small offices.

The benefits of digital dictation lie not only in the elimination of those pesky micro-cassettes, but also in the fact that digital dictation will work from almost anywhere, including your SmartPhone. Digital dictation paired with voice recognition software such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking (www.nuance.com) will only increase your efficiency to dictate while on the go.

Voice recognition software has come a long way in the past decade, and with a little patience and a good microphone to filter unwanted background noise, voice recognition is a very real option to voice transcription needs in a small office. Necessary hardware for digital dictating includes the dictation machine, available from such companies as Phillips or Olympus, the included software, and a PC foot pedal for transcription. You can also take digital dictation a step further, eliminate the in-house transcription and use an online transcription service. This nearly eliminates the need for an in-office secretary. Simply dictate your daily or weekly transcription, and use one of the many services available either locally or online. Your transcription is usually complete and ready for review, editing or printing in a few hours.

Productivity Software

Word processing (Word), email (Outlook), presentation (PowerPoint) and spreadsheets (Excel) and more are contained in Microsoft Office. Its many versions rule the PC world. Be wary, however, as the preloaded original equipment manufacturers versions of Microsoft Office may not have every program in the Microsoft Office suite that you may want or need.

Outlook is the core of every PC “Office.” For categorizing, filing and email delivery, Outlook is hard to beat. Mozilla Thunderbird is a free alternative to an email inbox and file system. There are online options such as Gmail, but Outlook has useful features such as integration with other Microsoft Office features, as well as available after-market add-ons that Thunderbird and other similar email systems lack.

Many WordPerfect diehards insist that WordPerfect is an easier and more user-friendly word processing system. Many law offices still use WP, although the percentage seems to be dwindling. Google Docs and Open Office are alternative freeware that can open and edit both Word and WordPerfect files; however, both lack many advanced features.

For presentation software, Microsoft PowerPoint has little competition, although Corel offers an alternative calledPresentations, which is part of the Corel Office Suite. Prezi is cloud-based and has an interesting interface with its zooming capabilities. Google also offers cloud-based alternatives for slide-based presentations, but with limited features. However, Google’s program is excellent for collaborations that can then easily be converted to PowerPoint or Presentations for adding more sophisticated features and for final editing.

Adobe Acrobat X Pro is simply a must-have program for all lawyers. If you do any electronic filing in Federal Court, all files must be filed in PDF format, and are moving to PDF/A, the international archival format. There are other free versions of PDF makers, such as cutepdf.com and pdfforge.org, offered as alternatives to Adobe software on the Web. However, none of them offer the annotation, editing and other features of Acrobat. Nitro PDF (nitropdf.com) is a less expensive option that has some of the capabilities of Adobe Acrobat.

Time and Billing Software/Case Management Software

A quick Google search of “time and billing software for lawyers” resulted in over 700,000 results. The question for solos and small firm lawyers is not whether you need time and billing and case management software, but which one? Do you buy software or use an Internet cloud-based system?

It has been said that case management software is like marriage: for better or for worse, it is easier and cheaper to stick with one. It is not advisable to switch from brand to brand, as no case management system is fully compatible with another. You cannot, for instance, make the switch from Amicus to Abacus or to Tabs3/PracticeMaster and expect that all information will transfer seamlessly.

Competition from the cloud has changed the face of case management software. Software faces major competition for the solo and small firm market waged by Clio and Rocket Matter, as well as HoudiniESQ. There are certainly issues with each system, both good and bad, including a learning curve for each product. At present, neither RocketMatter nor Clio will flawlessly sync with MS Exchange Server, making dual entries necessary in some common applications in that network.

But there are questions about the cloud. Ethics agencies have raised issues about cloud systems. They have expressed concerns about having client data stored with third parties beyond the control of the attorney. However, to date, no attorney has been disciplined for using a cloud-based system.

Although each is slightly different and each is in its own way intuitive to the user, the best way to decide which works best for your office is to try it out. Each software or cloud-based system has a free trial or demo available. A very good comparison chart of practice/ case management software is available at the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center website: http://tinyurl.com/d7d8p95.  

Accounting Software

Every small business needs to keep track of its income and expenses, especially law firms. The most popular accounting software seems to be QuickBooks Pro, which has dominated the market for over a decade. Although not intended as a legal-specific program by the manufacturer, many solos and small firms use QuickBooks Pro as a general ledger, including use in keeping track of attorney trust accounts. QuickBooks Pro does make office accounting smart and easy. Monthly income and expenses are simple to track. For what it does—accounting—QuickBooks Pro is a good investment.

Accessibility of Network/Data from Remote Location

Whether you use gotomypc.com or Microsoft Small Business Server with Exchange Server, or simply store your data in the cloud, having a way to access your computer and your data while you are outside the office is a boon to your efficiency and effectiveness.

As with most business decisions, the cost of network access is a key factor. A small firm of two or three lawyers may find the cost of MS SB Server prohibitive, but a firm of over six to eight lawyers can spread the economic burden and make it feasible. Realistically, the cost of a new server and the peripherals (network wiring, switches and repeaters) can easily go to five figures, which could make availability “in the cloud” a more economic choice for a solo or very small firm.

Tech Support/IT

The hard drive is fried, the computer won’t boot up, the work stations won’t connect to the server: What do you do? The bottom line is that the most valuable technology you may have in the office is the phone number of your IT specialist.

When your system goes down for whatever reason, you need to be up and running as soon as possible. Without reliable, efficient help from a specialist to get you back up and online, you’re dead in the water.

The one thing a solo or small firm cannot afford to do is to be inaccessible to the client, the courts or to data in the client file. If you’re “down” you might as well be out of business. You cannot rely on the big box computer store down the street to get your system up and running in any sort of timely fashion. You need a competent IT specialist who can periodically review your system to foil trouble ahead of time, and who can get you up and running in an emergency.

Added Tip

Keep a log or printout of your computer system—including all updates, outside of the computer data file—either on a flash drive or in a paper file. When your system is down and you cannot access your system, it is helpful if your IT person has access to the most recent back-ups and computer system information.

This sampling of the necessary technology for a solo or small firm lawyer will help in what to look for in either starting or updating hardware and software in your office.

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