October 23, 2012

Google Apps: Hot Tips for Putting Google Tools to Work in Your Practice

Beyond its well-known search engine, Google offers an array of applications that can help lawyers in practices of all sizes work more effectively—and simultaneously help keep down their technology costs. Some of those tools are already familiar to many lawyers, but there are also some lesser-known apps available via Google that you’ll definitely want to investigate.

Before we begin, we should note that, officially, the term “Google Apps,” with a capital “A,” refers to a set of Web-based tools that allow you to communicate, create, share and store documents on the Internet (although in the following sections, we use the term “apps,” with a lowercase “a,” as a catch-all for those and other tools available via Google).

Most people are familiar with the Google Apps collection of Gmail, Google Calendar, Docs, Spreadsheets, Presentations and Drawings—with the latter four collectively referred to as Google Documents. The Standard Edition of Google Apps is free. The Premiere Edition adds greater document storage capacity, video storage, internal discussion groups, additional security features, dedicated technical support and certain service guarantees for the cost of $50 per user per year.

On their own, they’re a fantastic set of collaboration tools. But using some little-known features and add-ons can turbo-charge the productivity of any size law practice. Here’s a sampling of some of our favorites.

Cool Gmail Features and Add-Ons
Gmail, Google’s popular e-mail service, can be accessed via its robust Web-based inbox interface or through your favorite e-mail client, such as Microsoft Outlook. However, many people are unaware of additional “experimental” Google Labs features that can be added to the Web interface by clicking on the mysterious green “beaker” icon in the upper–right corner. There you’ll find a wonderful world of features that you can add to your account by clicking on the Enable button to the left of the given feature. Some of our favorites include these:

  • Undo Send. At one time or another, nearly all of us have inadvertently sent an e-mail message before we’ve actually finished writing it, or pressed Send on a message that we never actually intended to send. Undo Send lets you set a cancellation period—up to 30 seconds—within which you can pull that message back.
  • Got the Wrong Bob? Perhaps worse yet, what if you address a message to “Bob Jones” (an opposing counsel) instead of “Bob Smith” (your expert witness) by too quickly selecting the highlighted name from your contacts list? This add-on prompts you with other possible addressees who have similar names before you hit the Send button.
  • Canned Responses. This feature does pretty much what it sounds like it will do. It allows you to create multiple standard (i.e., canned) e-mail messages—you can then insert one into a reply by selecting it from a drop-down menu of the responses you’ve created. These are especially useful if you get the same questions repeatedly from prospective clients.

Other useful, and mostly free, add-ons can be found in the Google Apps Marketplace, at www.google.com/enterprise/marketplace—such as this one, for example:

  • Zoho CRM. Meant primarily for sales teams, it’s also a neat tool for lawyers because it lets you track communications with clients (and potential clients). While it isn’t for time tracking, it is useful for keeping in touch, and setting up reminders or deadlines from within Gmail, allowing you to track when you e-mail, call or mail clients and others.

Any of the Marketplace applications you add will show up under the “More” drop-down menu on the upper-left side of your Gmail inbox.

And still more apps are available directly from their respective developers, such as these:

  • Rapportive. When you’re not sure who the sender of an incoming email is, or how you know that person, Rapportive (at www.rapportive.com) can come to the rescue. By aggregating the publicly available information from people’s social networking profiles, this Web browser extension adds useful information in the email’s margin—like a photo, a job title and links to the sender’s Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter profiles—all based on the sender’s e-mail address.
  • Boomerang for Gmail. If you want to write an e-mail right now, while the words for it are top-of-mind in your thoughts, but you don’t want to send it until tomorrow (or until next week), then Boomerang is for you. It lets you schedule when to send (or be reminded about) e-mail messages at a later time. It’s currently an invitation-only beta app, but we find it too useful to leave out. Visit www.baydin.com to sign up for the trial version.

More Power with Google Documents
The Google Apps collectively known as Google Documents allow you to upload, store and download any type of file, so you get anytime-anywhere access to those files. Better still, you can create, edit, store and share word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations (among other types of files) and collaborate on those documents with others in real time. You can either create new documents online using the Google Docs Web interface or upload existing Microsoft Office documents from your computer to edit and share online.

But here’s something that many Google Apps users aren’t aware of:

  • Custom Forms. With Google Documents, you can create a variety of sophisticated forms that are hosted online. Lawyers, for example, can create client questionnaires or satisfaction surveys, among other forms—and the responses are then automatically saved to a Google Spreadsheet, also stored online, for easy retrieval and management.

Also, recently Google announced Google Cloud Connect for Microsoft Office to allow you to directly use Office to edit, sync and collaborate on documents stored online as Google Documents. Unfortunately, though, this new initiative is not yet open to all users. Try this solution in the meantime:

  • InSync. This add-on from the Apps Marketplace gives all users offline access and bidirectional syncing of documents right now. Regardless of whether you edit a document on your computer or in your Web browser, InSync automatically updates the other version. If these were the only functions of this free (for the first five users in your firm) document management tool it would still be useful, but there are many more functions for you to explore as well.

And there are a raft of other products and services that integrate with Google Documents available through the Google Apps Marketplace, so browse through the offerings to see which ones can improve your productivity and workflow.

Nifty Google Voice Features
Google Voice offers a wide range of phone calling and voice-mail services. Its best-known feature is the ability to configure your Google Voice number to ring your home, office and mobile phones all at the same time. That way, wherever you are, you can get the call, or you can choose to let it go to voice mail. You can even create customized voice-mail messages for specific callers.

Plus, Google Voice lets you switch from one phone to another during a call—which can come in handy if your cell phone battery starts to die partway through a call. You just press the star key (*) while you’re talking and your other phones will ring, then you can pick up the call from your landline and not worry about losing the caller.

And here are a few other nice features that are either new or in development for Google Voice:

When you miss a call to your Google Voice number, you can have Gmail notify you of the missed call or voice mail (nice if you’ve left your cell phone behind or have it turned off for a meeting). Plus, enable the Google Voice player and the notification e-mails will include an embedded player so you can listen to messages without leaving your inbox.

You can send text messages to up to five recipients via the SMS button at the top of your Google Voice inbox. Also, with the new SMS forwarding feature, you can receive text messages via e-mail and reply to those texts via e-mail.

If you use the Google Chrome browser, the Google Voice Extension will provide access to voicemail, calling and texting from a single button on your browser.

The list of apps and features available from Google seems to be constantly growing, and this is just a sampling of ones that can help your practice run more efficiently without breaking the bank. For lawyers looking to maximize their technology dollars, if you haven’t tried these tools yet, now might be a good time to get started.

Parts of this article are adapted from the authors’ best-selling book Google for Lawyers: Essential Search Tips and Productivity Tools.