Ten Technology Mistakes that Keep Solos from Looking Professional

Vol. 33 No. 3

By

Adam T. Sherwin is a solo attorney in Somerville, Massachusetts, serving Boston and the Greater Boston region. He focuses on the areas of foreclosure defense, landlord/tenant law, and property litigation. His website is sherwinlawfirm.com.

Solo attorneys and small firms have many advantages over large law firms: We control our own schedules, have flexibility in how we interact with our clients, and can get things done without going through mountains of red tape. Being solo, however, does come with its challenges: We need to project a professional image that is just as impressive as a blue chip firm’s.

Technology for lawyers is a double-edged sword; it makes our work easier, but it can make us look unprofessional if not used correctly. I don’t claim to be a tech guru, but I’ve seen too many of the following mistakes that make lawyers look unprofessional. Fortunately, all of them are easy to fix.

1. No Custom E-mail or Website

This is my single biggest “unprofessional technology” pet peeve: lawyers who use a free e-mail service such as Gmail or AOL as their business e-mail address. When I see such an e-mail address from attorneys, I can’t help but judge their practice. This reaction is unfair—I know many excellent lawyers who break this rule—but I know I’m not the only one with this reaction. The same goes for a lawyer without a website: If I can’t learn about your practice online, neither can a prospective client. Even if all your potential clients come from repeat customers or referrals, I guarantee that at least one will look for you online. Why take a risk of losing potential business?

As promised, the fix is easy. There are dozens of commercial website-hosting companies that will help you get a website and e-mail address up and running in minutes. Freelance website designers also can help you get the job done.

For those of you concerned that switching to a business e-mail address will confuse your existing clients, rest assured that almost all e-mail accounts come with automatic forwarding features, allowing e-mail sent to your old address to go to your new one. If you are a lifelong Gmail user, like me, Google for Business lets you use Gmail for your custom e-mail address, giving you the benefits of Gmail without the unprofessional “.gmail.com” at the end of your address.

2. Outdated Website

While having some sort of website is better than having none at all, solos and small firms hurt themselves with an outdated website, namely, features that have not been updated in years. The biggest culprit is the generic blog that often comes with template website designs. I see many lawyers create one or two posts and then give up on it for good. If you decide to have a blog, update it regularly. Otherwise, get rid of it. Having outdated material on a website sends the message that you are outdated, not the professional image any lawyer wants to convey.

3. No Logo or Branding

A successful solo or small firm practice does not need a fancy and expensive logo to be successful. However, I find it unprofessional when small firms use a cover letter that looks like anyone could have typed it on a computer. I know that many lawyers have succeeded this way, but I see no reason why all solos and small firm lawyers do not have a good logo designed for their practice. Fortunately, the Internet is filled with dozens of companies willing to do logos at a great price (I like fiverr.com, a website of freelance professionals selling services for $5). Along with a logo, solos and small firms should “brand” their business cards, cover letters, and website. Each should have a consistent look and image. Take a look at any major business, and you’ll see a consistency in how each of its products looks. Your practice should be no different.

4. No Custom Business Phone Number

When I started my practice, I did what most new lawyers do for a phone line: I used my cell phone. That worked fine in the beginning, but it wasn’t long before I realized how unprofessional it appeared to potential clients and court staff. I found an easy fix for this: a professional answering service with a custom greeting. For less than $15 per month, my calls are answered by an automated service and directed to my cell phone. This allows me to take calls from anywhere I want, without the caller knowing where I am or that I am out of the office.

5. No LinkedIn Profile

I’m not sold that a successful solo or small firm practice needs to be on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. In fact, most successful solo lawyers I know aren’t on those sites. The exception to this is LinkedIn, the world’s largest networking platform. Every lawyer should be on LinkedIn. As a habit, I (and probably most potential clients) look for a lawyer’s profile on LinkedIn after meeting in person. A lawyer without a LinkedIn profile conveys an unprofessional image as being “behind the times.” I have heard at least one potential client state that she would never consider hiring an attorney without a LinkedIn profile. Fortunately—as the theme of this article goes—the fix is easy. A LinkedIn profile can be set up in minutes, through the help of numerous online guides and tutorials. An important caveat to this: Take the time and do a complete LinkedIn profile. A profile without a picture, full job description, and introduction won’t help you too much with networking and marketing.

6. Poor Document Drafting

Nearly all solos and small firms rely on Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, or a similar word processing program for drafting legal documents. These programs contain a smorgasbord of features for document drafting, the majority of which the average user will never need to use. However, a legal document needs to look professional, and attorneys should learn to use the appropriate features of these programs to produce quality documents. For example, I think all legal documents should include page numbers (many courts, especially appellate courts, explicitly require this). I like to include a total number of pages with the total number of page numbers on the footer of each page (e.g., “1 of 10”) to make it easy to assemble a document if the pages ever become unstapled. Avoid using unusual or outdated fonts; stick to classics such as Times New Roman or Arial. And I personally can’t stand reading documents that have a paragraph heading at the end of the page, with the paragraph beginning on the next page, forcing me to flip back and forth to understand what the body paragraph is about. This is easily solved by using a “page break” and putting the paragraph heading and paragraph together on the next page.

7. Poor E-mail Etiquette

Most of us who use e-mail know not to “Reply to All” unless we want everyone in the conversation to receive our message, and not to TYPE IN ALL CAPS. There are, however, other bad e-mail practices that should be avoided as well. I often see attorneys who send, as an e-mail attachment, final copies of pleadings, motions, and letters as a Word document, rather than a PDF. Word is fine if you are in the draft stage of writing, but I recommend that all final written products be sent as a PDF. Not only does this look more professional, it avoids the potential problem of sharing confidential information within the document itself (referred to as “metadata”). Most importantly, PDF allows you to control the appearance of your document; all readers of PDF files view the document as the same (as opposed to draft word processing files, which can look odd if opened with the wrong program).

Another pet peeve of mine is attorneys who “CC” their clients to e-mails with opposing counsel. This is fine if the client needs to interact with the opposing counsel, such as coordinating a non-contentious business deal. Most of the time, however, there is no reason to provide your client’s e-mail to the opposition. This can open the door to an accidental confidential communication being released to the other side. When you need to share e-mails with your client, do so by forwarding them to the client (while reminding the client that he or she is not to contact the opposing counsel without your permission).

8. Inattention to Client Security and Privacy Risks

I recently had an insurance company contact me for my Social Security Number regarding a dispute over a claim. The representative wanted me to respond with this information by e-mail. I don’t claim to be a cybersecurity guru, but it only takes a little common sense to know that putting important privacy information like this is in an e-mail is a recipe for disaster. Aside from security risks, not paying attention to these matters is a huge sign of unprofessionalism. Solos and small firms should take the time to review the basics of protecting client’s confidential information. At a minimum, attorneys should never use e-mail to solicit or provide sensitive client information such as Social Security Numbers and bank account information. Use the phone to obtain this information when needed.

9. Improper Social Media/Blog Posting

For those of you who blog and use social media (as I do), the temptation to post about a big court win is common. I don’t discourage lawyers from doing this; I encourage it. Sharing news like this is important for marketing and helping others with similar legal predicaments. However, as a courtesy for both your client and the opposing side, I believe lawyers should post this information in a way that doesn’t compromise others’ privacy. Yes, court decisions are public records, but if this one is coming from a court that doesn’t post decisions online (as is the case with many state trial courts), the posting of a decision on your website or blog now makes it readily available to the general public.

When I share this kind of news on social media or my blog, I write about the decision in general terms so the reader understands the nature of the case and decision but isn’t provided the case name, docket number, or text of the decision. Others may disagree with me about this, but I think this approach allows solos and small firms to broadcast their accomplishments without the risk of losing a potential client’s trust (who may be turned off from having the case broadcast to the world). I make an exception for appellate court decisions, which will be published online by the court. However, I recommend proceeding with caution for decisions that would otherwise not be found online.

10. No E-file Organization

The overwhelming majority of attorneys use computers to draft legal documents and store their files. In doing so, solos and small firm attorneys need to use some organizational system for naming and storing these files. Yes, it is entirely possible that clients may never see your electronic files. However, as more and more client files exist electronically (in lieu of paper files), the odds are good that one of your clients, at some point, will obtain a copy of your electronic files. Just as I wouldn’t want a client to see a pile of their client papers in a mess on my desk, I also wouldn’t want a messy collection of these files to be seen on my computer. If you have ever received electronic files from an attorney who doesn’t follow this rule, you know what I’m talking about: a single folder with hundreds of files, none of which have easy-to-read file names and dates. Aside from looking unprofessional, a lack of an electronic file organization system makes your job harder when you need to search for a document drafted months ago, located in the depths of your hard drive. Your electronic files should be organized in a consistent manner, with proper file names and folders for each category of documents.

Why Not Look Like a Pro?

No one is perfect with technology, including me. However, as technology continues to be an integral part of the practice of law, solo attorneys and small firms need to do their part in presenting a professional image when using these news advances in our profession.

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