GPSOLO June 2009
Lawyers on the Go
In this column, I will discuss some of the systems you can install in your office and software and services that you can employ to make it easier for you to work effectively outside your office. If you want insight into the hardware you can get, it has not changed dramatically since I wrote about it last year in the June 2008 issue (“Retooling the Mobile Lawyer,” www.abanet.org/genpractice/magazine/2008/jun/roadwarrior.html).
Outside of a courtroom, most of the work that lawyers do consists of legal research and analysis, advising clients, document creation and review, trial preparation and discovery, and the creation of pleadings and briefs. In order to stay in business, a law firm needs to have a means of tracking work and billing clients for that work along with any expenses incurred on the client’s behalf. A law firm also needs to have the ability to create and maintain basic accounting records.
In the traditional law firm operation, everything centered on a bricks-and-mortar office that housed the secretarial and accounting support, a law library, and such other accoutrements as facilitated the performance of these basic functions. In the last 25 years we have seen the practice of law evolve to a much more mobile structure. We can now work almost as effectively outside of the office as we can inside of the office. We can certainly work more effectively out of the office than we could in the office 25 years ago.
If you have not yet moved to a digital dictation system, you should do so as quickly as possible. Analog dictation is as out of date as the IBM Selectric. (For those of you too young to remember, the IBM Selectric was the electric—not electronic—typewriter of choice in law offices into the 1970s. In its day, it was quite the piece of technology.) Analog dictation has the disadvantage of requiring physical delivery to the transcriber of the storage media, generally some form of reel-to-reel or cassette tape. With digital dictation, you can deliver the digital file electronically, whether across a network in your office or over the Internet to your own secretary or to a transcribing service that will turn your dictation file into a word processing document for your review, modification, and approval. You can get a foot pedal as well as software to enable your secretary’s computer to function as a transcribing machine for your files.
Even if you do most of your own typing, you will want to have an arrangement with a transcribing service to handle emergencies or heavy typing loads that build up from time to time. Because transcription services generally cost far less than a secretary, you may wish to consider choosing that option to reduce your operating expenses. By the way, if you have switched from traveling with a fully powered laptop to carrying only a lightweight netbook, that poses no problem: Most good netbooks with Internet access can upload digital dictation files and download the word processing files once they are transcribed or transfer the files as an e-mail attachment.
You can find a number of good transcription services to facilitate your work. Also look for a service that will give you 24-hour or better turnaround time. Look for a service that will take your forms and use them as models for your work. To give you an idea of the cost, the firm I use, LawDocsXpress ( www.lawdocsxpress.com), charges me about $32 per hour for transcription work, based on a quarter-hour minimum.
In switching to a digital system, you will find that you have the option of using different recording formats. The two most common are .dss and .wav files. I recommend that you opt to use the .dss format because it is more universal and will, in most cases, work with both Windows and Macintosh computers and operating systems. You can find digital dictation equipment from a variety of sources. In my opinion, Olympus ( www.olympusamerica.com) and Philips ( www.dictation.philips.com) make the best equipment. Grundig (www.grundig-gbs.com) and Sony ( http://b2b.sony.com) are also in the mix. The current top-of-the-line portable dictation device from Olympus is the DS-5000, and from Philips, the DPM-9600. Although I prefer the ergonomics of the DPM-9600 over the DS-5000, the DS-5000 works flawlessly on both Windows and Mac platforms, whereas the DPM-9600 does not appear to work on the Mac, despite the fact that it, like the DS-5000, uses the .dss file format. Philips representatives have given me conflicting information about Mac compatibility.
Yet another advantage of the digital files is their compatibility with voice recognition software, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Nuance ( www.nuance.com) offers Dragon in several versions ranging from a low-cost standard version to the pricey Dragon Naturally-Speaking Legal, which comes with a dedicated legal vocabulary. (For a full product review, see page 60 of this issue.) If you are on the Mac platform, the relatively newly released MacSpeech Dictate ( www.macspeech.com) does a good job, comparable to the lower-level Dragon NaturallySpeaking programs (not a surprise as it uses the Dragon engine).
Most of us already use one of the Internet-based services for the bulk (if not all) of our legal research. Because our libraries have moved off-premises and into cyberspace, we can conduct effective and efficient legal research anywhere we have an Internet connection. As the Internet-based libraries generally have more information available than most of us had in our physical libraries ten or 20 years ago, technology has given us the tools to do better and faster research on the road than we could do in our office in the past.
I have adopted the practice of saving cases electronically on my computer rather than printing them to paper. That saves the cost of printing, generally costs less in fees to the provider, and gives me the advantages of higher portability and utility. As electronic files have no physical weight, it takes little effort to move them from one place to another while traveling. If you have (as you should) a full copy of Adobe Acrobat 9 ( www.adobe.com; the Professional version works best for attorneys) and store the files in .pdf format, you can mark them up about as easily as you could highlight a physical copy. In terms of utility, I find it much easier and faster to cut a piece of text and paste it into a brief or memorandum of points and authorities than to retype it. I can do that with a .pdf file. If I have a paper copy, the text requires keyboarding to transfer it into the document.
Presumably, you know about getting e-mail on the go. The ability to do that and to communicate by cellular telephone from almost anywhere enables you to stay in touch with your office, your clients, and opposing counsel. Most courts (at least those in California) even allow you to appear by telephone. In many matters, a telephonic appearance can prove just as effective as standing in front of the judge. It can save considerable travel time and, therefore, cost to you or your client. My personal record for long-distance court appearances by telephone approaches 3,000 miles (from the Newark Airport in New Jersey to the Alameda County Superior Court in California).
Although you can now appear virtually anywhere via the telephone, you must use the technology carefully. You will need a place that is quiet and a landline or a very reliable cell location. Note that some courts object to the use of cell phones for telephone appearances. I regularly use telephonic appearances for housekeeping matters, such as case management conferences. I would not use that technology in a matter that I considered sensitive or substantively significant to the case, as I still believe that a personal appearance works best in such matters. I prefer the ability to stand in front of the judge when I argue a sensitive or significant matter; it allows me to observe the judge’s reaction to comments made by both sides, which I cannot do on the phone. We have not yet reached the point of videoconference appearances in court. I expect that one day we will have that option. We will have to evaluate its effect once it becomes available.
Speaking of videoconferencing, you can do that easily and inexpensively these days, and it may prove better in some cases than a simple telephone call for interacting with other attorneys or with your clients. Most desktop computers, laptops, and even netbooks have or will easily accommodate a camera (“webcam”). The webcams and Internet access speeds readily available today allow for the transmittal of a clear and reliable image. You can use a variety of technologies and service providers to set up a simple videoconference, including Skype ( www.skype.com), Yahoo Messenger ( http://messenger.yahoo.com), and Apple’s iChat ( www.apple.com/macosx/features/ichat.html), all of which cost nothing. For a fee, you can get more sophisticated Internet conferencing services through a variety of providers.
Scanners and Paperless Files
The wonders of scanning can also facilitate working out of the office. Your office staff (or a hired service) can scan your mail and any other hard copies of documents delivered to you and transmit them to you by e-mail. For that matter, if you scan documents as they come in during the regular course of your operations, you can have an easily portable and weightless electronic file. When I travel domestically, my files come with me on my computer with backup on a high-density USB memory drive. Because I keep electronic copies of all relevant documents for my cases, including all documents turned over in discovery, I can literally do just about any work on the road. Note that for security reasons you may wish to not have confidential information on a disk in your possession when crossing a U.S. international border, where you expose that data to the risk of examination. For those situations, I leave critical files stored in an encrypted state in an online facility; when I arrive at my destination, I can download them for use.
Historically, most law firms have handled billing from a central location. They had no real choice because the firm recorded all billing data in a central location and then issued the bills. We now have the ability to record time remotely over the Internet through systems in our office. We also have services that will allow the recording of billing data online from any location with Internet access as well as the ordering of an invoice that you can print out or save in an electronic file for delivery by e-mail, snail mail, or both. Check out Clio ( www.goclio.com) and Bill4Time ( www.bill4time.com) for such services.
Who Needs an Office?
The evolution of technology as it relates to the practice of law makes it possible for lawyers to practice effectively outside of a bricks-and-mortar office environment. Take advantage of the available technology to make your practice run more smoothly and with less strain on you. Many solos have decided to work out of their homes and use virtual office environments for meeting clients. Such an arrangement has more viability than ever before.
Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is the special issue editor of GPSolo’s Technology & Practice Guide and editor-in-chief of the Technology eReport. In addition to being licensed as an attorney in California, he has been admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He holds faculty positions at California State University of the East Bay and the University of Phoenix. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also get updated technology information from his blog: jallenlawtekblog.com.