January 13, 2021 Appellate Issues | Winter 2021

Tools and Tips for a Virtual Appellate Practice

By Virginia Hinrichs McMichael

When I opened a virtual appellate law boutique in 2013, virtual law firms were an oddity.  Although electronic filing of motions and briefs was the norm, most appellate lawyers commuted to traditional offices, conducted in-person meetings, and appeared in person for oral arguments. 

The COVID-19 pandemic changed all of that.  In March 2020, law firms hurriedly set up systems to permit lawyers and staff to work from home.  Appellate courts began hearing arguments by video conferencing.  Even the U.S. Supreme Court, an institution historically resistant to change, began holding telephonic oral arguments.  A new paradigm was born. 

The virtual law firm is here to stay.  Lawyers who never considered themselves tech-savvy are now embracing technology at a rapid rate.  Working remotely is part of their daily existence.

Today, a lawyer can open a law firm with just a computer and a website.  But a computer and a website are only the beginning.  Today’s virtual appellate law firm needs a wide array of technology and other resources to market and deliver legal services efficiently and effectively.

Tools for Getting Clients

A start-up law firm needs one thing more than anything else ─ clients.  Historically, established law firms had a stable of clients for many years, sometimes for generations.  Retiring partners would bequeath clients to their protégés.  Capable lawyers could rely on referrals from family, social contacts, and other lawyers to build a solid book of business.

The harsh reality is that a 21st-century lawyer must hustle to get new clients.  Being a terrific lawyer is great, but it only brings in business if potential clients can find you.

Fortunately, there are many marketing tools that can help lawyers attract and keep good clients.  The four most important tools are the law firm website, CRM software, email marketing software, and social media marketing.

Website

Lawyers should think of a firm website as the front door to their virtual office.  First impressions count.  A great website must be visually engaging and convey a compelling message. 

A website is also an important marketing tool.  A website that looks nice but lacks good Search Engine Optimization (SEO) will not rank high in a Google search.  A website without good SEO is like a nice house without a road or a driveway ─ no one can find it.    

Websites must be mobile-friendly.  In 2020, 52% of global internet traffic came from mobile devices.  A website that is not formatted to be read on a phone will be passed over in favor of one that is.

Today’s websites should also be accessible for persons with disabilities.  According to the CDC, 26% of adults in the U.S. live with a disability.  Although the Americans with Disabilities Act does not specifically address website accessibility, in 2019 there were 2,256 ADA website-accessibility lawsuits filed in the federal courts.  Websites created in 2021 should aim to be accessible to everyone.

A website should not be static.  Websites rank higher in organic searches when they are updated regularly.  And because technology changes rapidly, websites may need to be redesigned every few years to stay fresh.

CRM Software

CRM is Client Relationship Management software.  CRM helps lawyers attract and keep clients and referral sources.

CRM software has been used in the corporate world for many years.  Two of the biggest names are Salesforce and Infusionsoft (now Keap).        In 2013, there was no CRM for law firms, and I struggled with the steep learning curve of traditional CRM.  Then along came Lexicata, the first CRM for law firms.  Clio bought Lexicata in 2018, and it became Clio Grow.

CRM software offers a big improvement over maintaining information in Outlook or Google Contacts ─ and a quantum leap from stowing a pile of business cards in a desk drawer.  Most CRM software integrates with MailChimp, Constant Contact, or HubSpot ─ programs used for bulk emailing notices and newsletters.

CRM software also helps onboard new clients.  With a few clicks, a CRM program will track emails and calls from prospective clients (“leads”), schedule calls and meetings, send automatic follow-up emails, create and send an engagement letter from a template, issue a trust request, allow for payment by credit card,  and transfer all the information and documents to an integrated practice management software.  Et voilá!  A new matter!

Email Marketing Software

The big names in email marketing are Constant Contact, MailChimp, and HubSpot.  All three allow users to send emails to lists of recipients.

Research shows that targeted marketing — sending something designed to interest the recipient — is more likely to generate “clicks” than more generic material.  For example, an appellate lawyer may choose to send one newsletter to trial lawyers and a different one to clients who are in-house counsel.  Connecting CRM software to email software such as MailChimp allows the user to send out a newsletter or press release to all or part of a database.

Social Media Marketing

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram ─ love it or hate it, social media is another way to communicate with prospective clients.  If you want clients to find you, you must be where they are, and that is on social media.  The numbers speak for themselves.

Facebook, the biggest social network in the world, has over 2.7 billion monthly active users. 

LinkedIn, the favorite of lawyers and businesspeople, has over 760 million users and more than 260 million monthly active users.  Of those who engage with the platform monthly, 40% access it daily.

Twitter has 330 million active users and 145 million daily active users.  Instagram, which allows users to edit and share photos, has 130 million users.

A carefully crafted social media plan can help increase a virtual law firm’s geographic reach and name recognition.  Tools such as Hootsuite make it easy to send posts on multiple social media platforms and to target the day and time of each post.

The Virtual Office

In 2020, many appellate lawyers became accustomed to working from home.  But there is a leap from working from home for a few days (or months) to having a virtual office. 

Appellate lawyers looking to start a virtual law firm need to decide where they will receive mail and meet with clients.  One option is to rent a mailbox from the postal service or a private vendor.  Client meetings can be conducted by phone or Zoom, eliminating the need for traditional office space. 

Another option is to use a shared-office arrangement, where lawyers and other professionals share receptionists and administrative staff.  Many such offices will accommodate both physical offices and virtual ones.  A virtual office in that context allows lawyers to maintain an office address, a mailbox, and the services of a receptionist.  Clerical and other staff are available on an as-needed basis and conference rooms can be reserved for client meetings.

Finally, some lawyers with virtual offices will occasionally borrow or rent conference rooms and other facilities from other law firms.

Staffing

Although it is tempting to try to do everything, lawyers seeking to grow their practices need to learn to delegate.  Fortunately, the last few years have seen a surge in the number of service providers able to work virtually. 

Lawyers, paralegals, secretaries, receptionists, bookkeepers, CPAs, marketing professionals, business coaches, I.T. professionals, graphic designers ─ all can be hired on an as-needed basis and work remotely.  Even law firms that have access to administrative support in a shared office can benefit from hiring cloud-based professionals to supplement their staff.

Telephones

A virtual law firm needs a system for handling phone calls.  One option is to hire a receptionist service.  Ruby Receptionists,  Back Office Betties, and LEXReception all market to lawyers looking to hire someone to screen calls and take messages.

Another tool for a virtual office is a VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phone system.  VoIP systems route telephone calls over internet protocol networks.  Small law firms using VoIP systems can make and receive unlimited phone calls, conduct conference calls, forward calls to a mobile or home phone, receive and store messages, send and receive online faxes, and more.  Well-known VoIP providers include RingCentral, Nextiva, and Ooma.

Some firms will choose a toll-free phone number that can be configured to transfer calls to different numbers.  Grasshopper is one provider that offers toll-free numbers at a reasonable price.

Practice Management Software

Practice management software is the backbone of a virtual law firm.  Practice management software organizes matters and documents, stores client information, tracks time and tasks, creates bills, tracks receivables, and prepares budgets.  Some, like Clio, integrate with programs such as LawPay, which permits secure online payments to trust and operating accounts.  Another provider, Smokeball, promotes itself as software that automatically records time and activity.  Several software programs also include apps that make the program mobile-friendly.

The ABA Legal Technology Buyer’s Guide includes seventeen practice management software providers, including Clio, MyCase, Practice Panther, Rocket Matter, Smokeball, and Zola Suite.  ABA members receive discounts for Clio and MyCase.

SaaS

SaaS (Software as a Service) allows access to software on a subscription basis over the internet using external servers. 

Until recently, law firms ran word processing programs on desktops or servers.  The firm would purchase a software license for each user.  Lawyers needed to be in the office to do legal research or read and edit a document. 

The wide-spread adoption of SaaS for essential law firm software such as Microsoft Office 365, Google Workspace (formerly G Suite), Adobe DC, Lexis, and Westlaw changed the practice of law and facilitated virtual law firms.  QuickBooks Online brought SaaS to law firm accounting. 

Lawyers looking to unshackle themselves from their desks should embrace cloud-based service providers and choose SaaS over desk-based software.

Zapier

One of the challenges for a firm running different software programs is getting the programs to work together.  Some programs have built-in integrations with other programs.  For example, Clio integrates with Microsoft 365, Google Workspace, Dropbox, LawPay, QuickBooks, and many other programs.  LexisNexis is available as an add-on for Word.

Zapier allows end-users to link web applications to other programs so they can “talk” to each other.  Users create “zaps” that connect two or more apps to automate repetitive tasks without coding or relying on developers to build the integration.  For example, one could set up a zap to create a new contact in a CRM program when an address is added to Outlook.

Legal Research and Analytics   

Appellate practice requires thorough and accurate legal research.  In a recent survey, more than two-thirds of judges said that an attorney missing controlling authority has materially affected the outcome of a motion or proceeding. 

Appellate lawyers often have their preferred legal search engine ─ usually Lexis or Westlaw.  Both companies are continually upgrading their technology to stay competitive. 

In recent years, the two biggies of the legal search world have been challenged by upstarts that use artificial intelligence to improve the scope and accuracy of a legal search.  One newcomer is CARA AI by Casetext, which boasts that its software enables attorneys to find authority that other search engines miss. 

The newest entry in the legal research arena is legal analytics.  Analytics is the science of drawing insights from large volumes of data.  LexisNexis claims that “legal analytics tools are helping lawyers make data-driven decisions on which to build their legal strategies.  That could mean things like knowing the probability of a specific motion outcome, how seemingly unrelated cases connect, or how much a settlement award could be.”

One provider, Gavelytics, bills itself as providing “patented, AI-powered analysis of tens of millions of state court litigation documents uncovering hidden patterns of behavior of judges, law firms, lawyers, litigants and more, coast-to-coast.”

Many AmLaw100 firms have already adopted legal analytics tools.  Appellate law firms that want to stay competitive would be wise to do the same.

Editing and Proofreading

Although there is no substitute for careful proofreading, several programs can help.  In addition to Microsoft Word’s Editor, appellate lawyers should consider Grammarly, BriefCatch, WordRake, and PerfectIt — programs designed to detect not only obvious errors, but also wordiness, awkward phrasing, agreement, punctuation, and consistency of capitalization.     

Formatting Briefs 

Most appellate lawyers have paralegals to handle the formatting and cite-checking of briefs.  But the wise appellate lawyer will have some basic skills to fall back on when help is unavailable. 

Best Authority is a user-friendly program that creates a clean and accurate Table of Authorities in minutes.  Styles in MS Word is a must for formatting headings and creating Tables of Contents.  Creating macros in Word can save time drafting signature blocks and captions.

LawPay

After all the time and effort, it takes to build a website, market to potential clients, set up a virtual office, hire staff, and write briefs, it is important to get paid. 

Today’s clients use credit cards for everything ─ from paying college tuition to buying a latte at Starbucks.  Clients are therefore not going to be happy with a law firm that refuses to accept credit cards.

That is where LawPay comes in.  LawPay’s online payment technology helps law firms get paid faster and more securely.  It is also fully compliant with ABA and IOLTA guidelines.  Although there are other credit card processing firms out there, this is one area where it is not wise to cut costs.  And many law firm case management programs have integrations with LawPay, so payments are automatically applied to the correct invoice.

In sum, the list of technology available to virtual law firms is long and growing every day.  Appellate practice, with its emphasis on research and writing, is well-suited to the virtual world.

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    Virginia Hinrichs McMichael

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    Virginia Hinrichs McMichael is a Member of the Executive Board of the Council of Appellate Lawyers and Chair of the Board’s Solo and Small Firm Committee.  McMichael is Managing Attorney of Appellate Law Group LLC, a certified woman-owned appellate law boutique based in Radnor, Pennsylvania.