Oklahoma Bar Journal
By Timothy Kent
Starting a law practice is a daunting endeavor. Whether straight out of law school or savvy and seasoned, a lawyer’s decision to start his or her own law practice will undoubtedly lead to scores of sleepless
nights and days without enough hours. Some of the immediate questions will likely include: What is the best entity to form for tax considerations? How much malpractice insurance do I need? Where will I office? Can I afford an office? How much staff support do I need? How much staff support can I afford? What will be my business model, revenue goal and marketing strategy? What in the hell am I doing? Included on the list of initial queries will hopefully be the question: Can I successfully leverage technology to help build, grow and sustain my law practice? For if this question is asked, diligently researched and appropriately applied, any aspiring entrepreneur will undoubtedly conclude the answer to be a resounding “Yes.”
The commitment to leverage technology can be one of the most valuable decisions an attorney makes when starting a new law practice. Utilizing technology correctly can help streamline workflows, increase productivity and provide effective solutions to practice issues ranging from overhead to client relations. So, what is the “right” technology?
PROCESS BEFORE TECHNOLOGY
Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” In any law practice a great amount of time is spent performing repetitive, administrative-type tasks, which do nothing to further the firm’s substantive work product. Routine tasks like billing, fielding client phone calls, calendaring events and filling out client intakes are mundane and time consuming in nature. Automating these tasks can free up valuable time which could be used to focus on more substantive work. Utilizing automation and productivity software to assist with these type of tasks can dramatically increase a firm’s efficiency and productivity, but what parts of your practice could or should be automated?
Taking time at the outset of your business venture to really consider the processes your firm goes through in order to provide services to your client base can go a long way to help answer this question.1 Carefully map each step of the process. Once you have mapped each step, ask yourself what parts of the process are substantive and what parts are administrative and repetitive. Next, consider how these administrative and repetitive parts could be automated. Automating the processes that you do not enjoy doing or that are repetitive and time consuming is a reasonable place to start.
This legal process mapping exercise will help to provide you with an idea of what areas of your practice could be automated and what areas demand your legal experience and full attention.2 Once you understand your firm’s processes, you can start implementing technology software to help streamline your workflows.
SOFTWARE ALTERNATIVES TO TRADITIONAL HARDWARE NEEDS
With the shift toward cloud-based storage and the rise of cloud-based software applications and application programming interface (API) technologies, office necessities that were traditionally only available in a hardware format (fax machines, landline telephone systems and in-house servers) are now accessible through online software purchase. These software versions are more cost effective and space efficient than their hardware counterparts, making them ideal solutions for budget conscious start-up firms.
Voice over IP (or VoIP) is a cost-effective way to emulate a centralized phone system for a law firm. VoIP phone services route telephone communications through internet connections rather than phone lines, allowing a firm to set up a main number that can be routed to a lawyer’s computer, smartphone, tablet or any other internet-enabled device.3
Internet fax services allow you to easily send and receive faxes. You have the ability to pull a document from the cloud and fax straight from your smartphone or tablet or fax files from your Dropbox, Google Drive or other cloud service.
Cloud-based storage plans offer the ability to place and retain data in an off-site storage system. You can lease cloud storage capacity per month or on demand. A cloud storage provider hosts a customer’s data in its own data center, providing fee-based computing, networking and storage infrastructure. Aside from the obvious upside of not having to shell out a large upfront capital investment and maintain onsite hardware, cloud technology is also arguably a more secure data storage option to traditional in-house servers, especially when considering disaster type situations. 4
Although reliance on physical servers is much less necessary that it was 10 years ago, it is still necessary to obtain some form of hardware to interface with your firm’s software. A desktop or laptop computer is therefore an absolute must. With the trending acceptance of cloud-based storage and the downturn of in-house server reliance, both Macs and PCs are viable options for computing needs.
You will also need a scanner/printer. Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 desktop scanner is considered by most experts to be the best option for firms looking to become more digital friendly and less paper-based.5 Throw in a smartphone or tablet and you have the baseline hardware needed to start operating a versatile, mobile law practice.
CLOUD-BASED SOFTWARE TECHNOLOGY – BASELINE AND BEYOND
Investing appropriately in cloud-based software can help new practices organize and manage information, automate tasks, reduce data entries and allow firms to effectively streamline workflows. With the overwhelming amount of technology on the market, determining what or how much technology your firm needs can be complicated. Focus on baseline technology needs first. 6
Do you have a way to manage your cases and monitor your workflows? Cloud-based software practice management systems like MyCase, Practice Panther and Clio Practice Manager can help manage every aspect of your practice. Other software solutions to help your firm monitor workflows and track tasks include applications like Trello or Asana.
Do you have a way to securely communicate confidential information to clients, co-workers and opposing counsel? Secure web-based portals like Case Status and Clio Connect allow attorneys to share resources and collaborate with clients, contacts or co-counsels through encrypted web-based portals.7 These portals are much more secure than traditional email or text communications. Many practice management software systems, like those mentioned earlier, have built-in client portals that offer your clients 24/7 access to information like court schedules, deposition dates and more. This technology can automatically update clients, potentially reducing the amount of time spent fielding time-consuming client calls.
Do you have a solution for allowing your clients to conveniently execute documents? E-signature software like HelloSign and SignNow can help your budding practice expedite client retention agreements and settlement agreements by allowing your clients to execute documents on their mobile device or computer. E-signature software can also help alleviate concerns of signature tampering. Tampering-resistant document formats and sophisticated tracking mechanisms can readily identify when a document was viewed, who opened the document, when it was signed, what IP address it was signed by and more.8
When it comes to software solution possibilities, the sky appears to be the limit. Having a clear understanding of your firm’s processes can help you filter through the countless options to find solutions that best suit your new practices needs.
Finding the right cloud-based software applications to meet your firm’s baseline technology needs will go a long way in helping grow a new law practice. Likewise, finding a secure, reliable API integration solution to connect these applications and allow them to communicate seamlessly with one other, will help sustain a new practice even more. Integration software like Zapier can help your practice link all your cloud-based software services.9 Other integration solutions include options like Clio Practice Manager, a leading practice management system that has an open API which allows and encourages third-party developers to integrate with their platform. Finding these integration solutions can be a real game changer for any new practice.
Take the following hypothetical as an example: Joanne, a solo practitioner, is in a deposition and is unable to answer a call from a new prospective client. Instead of getting Joanne’s voicemail and hanging up to call another law firm, the potential client is routed to Joanne’s virtual receptionist service, where the client is able to provide some basic contact information and via Calendy, Joanne’s calendaring software, which allows the prospect to schedule a face-to-face consultation with Joanne for later that afternoon. Joanne’s Zapier software effortlessly syncs all of the scheduling information to Joanne’s Google Calendar, which automatically triggers an email to be sent out to the prospective client with a link to Joanne’s online client intake form. Upon clicking the link and completing the intake questionnaire, Zapier then syncs the collected data to Joanne’s practice management system. When Joanne returns to her office following the deposition, she is able to access the client’s information. With a few mouse clicks, Joanne is able to transfer the collected data to all the legal forms needed to file a claim on the prospective client’s behalf. Now when Joann meets with the prospect, she is prepared and confident and is able to secure the client’s trust. Instead of missing the call, this solo practitioner effectively leveraged technology to improve her practice.
Cloud-based software has been one of the most significant developments in the legal industry in the last several years. Correctly leveraging this technology can significantly bridge the competitive gap between “big firms” and solo/boutique practices. Cloud-based software allows firms both big and small to manage every aspect of their law practice, including document storage, document generation, calendaring, billing, accounting, time tracking, scheduling, task tracking, document sharing, client onboarding, client communications and more.
When adequate consideration is given to the legal process and automation and workflow software is selected and integrated appropriately, creating a sustainable and scalable practice is possible for any size firm. Successfully leveraging technology can lower overhead, increase productivity and allow many owners of startup firms the ability to be competitive in a market that they may not have had the ability to compete in otherwise.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Kent obtained his J.D. from the OCU School of Law in 2007. Mr. Kent has practiced in the area of workers’ compensation for more than a decade. He started his own firm with a focus on educating and assisting injured workers in the modern workforce.
1. Anthony W. Ulwick, Jobs To Be Done: Theory to Practice, 2016.
2. Helen Russell, “Process design and mapping 101 for lawyers,” Knowledge for Lawyers, Feb. 28, 2013, knowledge4lawyers.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/101-process-mapping.
3. “Open Source VOIP applications, both clients and servers,” Voip-info.org, www.voip-info.org/open-source-voip-software.
4. Ujwala, “10 Benefits Of Data Storage In A Cloud,” MilesWeb Blog, May 6, 2019, www.milesweb.com/blog/hosting/cloud/10-benefits-data-storage-cloud.
5. Ernie Svenson, Do Not Print: A Lawyer’s Guide to Going Paperless, landing.clio.com/paperless-guide.
6. Derek Bolen, “What Technology Does Your Law Firm Actually Need?,” Clio Blog, www.clio.com/blog/legal-technology-law-firms.
7. Dennis M. Kennedy and Thomas L. Mighell, The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies: Smart Ways to Work Together, 2008.
8. Aaron George, “Why Every Law Firm Needs An E-Signature Solution” Lexicata Blog, lexicata.com/blog/why-every-law-firm-needs-an-e-signature-solution.
9. Zapier, zapier.com.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 90 pg. 19 (December 2019)