To operate a successful and competent law practice, you must employ certain technology tools. Determining your needs and specifically which solution to select can be overwhelming. To begin, you should audit your existing hardware and software to assess any areas of deficiency. You need to know the life expectancy of each to determine when you should begin researching replacements. You don’t want to be reactive regarding technology investments. Your technology budget should have flexibility to encompass the eventuality that replacements will be required and because advances are continual. Having adequate time and a process in place to evaluate your options is critical.
The Basic Hardware
First, ensure you’ve invested in the basics. There are certain tools that are requisite for any practice. All employees must have a functioning computer with internet access. Whether that means a laptop, desktop, tablet or all three will likely be based on employees’ work habits and preferences, but a firm-provided laptop provides the most work flexibility and security. When working at the office, consider having an extra-large screen to increase efficiency and a docking station, too. Having a touch screen is a plus. Although tablets certainly have a place and there are some amazing trial applications, most do not have the functionality to fully replace a laptop. Touch screen laptops offer the portability of a tablet and the capacity of a desktop, making these a commonly implemented device.
Another essential device to include is a color laser printer. Even if you primarily print in black and white, there is often a need for colored ink. With a color printer, you can print your own letterhead or marketing materials. Even in a paperless office, some days you may need to print a redline for review. There are certainly all-in-one solutions that include a printer, scanner and fax, however, e-fax should be the only option. Some phone systems include this for free; there are also specific e-fax options. However, to use e-fax, if you haven’t created the document on your computer, a scanner is necessary. A high-volume quality desktop scanner like the Fujitsu ScanSnap is an ideal solution. There are also some good scanning applications for your phone so you can capture documents when you’re not at your desk.
To create or maintain a paperless and secure environment, you should develop a scan and shred policy to properly dispose of unnecessary paper while keeping complete digital client files. Make sure you also have a backup policy to save files securely in the cloud; use backup software that runs continuously in the background. Then, at the end of each day, back up to a removable drive to update your backup and store the device safely in a fire-and flood-secure container. This should allow you to feel comfortable disposing of paper copies of documents that do not need to be maintained in their original form. The electronic version provides ease of access, better searching ability within the document and convenient sharing.
How you make and receive phone calls will depend on office mobility. If you spend significant time at your desk, investing in Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) makes sense. Investing in a good wireless headset allows for clear communication and ease of mobility. These days most phone systems can patch directly to your personal mobile device. This is certainly an option to consider, though you will also want to create a “bring your own device” policy. From a security standpoint, transacting business only on a firm-provided device is preferred, as you can control what applications are added and ensure security programs are installed. However, gone is the day that most people want to carry two devices in their pockets. The convenience of being able to access emails and receive phone calls from a personal device likely outweighs any requirement to only use a firm device, but verify that employees understand how to secure their devices. Consider engaging a security consultant who can secure devices, send out updates and monitor for proper safety measures.
One of the most important elements for smooth operations is secure wireless internet, especially if you’re using a VoIP phone system. You might want to obtain a mesh device to ensure that the signal strength is strong. If employees are allowed to travel with their laptop, they need to understand that they should never connect to free internet, so having either a free-standing hotspot or using a phone’s cellular hotspot is best practice for security.
When it comes to software, there are certain must-have solutions such as an office suite, including Word, spreadsheets and presentation software. All attorneys must use email, and you may choose a desktop option such as Outlook or directly log in online. If employees are using their own device, asking them to use the online version is more secure. PDF software is also important. Adobe Pro provides you with the ability to request e-signatures, which is critical now.
Probably one of the most valuable advanced technologies is document automation software. These come with levels of complexity but are an invaluable investment. You also need security software to protect your devices from a cyberattack. Not all solutions need to be labeled “legal tech.” There are plenty of tools with broader business applications; think QuickBooks.
There are programs developed specifically for use in law firms. Should you need help finding the right solution for your firm, take a stroll through the ABA TECHSHOW EXPO floor to begin to get an understanding of just how many law practice management solutions exist. Some are practice-specific; some are robust and allow you to manage the entire client life cycle from within; others are solution-specific, such as for billing or client relationship management. Although there are certainly leaders in the field, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Do your research. Take the time to try out your favorites. Figure out how many of your technology needs can be achieved with each solution. If you are using multiple tools, do they integrate or can they be connected through Zapier?
Tools to consider include:
Client management. Look for a solution that permits a collaborative relationship with your client. Are you able to customize the information you collect from the client? Can you send a firm-branded, client-facing form and have them enter their information? Can the software use the information to perform conflict checks?
Case management. Keeping clear on what steps are required, the deadlines and the documents that need to be created in a case is critical. Do you have to enter all the timelines, or are the court deadlines included? How can you automate the process?
Document management. What is the capacity to keep all client documents within the program? Can you attach external cloud folders? Can you securely share documents with clients? Can your clients access them at any time? Can they upload their own documents?
Document automation. Being able to use client information to automatically populate templates is career-changing. What automation options exist within the software? Can they be integrated with your intake system?
Communication automation. How can you automate messages that are routinely sent? Can they be sent directly through the software? Can messages be sent securely? What is the recipient experience? Can messages be branded?
Task management. Can you create task lists and separate them by days? Can you assign tasks to employees, clients and outside counsel? Does the software include reminders? Are the tasks listed in calendar view?
E-signature. Ease of execution is incredibly important. There are free-standing programs, but some solutions provide an e-signature integration. Can you send documents for signature directly through the software? Is a secured copy automatically stored in the client’s file? When the document is fully executed, is a copy sent to all parties? Can you cc a nonsigning party such as opposing counsel to receive a copy as well?
E-mail integration. Do you plan to run all your communication through separate software? Does the software integrate with your existing email? Can you send secure messages?
Calendaring. Can you send calendar invites directly through the software? Does it integrate with your calendar? Can clients schedule directly through a client portal? Does the software read your personal calendar to determine availability? Does it provide for group scheduling?
Time and expense tracking. Time is money, and tracking it is critical. Does the software provide for passive or active timekeeping options? Do you have to start a timer, or does it start automatically? How are expenses accounted for? Can they be automatically imported into your billing system?
Billing. How are bills generated? Can you customize the template? Can bills be sent directly from your system? How are reminders sent? Can payments be made directly from the bill?
Online payments. Are you able to securely collect online payments and retainer payments directly through the software? Does it integrate with third-party payment software?
Accounting. Does the software include its own accounting tools? Does it integrate with your existing accounting program? Can your accountant have access? Can you limit that access?
Financial reports. Do built-in reports provide insight into how your practice is doing? Are metrics tracked, and are reports easy to interpret?
Client portal. Are clients able to log in directly and securely to access information about their matter? Can they use secure messaging? Can they upload their own documents? Can they access your calendar for scheduling?
Collaboration tools. Are you able to work within the system with your clients and other collaborators, such as attorneys outside of the firm or accountants?
Cost. What is the overall investment? Is it cheaper if you pay annually? Is the cost per user? What is the cost when you are scaling up or down? Does the license support the number of users at your firm?
Termination. Hopefully you’ll select a solution that works for you, but if not, how do you get out of the contract? Are you obligated for a specific term? How do you get information out of their system?
Training. Is training live or prerecorded? Will they do customized trainings for your firm? Is it free? Are there different trainings for different types of employees, such as support staff versus attorneys? How much training is required to become proficient?
Support. Do they offer live phone and chat support? When, and in what time zone, is support available? How knowledgeable is the support staff? How long is the wait to speak with someone who can help you?
Security. When using digital tools in a law practice, security is always a concern. How do they protect your data? What is their level of security? Do they have multifactor authentication?
Reputation. The best way to answer these questions is through existing users. What is the reputation of the company? Do they have funding? The last thing you want to do is upload your entire firm into a system that dissolves within the year. That is a lot of lost time and money.
Include all stakeholders in decision making. If lawyers and support staff will be using the software, make sure that it works for everyone involved. Also take the time to do the trial and the trainings. There is nothing worse than investing time and money into a new tool that no one uses.
Including technology in your practice not only provides for efficiency and accuracy, it is now a requirement for competency. Complete your technology audit and fill in the gaps by attending the ABA TECHSHOW.