July 2018

Technology musts for solos and small-firm lawyers

Like big firms, solo and small firms have to contend with a dizzying array of technology decisions that can make a big difference in the success of their law practice.

To aide them, Sharon D. Nelson, John W. Simek and Michael C. Maschke have published the 11th edition of “The 2018 Solo and Small Firm Legal Technology Guide: Critical Decisions Made Simple.”

The guide offers specific, up-to-date information about the pros and cons of the latest computers, laptops, tablets, operating systems, document assembly programs and more. It covers all aspects of client portals, encrypted emails, laptop and cellphone searches at the border, the legal gig economy and tips for getting the most out of remote access. There are handy checklists for buying or leasing printers, cloud computing contracts and case management choices, among others.

The authors run Sensei Enterprises, a digital forensics, information technology and cybersecurity firm in Fairfax, Va. YourABA reached them to find out more:

Surveys show that three-quarters of lawyers use iPhones, but you recommend they use Android mobile devices. Why?

It’s all about choices and control. Some of the biggest complaints about iPhones are cost, battery life and memory. The Android platform provides attorneys with a lot of choices in cost and features. You can get a lot of features without spending close to a thousand dollars. While Apple is constantly improving its product, battery life is still an issue. Walk through any airport in the nation and count the number of people hoarding the electric outlets with their iDevices plugged in. Memory expansion is another area where iPhones are limited. Apple does not provide for any expansion of the memory capacity in an iOS device. Attorneys have the option to increase storage capacity for Android devices at any time.

We believe that Android gives attorneys more flexibility and choices. All the major application developers have apps for both iOS and Android so app usage is not an issue. Besides, with the growth of cloud services, all you typically need is a browser. Increasingly, we are seeing predictions of the ultimate death of the iPhone. More about that in next year’s book!

You write that the purchase of a server is one of the most important and expensive decisions a small firm makes. What’s at stake in that purchase?

The purchase decision is a long-term investment costing thousands of dollars. Many solo and small firm lawyers balk at the expense associated with a server purchase and want to do things on the cheap. They believe that spending less money on server hardware is a prudent budget move. Unfortunately, the “spend less” mentality is a killer for your law practice. If you decide that an on-premise server purchase is the right one, don’t go cheap. The server is the “heart” of your computing infrastructure. It is the most powerful, robust and important computer purchase you will ever make. Budget enough money for a business-grade piece of equipment capable of sustaining a warranty of at least five years.

When a firm is faced with a server purchase decision, we find that the discussion then shifts to cloud services. More and more solo and small firm attorneys are migrating to the cloud instead of upgrading their current server. There are pros and cons to cloud solutions vs. on-premise solutions. Make sure you take the time to understand them. Cloud solutions are often marketed as less money, but that is sometimes “snake oil.” In reality, we haven’t seen a lot of difference overall in the monies expended.

It appears that not everyone is sold on cloud computing, due to security concerns, among other reasons. What’s your advice on this?

The reality is that the cloud has better security than most solo and small firms can provide. Cloud providers have dedicated staff to constantly harden security, apply updates and stay informed about the latest attacks. While it is true that not everyone is sold on cloud computing, the stampede to the cloud in the last two years continues – driven in large part by the overwhelming adoption of Office 365 in law firms.

Typically, the need to replace your server infrastructure prompts a review of moving to the cloud. We are seeing more solo and small firm lawyers opting for Office 365 and Exchange Online instead of investing in a replacement server. As with any project, make sure you account for all the anticipated expenses of moving to the cloud. It’s more than just the cost of the practice management software. You may have additional monthly expenses for other integrations such as QuickBooks Online, court rules integration or having the ability to process credit cards.

How often should a solo or small firm revisit their security software? And what’s the best approach they should take?

Security software is just a minor component of a total security assessment. Attorneys (large and small) should consider doing a security assessment at least once a year. Part of that assessment is reviewing the technology that is used to improve your security posture, which includes security software. Attorneys should also consider having a penetration test performed on their infrastructure in addition to vulnerability scans. Attending CLEs addressing cybersecurity is one way to stay abreast of a lawyer’s duty to protect the client confidential information they possess. The threat landscape (attack vectors, discovered vulnerabilities, etc.) changes so quickly that an annual assessment should be part of the normal process. Partner with an independent cybersecurity vendor that deals with law firms and you will sleep better at night.

And get that outside firm to do some employee cybersecurity awareness training too. Sadly, your greatest asset (your employees) are also your greatest liability.

You contend that artificial intelligence will change the practice of law quickly over the next decade. What does that mean for solo and small firms?

AI will benefit solo and small firm lawyers in a major way, but it may take several more years to see pricing come down and attorneys ready to adopt AI. We are already seeing AI being utilized in the e-discovery space. Machine learning means that attorneys spend less time analyzing and reviewing electronic evidence, thereby saving their clients’ money. Contract review is another area where AI is impacting the law. Instead of reading through pages and pages of contracts, machines quickly identify areas for the lawyers to review. AI will one day allow solo and small firms to be more competitive because they are more efficient.

How is blockchain (the technology underpinning bitcoin) going to change law practice?

We could write an entire article on this subject. Wait, we already did – and you can read it here. Blockchain will impact law in a big way. Without going into the technical weeds, blockchain affords the ability to self-authenticate and provide an indisputable ledger of activity. One area of recent development that has caught the attention of the legal community is smart contracts. Software logic is built into the process that automatically allows for actions based upon predetermined criteria. As an example, a smart contract could automatically provide payment for goods once they are confirmed to be delivered. Walmart has already applied for blockchain patents to build a system for its vendors.

Another area of impact is authentication of items and individuals. Sale of jewelry and fine arts are already being validated using blockchain. Real estate transactions are very likely to use blockchain in the near future. More and more lawyers are accepting cryptocurrencies for payment of legal services. Lawyers need to understand blockchain and how they can use the technology to improve legal services for their clients and expand payment options. This is one area that we are watching closely and we will continue to update our readers in subsequent editions of our book.

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