To compete for clients -- whether individuals, insurance companies, or major corporations -- law firms of every size must use their technology intelligently. Doing so typically entails a core set of hardware and software tools to serve those clients. Here are some of my top recommendations.
Keep hardware up-to-date
I'm always amazed how many phone calls I get asking about upgrading to the latest software program on a computer that's five or more years old. While firms don't have to purchase the latest and greatest computers every year, they should plan for at least a three- or four-year cycle.
Whether we like it or not, Microsoft has a three-year life cycle for each version of Windows. That means three years after it first ships, Microsoft ends consumers' ability to purchase the current version of its operating system on new computers or even in stores. The domino effect is that legal software developers must write new versions for the current version of Windows, often forcing their customers to upgrade or lose access to service releases or telephone support.
Another aspect of this issue concerns hard drives and memory. Firms that have not used e-mail much in the past or scanned documents from clients and adversaries may severely underestimate storage and processing needs.
Keep current with software
Upgrading to the next version is simpler and less expensive than holding back and being forced to upgrade several versions at once. For most products (there are exceptions), the changes between versions are incremental and easily learned. Data conversion is usually simpler and faster between sequential versions. While there are good reasons sometimes to delay upgrading, most times, after a few months in commercial use, most mainstream products become stable. What most lawyers fail to understand, though, is all modern software is subject to bugs and problems. The software is too complex and the combinations of systems on which they run are impossible to be completely tested.
Prepare for disasters of all kinds
Disaster planning requires recognition of the different kinds of disasters that can occur and developing strategies for each. Backups enable you to restore data to its condition before the catastrophe. Off-site backups can save the day when something happens to your office. I've always prefaced this type of backup by asking clients to assume that when they go out to lunch or leave in the evening, they are unable to return to the office for an extended period due to circumstances outside their control.
While the most vivid example is the World Trade Center, there are many others that have destroyed law offices. Floods, fires and theft are more common disasters that can prevent use of an office and equipment. Sabotage by fired or disgruntled employees is statistically the most important reason for having regular, reliable off-site backups.
Save time with high-speed Internet access
Don't think you're saving money by having a $20 per-month dial-up subscription to AOL for e-mail and Internet access. Even if you check e-mail only once every few days and avoid research on the Internet, it could be because it takes too long.
A high-speed Internet connection, either a DSL phone line system or a cable modem, dramatically changes how you work with both e-mail and the Internet. Even if the monthly charge is double, you'll spend less time waiting to send and receive e-mail.
As you become more comfortable locating information on the Internet, you can more quickly find telephone numbers, directions, and look at client and competitor Web sites. Locating information about legal-related events, legislation, organizations and potential clients is easier when you don't have to wait for Web sites to load. Compare it to walking or bicycling a long distance rather than driving. Once you get a high-speed connection, you'll wonder how you functioned without it.
Protect yourself against viruses and intruders
With that high-speed Internet connection come dangers. If you have an always-on connection, you'll need a firewall to protect computers from intruders. The best firewalls are hardware-based and cost about $500 for a small firm. Software-based firewalls such as ZoneAlarm
You also need to install anti-virus software and keep definitions current. Unfortunately, new viruses appear constantly so firms must be vigilant to protect computers and data. For networked systems, it is well worth the peace of mind to purchase a corporate-level subscription based virus program like the Norton Corporate Edition, which can automatically update each computer connected to the server.
Get an Internet identity
If your firm doesn't yet have a domain name or a Web site, you're overdue. Long overdue. Clients and potential clients have become more sophisticated and want to check out their lawyers on the Web before hiring them. Even more than in previous years, registering a domain name -- a permanent Internet identity -- for your firm is easy and inexpensive.
When registering a domain name, you often can set up some e-mail accounts, storage space, and possibly a hosting service for a reasonable monthly fee. I was able to register a domain name last year for an association for under $10 and find hosting services for less than $20 per month, plus many templates and services that can be used to establish a basic site. While these inexpensive resources are a good start, especially for firms with limited marketing funds, this is an area where you get what you pay for.
Depending on the nature of your practice and where and how potential clients find you, it may be advantageous to hire a professional Web designer to assist in setting up a suitable site to attract new clients and retain existing ones. A professional will know how to make it easy to find information and navigate, and also how to obtain proper placement in search engines such as Google, MSN and Yahoo.
It's almost impossible to buy a computer that doesn't come with either Microsoft Office Suite or Corel Suite. Years ago, people spent countless hours creating macros and customizing word processors to make them more efficient. While many of those functions are now more accessible within the programs, there still are some functions that could be simpler.
It's relatively easy and worthwhile to add toolbar buttons for printing envelopes and labels, and choosing printer bins. Learning to use the productivity functions such as QuickCorrect (AutoText in Word) will pay back regularly as you create documents more efficiently. It's also worth learning to use the basic tools in the spreadsheets and presentation programs that come with these suites.
As technology has matured, it has put increasing demands on legal professionals. In the 1970s, clients communicated primarily by telephone and mail. By the mid-1980s, fax machines had become de rigueur. This meant clients could get documents to their attorneys almost instantly and expect responses in a timely fashion. The last decade has further "improved" such communication in a variety of ways. Cell phones, Blackberries, and remote access to e-mail have elevated client expectations. Lawyers must master these tools to meet these expectations.
It also has become imperative to have software to assist in capturing the time and expenses spent on a client's behalf and issuing a bill. Being able to monitor payments and follow up with clients who have fallen behind is critical, especially in a bad economy.
There are many approaches for keeping track of cases, calendars and the contact lists. The solutions range from the software that comes with a Palm Pilot to Microsoft Outlook to sophisticated case- and practice-management programs. While all have merit, the practice management products such as Time Matters, Practice Master, Amicus Attorney, Abacus Law, and ProLaw offer several significant advantages over their more generic counterparts.
First, they offer a case or project component that can be extremely useful in organizing contacts, to-dos and appointments. Second, they provide links to other legal software such as the billing programs and document-assembly programs like HotDocs and GhostFill. Finally, they provide the functionality to track and monitor more work than without such tools.
In this article, I've focused on what law firms should do to use technology to better attract and serve clients. As you consider these suggestions, keep these adages in mind: "You get what you pay for" and "Do your homework." Finally, if you get in over your head, don't be afraid to ask for help!
Copyright 2003 Carol L. Schlein. All rights reserved.
About the author
Carol L. Schlein is president of Law Office Systems in Montclair, a training and consulting firm specializing in law firm automation. She formerly chaired the Computer and Technology Division of the ABA Law Practice Management Section. She has organized Time Matters user groups in New Jersey and New York. You can find copies of her previous technology columns at losinc.com, and she can be contacted at email@example.com
(Originally published in New Jersey Lawyer: Carol L.Schlein, What Every Firm Needs, New Jersey Lawyer May 5, 2003.)