Increasing Your TQ (Technology Quotient): Why Lawyers Must Become Competent in the Tech Domain

Vol. 34 No. 4

Edward J. Zohn is the principal of Zohn & Zohn, LLP, a full-service law firm in Warren, New Jersey, servicing the legal needs of individuals, families, business owners, and small businesses. He has 20 years of legal private practice, including extensive experience representing clients in divorce. He represents individuals and businesses for all types of legal problems, ranging from real estate and small business disputes to criminal actions. He is admitted to practice in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and the U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey.

 


I start with a very simple proposition: All lawyers, including solos and small firm attorneys, must keep up with computer and technological advancements, or else their colleagues and clients will pass them by. The old ways don’t cut it anymore. From my perch, however, I see quite a percentage of small firm attorneys who are blissfully behind in their technology quotient (TQ). They just want to “practice law,” of course. Attorneys who have been unable to adapt are stuck in the old ways; some attorneys, including so-called digital natives, are incredibly resistant to change. Don’t be afraid, however. You don’t need to be experts; you just need to know how to use the technology, not design it, and this is not as hard as you think.

What Is Your TQ?

Your TQ can be measured on two different levels. On the first, most basic level, all knowledge workers need to be more technically capable than they were or would have been in the past. Small firm attorneys are not exempt from this modern reality, which seems to be advancing at an increasing rate. On the second level, practicing law sometimes requires specific computer and technical skills that we did not need even five or ten years ago. Although these unique skills may be dependent on your legal specialties, these skills cannot always be delegated to paralegals or administrative staff.

Since I worked for IBM in the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the state of the art in the business world—including the legal world—shifted substantially. In 1979 the personal computer as we know it did not exist. Small law offices had electric typewriters, but they may not have had stand-alone word processors from companies such as Wang Labs and its competitors. Larger law firms or larger companies gravitated to stand-alone word-processing hardware earlier than smaller firms. Most documents, including letters, motions, and briefs, were typed from scratch, hand-corrected, and frequently retyped. And there was paper—a lot of paper. Large steel file cabinets were ubiquitous. Taking work home meant lugging boxes or litigation briefcases with telescopic handles and wheels. Court appearances required more lugging of paper. And trials? Sometimes otherwise unneeded lawyers came to court, just to help the “first chair” carry the file and move papers around during the trial.

In this era law office accounting was also mostly a manual affair, with ledger books and other paper-based banking and accounting tools. Perhaps the law office had a full- or part-time bookkeeper, or maybe bookkeeping was an additional job for the secretarial staff.

The introduction of the IBM Personal Computer in 1981, and the maturation of PC hardware and software that has progressed unabated since then, has been responsible for a sea change in the way that most knowledge workers look at information and communication. The near-universal adoption of the Internet and the World Wide Web as communication portals has completed this sea change. Yet, many solos and small firm attorneys I know treat computers and the Internet as just another way to generate paper faster and more efficiently. These folks may have bypassed much of the past three decades of technological advancement, to their detriment.

Essential Technologies

So what are the essential technologies that should be integrated into the practices of all solos and small firm attorneys in 2017?

E-mail. Some technology pundits have declared that the e-mail age has passed and e-mail should be supplanted by more immediate messaging technologies. While instant-messaging apps can be extremely efficient within firms, nothing else combines text-based communication with a filing system as well as electronic mail. E-mail is also capable of facilitating the transfer of documents and files such as photos, PDFs, and revisable documents. E-mail can almost completely supplant the U.S. Postal Service or overnight services such as FedEx or UPS. Yet, many small firm attorneys treat e-mail like an unwanted nuisance; for these attorneys, everything requires a formal letter or prescheduled telephone call. Worse, many small firm attorneys use consumer e-mail systems, which will advertise to the world that they are hopelessly behind the times. How many attorneys do you know who have addresses like SusanEsq@gmail.com?

I am a big e-mail user—in the office, in my home office, and with smartphones and tablets when out of the office or in court. E-mail is often the best way for us to communicate, and your clients should expect you to acknowledge an e-mail within one business day. I use a secure, shared Microsoft Exchange e-mail system with my own domain (zohnlaw.com), very much like large law firms and unlike attorneys who turn to Google, Yahoo, or Optimum. I exclusively use Microsoft Outlook (and the other Microsoft Office applications too, with an Office 365 subscription). My way is not the only way to get enterprise-grade and professional-looking e-mail, but it’s certainly one of the better ways, and it’s very low-cost.

By the way, even though it’s not a “tech” concept, you would do well by brushing up on your e-mail etiquette. Read Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe.

Messaging or chat. You don’t want your communication with your colleagues and employees to be in the same bucket as communication with the outside world. That’s why you want to use messaging software within your firm and e-mail for the outside world. This is especially true if your firm members and employees are highly mobile, work from home, or your firm has multiple locations. I use one of these apps to communicate with offsite paralegals and others within the firm. Even if you have one location, however, messaging or chat saves a lot of time and negates the need to shout from office to office. Messaging also enhances productivity by decreasing the amount of time needed to communicate with one or more people simultaneously and decreasing the need for the dreaded meetings.

Your website. I often see cookie-cutter websites for solos or small firm attorneys, prepared by freelancers, small “web design” companies, or even the large law firm software companies we all know and love. Your website should reflect your sensibilities and your firm’s philosophy. Become familiar with modern website design and one of the simple web hosting platforms such as WordPress (wordpress.org). You may become interested enough to design or at least maintain your own website, which is much easier than you think. And make sure your website is mobile-friendly.

Cloud technologies and file archiving. All solos and small law firms should use cloud technologies in some way. You could have a cloud-based practice management system, or you simply could use cloud storage providers such as Dropbox (dropbox.com), Box (box.com), or Microsoft OneDrive (onedrive.live.com) as your electronic file cabinet.

Everything in your office should be scanned or otherwise become a PDF, which will be the industry standard for the foreseeable future. In my firm, we don’t keep large paper files and we don’t have a “filing room.” I don’t need to go to court with a rolling cart. If you and I are talking on the phone, and you refer to a document from a month ago, I don’t need to get “my secretary,” a job title that doesn’t exist in my firm, to pull the paper file, feed me the document, only for me tell you that I need to call you back.

Practice management systems. There have been huge advancements in small firm practice management over the past half decade. All the best and most current options for you are cloud-based, not server-based. Whether you need a comprehensive practice management system such as PracticePanther (practicepanther.com), CosmoLex (cosmolex.com), Clio (clio.com), or others is your choice. You may be happy with combining excellent off-the-shelf products such Outlook (outlook.live.com), Office 365 (office.com), WordPerfect Office (wordperfect.com), QuickBooks (quickbooks.intuit.com), Wunderlist (wunderlist.com), FileCenter (lucion.com), Minute7 (minute7.com), and others into a DIY system. Either way, you should become familiar enough with all the options so that you can make informed decisions.

Collaboration and client portals. Most cloud storage or cloud-based practice management systems enable you to create a (secure) “shared space” for clients and other attorneys on a cloud server, therefore negating the need for e-mailing files back and forth; this also solves the potential “version management” problem. The shared space could house a full version of your client file or a subset—whatever is the best choice for the specific circumstance. You no longer need to worry about e-mail attachment limitations, and you will save a lot of file management and movement time.

Backup. No matter what software you use, cloud-based or not, you need to have redundant backup systems in place for all your firm data. I use CrashPlan (crashplan.com), but there are many other excellent choices, such as Carbonite (carbonite.com) or Mozy (mozy.com). Remember the old cliché: There are only two kinds of hard drives—those that have failed and those that will fail.

Office phones. I use a cloud-based VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phone system with a Hosted PBX component enabling our communications to be flexible and efficient. You can still get service from the “phone company,” and you may still be able to buy your own VoIP hardware, but you shouldn’t. If I’m not in the office, calls are forwarded to my cellular phone. If I’m on the phone or otherwise not available, voice mails are sent to me by e-mail. My phone answering system is quick and direct. Your phone system should be designed to provide maximum access, not to screen people out.

Mobile technologies. I know an attorney who doesn’t understand how to use her seriously outdated BlackBerry phone. Therefore, she can only communicate by e-mail when in front of her office computer. Sure, you don’t want to be available to your clients or other attorneys 24/7, and neither do I, but you should be able to communicate with your clients and other attorneys when you are not in your office during a regular workday. Similarly, you don’t want to be chained to your office, even though you don’t want your law practice to encroach on your family life any more than I do. But smartphones and tablets or laptops complement many of the other technologies I have discussed. To me, they are necessities.

Electronic research. All attorneys, even those who don’t litigate, should be familiar with the available electronic research platforms. You may choose not to use Westlaw (westlaw.com) or Lexis (lexis.com) and may want to go with a less expensive provider such as Fastcase (fastcase.com), which may be a benefit of joining your state bar association. But you need access to at least one electronic research platform to do your job in 2017. Leather-bound books (do they still exist?) are passé.

Electronic court filing. This is not a function that you should completely delegate to paralegals or other employees. If you have a federal or bankruptcy practice, you have been using the Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system for years. State court electronic filing systems vary, and my state (New Jersey) has been quite slow in implementing electronic filing for all court departments (it’s still not completed). Nonetheless, even if you do not plan to do all the electronic filing for you or other members of your firm, you need to be very familiar with how it’s done. The attorney is ultimately always responsible.

Social media. I don’t think that the use of social media is a requirement for today’s solo or small firm attorney. Some pundits disagree with me and believe that social media use is essential for your online presence. Either way, you should be knowledgeable about the major platforms, such as Facebook (facebook.com) and LinkedIn (linkedin.com).

Lawyer websites and ratings. Managing your profile and comments on Avvo (avvo.com), Google Business (google.com/business), LawyerRatingz.com, Martindale (martindale.com), Lawyers.com, or FindLaw (findlaw.com) may not be your idea of a good time, but you need to be aware of your online reputation. Respond to comments when you must, keep your free profiles on Lawyers.com, Avvo, or FindLaw current, and even consider a paid profile on one of these platforms. Ignorance is not bliss in this area.

Specialized tech needs. Some practice areas, such as complex civil litigation or bankruptcy, have specialized tech needs. For complex litigation, you may need to become familiar with the e-discovery process, applications, software vendors, computer forensics, etc. For bankruptcy, you should become adept in using specialized bankruptcy software, including the latest cloud-based bankruptcy management systems such as NextChapter (nextchapterbk.com).

Leveraging Your TQ

With well-implemented technology solutions, it’s much easier for small law firms like yours and mine to be flexible and responsive to your needs and your clients’ needs. I don’t need to be at my desk from nine to five, with stacks of paper files, waiting for the U.S. Postal Service, and waiting for calls on an antiquated phone system. We should not be restricted by time, space, and location.

Many of the essential technologies that I’ve identified above are cloud-centric. There are possible downsides to this trend, and outages can occur. Nonetheless it’s a trend that shows no signs of abating anytime soon. But there are many advantages to cloud-based solutions—notably, the entry cost is low. Even though I heartily recommend smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc., you need to purchase little other hardware, except for printers and scanners. Contrast this with the state of the business ten years ago, when you needed file servers, networks, phone systems, fax machines, and other expensive hardware to start a firm.

Will law office technology progress at the same rate in the future as it has progressed in the recent past? In some ways yes, and in other ways no. Some technologies important to solos and small law firms are maturing or are already mature, (e.g., desktop, laptop, and tablet computers), but other technologies are in relative infancy. Of course, in another ten years we all will be using technologies that nobody has thought of yet.

None of the technologies mentioned above are inherently difficult to understand or implement. You probably already know more than you admit. Start reading some legal tech journals and blogs, get on some e-mail lists for the latest legal tech information, or even hire a consultant to help you integrate some of these technologies into your practice. The economic pressures on small law firms are not decreasing. But increasing your TQ will help ensure that your firm will be profitable, and you will be a happy attorney.

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