February 07, 2013 Articles

A Beginner's Guide to Creating a Wired Law Office

By Aaron M. Kelly

So you're starting a law firm, eh? Office space leased? Check. Office furniture? Check. Phone and utilities set up? Check. Now what? Well, it's software time, of course!

Selecting the appropriate software to streamline your firm's operations, maximize productivity, and boost billable hours can be a daunting task. Which programs are really worth it? Which ones actually do what they say? By the end of this short guide, the answers to those questions will be revealed.

Setting Up Your Network
One of the first things you'll want to do is decide whether or not a virtual private network (VPN) is for you. Working behind a VPN has both its benefits and drawbacks. On the upside, a VPN makes your network "virtually" invisible; think of it as having an unlisted phone number*. As such, it will help guard against hackers messing with your data. On the flipside, VPN's can be a pain. Many web services block VPNs, which can lead to frustration if you have to turn it on and off depending on what website you're on.

*To clarify, VPNs don't have an effect on your website; your website will not be blocked like an unlisted number; netizens will be able to find it. What will be blocked is the "Internet phone number" to your office Internet Protocol address.

Cloud Options Don't Discriminate
Your network is humming, so it's time to talk software. While dozens of stand-alone, legal management programs are on the market that you can purchase at retail and then install on your system, cloud-based options, in my opinion, are the way to go. Why? For starters, not all stand-alone software is compatible with all computers. As such, if you decide to change from a PC to a MAC in two years, or vice versa, you may have to purchase new software to work with your new hardware.

Cloud-based options eliminate that need. Moreover, the mobility of cloud-based options offers advantages for attorneys no matter the size of their practice.

All-In-One Virtual Law Firm Options
Several all-in-one virtual law office options are on the market; three of the best are Directlaw, MyCase, and Clio. All three are cloud-based legal-management platforms that aim to improve attorney-client communications, simplify billing, and streamline office administrative processes. All include features for calendaring, time tracking, note-taking, document management, trust accounting, retention management, and, of course, billing. If you are looking for simply a billing option, Freshbooks may be right for you. It allows for quick invoicing, whereas Directlaw, Clio, or MyCasebare more appropriate as "all-in-one" management options.

If you opt to go with one of these options, you'll probably have to spend a day setting up your account, and it may take a few weeks for computer novices to feel comfortable with their chosen platform, but once you incorporate a virtual system into your firm's daily routine, it will serve as an indispensable time-saver and automated office manager.

Signatures, Faxes, and Digital Documents
Litigation and lawsuits mean lots of signature, and sending documents via fax or carrier mail is time-consuming, not to mention administratively costly. Cloud-based options, like Right Signature and SRFax, exist to help streamline the process. Right Signature allows you to upload completed documents, which clients can then access and electronically sign. Right Signature also records IP addresses. You can also set-up and send client questionnaires, which is helpful for both feedback and regulatory paperwork. For added security, you can require that a webcam photograph be taken of the recipient.

SRFax is another useful (almost magical) tool. What does it do? If you need to send a fax, with SRFax installed, all you have to do is email the document to a fax number. That's it. Better yet, incoming faxes are automatically scanned as a PDF and sent to your inbox—a true time-saving, organizational masterpiece!

Get Your "WuFoo" On
Operating a law firm means you'll have to engage in a lot of repetitive administrative tasks—new-client questionnaires, case paperwork, etc. WuFoo Forms is an Internet-based form generator that helps streamline information-gathering tasks. Instead of having a word document for every new questionnaire or data collection survey, you can create a single WuFoo form for your purposes. For example, if you have a new-client questionnaire, simply create the form once in WuFoo, and then every time you have a new client all you have to do is send them the link to the WuForm instead of creating an individual document. Furthermore, you'll be able to access your information anytime and it's all in one place.

But Wait: I Don't Know the First Thing about Cloud Security!
Now that we've covered some of the more helpful apps that can be used in a law office, let's delve into data security.

Limit Access to Cloud-Based Software
Cloud-based services are great tools, but it's important to control access to them. You may need to give one or two people in your office access, but you should be very careful about who is able to login and from where. Mistakes happen, even with well-intentioned employees. New hardware is introduced almost monthly, and many times they're released with security holes.  If, for example, an employee purchases a new device and uses it to login to their work account, it could lead to an unintended data breech. So, if you want to play it safe, limit access to your accounts and consider establishing a policy that programs may only be accessed in-house.

Change Passwords Regularly
Did you change your password today? How about yesterday? While changing your passwords every day is excessive, you should have a system in place to ensure all of your passwords are being changed at least once a month. While this may seem like a chore—and it is—the benefits far outweigh the hassle.

Well there you have it, a beginner's guide to moving your law firm into the cloud. For the computer shy, it may seem intimidating at first, but don't give up, because a wired office will undoubtedly improve your firm's efficiency, and before long you'll be feeling like you've created an office even Cosmo Spacely of The Jetsons would envy.

Keywords: litigation, solo practitioners, small firms, software, network, virtual private network, cloud computing, legal-management programs

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