Law Practice Today | March 2013 | Young Lawyer Survival Guide
March 2013 | Young Lawyer Survival Guide
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Tech Decisions Solo Attorneys Have to Get Right

By Loretta Ruppert

Starting out is scary for everyone.

Whether you went to the world’s most prestigious law school or graduated near the top of your class, whether you passed the bar on your first try or sweated your way through 10 attempts. No matter how successful you’ve been in the years preceding, the first days and weeks in a new firm environment are almost inevitably a mix of excitement and dread that can drive even the calmest personality into a frenzy of self-doubts. And those fears are sure to be multiplied exponentially if you’re going solo. The buck stops with you!

But there is an upside. If you’re starting your own law firm, you have a tremendous opportunity to save yourself years of agony and frustration by making some good choices at the outset. At the top of the list of ways to make your life easier is making the right technology decisions before you get swamped with client work.

In my years of helping solos and smaller law firms leverage IT solutions, I’ve heard hundreds of excuses for why they didn’t adopt a robust practice management solution sooner, and in the same breath heard them say they would have done so if they could go back in time. I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with hundreds of lawyers and other professionals who each have a wealth of advice to share on helping young lawyers leverage technology to make their lives easier and their legal practice more successful. For example, Todd Scott offers a few tips on the importance of choosing a practice management solution built to meet the specific needs of lawyers.

You Have an Opportunity Older Lawyers Don’t Feel They Have

Todd Scott is the vice president of risk management at Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company. Though he advises lawyers young and old about making good legal software decisions to make their lives easier, he gets especially excited about the unique opportunities available to lawyers just starting out in their own firms.

“So often, more experienced lawyers are burdened by older systems they feel they have to stick with,” he says. “Lawyers starting out don’t have those concerns. They have the chance to get things right, right from the beginning. They don’t have legacy files, they don’t have a backlog of work to burden them and they tend to be much more aware of technology and the possibilities of technology.”

As for the price concerns most young attorneys have when they’re starting out, Scott finds solos “usually very pleasantly surprised that legal software won’t cost an arm and a leg to get very good products.”

Although he has faith in the ability of young lawyers to make good technology choices, Scott does have a few concerns.

A General Office System Probably Isn’t Your Best Bet

Before his career advising lawyers on malpractice insurance, Scott was an attorney himself. So when he speaks about the necessity for legal-specific software, he speaks from experience on both sides of the malpractice interview.

“Many companies will simply not cover you unless you have good systems for docket control and conflict of interest,” he said. “You need to understand how important recordkeeping is.”

“If people are familiar with a general system like Outlook, they don’t see things the way lawyers do,” explains Scott. “Business systems are created for people operating a business. If you are an attorney, each case is an active, open project. You need an enhanced reminder system with triggers and reminders to keep you on track. There is a difference between a statutory reminder and a holiday reminder, but Outlook handles them both the same.”

There are many other reasons for choosing legal-specific software. For example, clients are becoming more demanding and asking for special billing arrangements, and more attorneys are only taking clients on a retainer, forcing the use of trust accounts.

Geneva Yourse, a young attorney in Raleigh, NC, agrees about the importance of legal-specific software – especially a good practice management program – to stave off problems with a build-up of disorganized documents later on. “It’s far cheaper and easier to start in immediately with practice management software,” she says.

Having once been a solo herself, Yourse also has strong feelings about the possibilities for software-as-a- service (SaaS). “Definitely do the cloud and definitely do it as soon as you can, before those documents build up,” she said. “As someone on the go, I rarely sit in an office. For me, it’s really good to be able to pull up a file or document from LexisNexis Firm Manager® on my iPad or smartphone.”

Life Can Be Easier in the Cloud

Yourse isn’t alone in her reliance on mobile devices to run her practice. Nearly all the young lawyers I work with today are heavily dependent on smartphones and tablets to run their practices, including two I spoke with recently.

Michael Zussman started his own practice specializing in intellectual property a year and a half ago in New York City, and works entirely on his laptop and iPhone, whether he’s in his office or out. Though he foresees a time when he will need more sophisticated legal-specific software, he makes do for now with calendaring, a web-based billing program and apps on his iPhone.

“I found an app that allows me to link directly with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office,” he said. “I can be sitting at lunch with a client talking about possible names for a new company and access the USPTO site in seven seconds to search availability on the spot.” Zussman also depends on his iPhone to do other types of legal research through the Lexis site.

Richard Bobholz, who just started his Durham, NC, firm in October after finishing law school in 2012, estimates he spends about 80 percent of his time out of the office getting new clients. Like almost all young lawyers today who grew up with technology, his tech awareness far surpasses that of most attorneys from older generations.

Bobholz learned computer programming in his early teens and actually created his own practice management program to save money. “It’s pretty basic,” said Bobholz, who uses the program to keep track of billing and client information. “It functions, but I’ll definitely revisit technology as it becomes more affordable. I would definitely recommend to other young lawyers that they get practice management software.”

Define Your Own Technology Personality

As keyed in to technology as they are, young lawyers starting out may still have some difficulty choosing the specific software systems to support their legal needs. So where should a smart solo start?

When I’m advising young lawyers about practice management or financial programs for their law firms, the first thing I encourage them to do is take the time to do a type of SWOT self-analysis, in other words, to uncover their own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in relation to technology

Evaluating yourself – even before you start sizing up different products – can save time because you’ll be more aware from the beginning about types of software that fit your technology personality.

Start by asking yourself a few questions:

  • How much of your working day is spent in an office, and how much is on the go with smartphones and other electronic devices?
  • How often do you switch between devices?
  • What is your approach to new software? Do you seek out training to learn as much as you can up-front, or jump in and learn as you go? Or do you shy away from learning new types of software altogether?
  • Do you generally look for the most sophisticated software package, or do you prefer simplicity?
  • Are you willing to invest time up-front to learn legal-specific software such as practice management if it can increase your productivity later?
  • Would you prefer to invest in software up-front, or would you rather pay a small monthly fee to work in the cloud?
  • Will you be handling trust accounts that put special demands on your legal software?

These are just a few of the things you’ll need to think about as you start to define your technology personality and needs.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Technology Advice From Others With More Experience

For lawyers starting out, it can be worthwhile to ask for advice from more established lawyers, or to work with a consultant or legal technologist to help make the right decisions early on. Getting used to a new program takes time, and as important as your legal software can be to your success now and in the future, it’s worth investing the time to get it right the first time.

Todd Scott doesn’t pretend to give out advice about specific programs, but he does have some big-picture advice for young lawyers starting out. “Get a program you can grow into,” he says. “And go with products that are tried and true. Software products for lawyers come and go. You don’t want to put 10,000 names in a new program only to have them go out of business down the road and you’re stuck trying to transfer that data.”

Wherever you get technology advice, don’t let anyone tell you there’s any one right answer for every legal technology situation. They’re not just wrong; they’re likely trying to sell you something that’s right for their pocketbook, not your practice.

No matter how stellar one particular type of software may be, it’s not going to be right for every lawyer in every situation. That’s why it’s important to understand your own technology personality before committing to a program that may not be right for the way you prefer to work.

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About the Author

Loretta Ruppert is the senior director with LexisNexis Law Firm Practice Management.

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